As the long-awaited release of Spore looms large, the New York Times takes a look at the science behind the game.

Dr. Thomas Near and Dr. Richard Prum, evolutionary biologists at Yale University, spent some time with the game recently, trying out creature interactions and observing how the game’s “evolution” behaves. While they expressed some reservations about the game’s underlying science – Dr. Prum called Spore’s evolutionary mechanism “severely messed up” – the article also claims they admire the way the game looks at the many of the “big questions” that confront evolutionary science. “If it compels people to ask these questions, that would be great,” Frum said.

Advances in computer technology have given scientists far greater ability to examine evolution and organisms through digital modeling in programs like Avida at Michigan State University and the California Institute of Technology, and Evarium, a Facebook application developed by a researcher at Duke. They also made it possible for Wright to simulate the existence of an alien species from single-celled organisms to interstellar travel, although in the case of Spore, gameplay had to trump scientific fidelity. “I spent a fair amount of time going around to talk to scientists here and there,” he said. “You have to explore a huge amount to figure out what 20 percent will be cool and fun for a game.”

Dr. Neil Shubin of the University of Chicago was also impressed with the way the game approached some very basic principles of evolution. “Playing the game, you can’t help but feel amazed how, from a few simple rules and instructions, you can get a complex functioning world with bodies, behaviors and whole ecosystems,” he said, reflecting Wright’s desire that the game “convey the sense that evolution can bring up a surprising diversity of weird, interesting, strange things.”

While some scientists worry that people might confuse processes in Spore with real evolution, Shubin said he had no such concerns. “The differences between Spore and nature do not bother me,” he said. “I see Spore for what it is: A game. And it is a game in the best sense of the word. It is not identical to nature, but it is a world that evolves, that changes and where the players are part of those processes.”

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