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A recent Penny Arcade strip addresses the near mania surrounding the impending release of Spore, which I assume any game player of almost any stripe has heard about, but to sum it up: SimLife, except awesomer.

For those of you who didn't play SimLife because you weren't early-adopter nerd scions, it involved the simulation of evolution, although as I remember it it was primarily a frustrating lesson in the accidental creation of invasive species. Anyway, Spore is promised to be a vast improvement, not least because it's coming out sixteen years after SimLife (September 7, to be exact) and you know, there have been some technological advances. Also it's more focused, while still offering incredible scope: the game centers around creating your organism, which develops into your species, which develops into your culture (hello, Civilization) and eventually goes off into space where it may encounter the creations of other users, although only in copy form. There are no plans for actual multiplayer Spore, but users would be able to share their developed content—their species—as the native life of other planets, downloaded to the machines of other users. The official website also mentions a "mission structure" for the space travel phase, to "provide new goals in your quest for galactic dominance." While this seems to suggest a particular kind of goal, I can imagine that Maxis will allow players relatively broad options—of which galactic dominance is one. I've always favored it.

Like The Sims, I would say, Spore will be a game that reveals something of the player. Just as my compulsively cleaned Sim house revealed a certain desperation for order in chaos in my sophomore year of college, the tiny civilizations we develop may serve to work out our aggressions in jagged dystopian slums or satisfy our desire for peace and quiet amid neat rows of Smurf-ish cottages. Subject to our will, it will offer something, however artificial, that Real Life always lacks. Perhaps there are people out there who disdain all artifice, but on the other hand, somebody buys all that "watermelon" candy. And don't get me started on make-up. Games, of course, are always constructed. They have rules. So does the universe; we call them physics, but in general the rules of games are better understood, and thus perhaps more satisfying. Consequences, too, are limited and often reversible, and you can play "What If" for real—go back and do it over, differently.

This is why, I think, that to a certain extent we are always looking for games of massive scope, and why there is such tremendous hype for Spore that the Penny Arcade guys are kvetching about it in comic form. We like life, under some control, and shaped into a more sensible narrative than we ever seem to manage ourselves. I remember reading Ender's Game as a child,[1] and the single aspect of the story that has stuck with me more strongly than anything else is the strange, ever-expanding game that Ender plays on his futuristic version of the PC.[2] It's like a MUD in the Turkle mode if they'd been endowed with psychic-psychotherapeutic AI. In one sense the game proceeded like any familiar console game: there were areas, "levels," if you will, that Ender passed through again and again. Unlike the usual sort of level, however, they changed with him. It wasn't just that they became easier to beat with experience, but rather that they were different places as he was a different person, while still recognizable as where he had passed before: the empty playground, the wolves and the giant that he killed (a psychic save point, if you will). I think of Return to Oz and the house where I grew up, which seemed bizarrely small when my sisters and I returned years later to help my father prepare it for sale. In life the familiar becomes strange; in Ender's game the familiar transformed with him (and was strange), an astral plane through which he moved electronically. These are the games that I imagine, the future that I am always, ultimately, rooting for when I anticipate my head jack.

It's not the Matrix—it's not the virtual world so perfect that it is indistinguishable from the real thing, frustrating and senseless and mundane. It's the virtual vision quest. It's my life story, except that it makes sense, and the special effects are way better.

Of course, there's also the sheer wish fulfillment of it. Once, when a research participant I was interviewing remarked sheepishly that he spent too much time using Facebook and not enough time "really" interacting with "real" people, I jokingly referenced the episode of Futurama in which Fry hooks up with robot Lucy Liu, and the film strip the Professor shows him about the dangers of robot girlfriends. My research participant laughed and agreed that it was very much like that, although of course Facebook is actually populated by people with whom you attended elementary school and/or whose chemistry notes you would like to borrow. It remains, however, the perceived danger of all technological pursuits that one will be consumed by the robot girlfriend, and part of that must be that we realize a sufficiently developed world may meet most needs, or seem to meet them, or meet them better than the mess of the real one. (We return here to my spotless Sim house and the actual apartment in which I lived at the time, a cement boxcar of despair with a leaky shower and an ant problem.)

I watched Star Trek every week with my parents for some period in or around junior high school.[3] How many episodes were based around the holodeck? Given the constraints of network television (Data's "full functionality" aside), they obviously couldn't address the most likely holodeck problem: constant virtual sex with everyone else on the ship. Possibly the computer had some kind of sexy copy protection to prevent Counselor Troi Real Doll abuses—the future has to consider this, doesn't it? So unlike every other technology developed by humankind, the primary use of the holodeck as portrayed onscreen was amazingly not pornography, but rather all kinds of mundane pursuits such as hanging out in bars and relaxing on beaches . . . and occasionally being held hostage in folklore by Q, a personal favorite as I am a big fan of both Robin Hood and Lt. Worf.

Naturally, sometimes historical villains escaped the holodeck and wrought havoc aboard ship, an interesting parallel to the personal development and integration that Turkle suggested might come out of "successful" use of MUDs: what if the players developed, and integrated, undesirable identities? What if I got ruder and ruder in my day-to-day interactions as I spent hours a day griefing newbs? What if I developed a Machiavellian talent for bending others to my nefarious will via LiveJournal flame wars?

More often, however (one assumes), the holodeck provided a carefully constructed escape from the pressures of shipboard life. Picard got to be Sam Spade. People hung out in bars that were, one assumes, free of the humdrum quality and past romantic entanglements of Ten Forward. Worf did healthful calisthenics. There was not, actually, a whole lot of "development" per se; the holodeck, when not going haywire in the service of television plot, provided "comfort interaction." And it looked good, didn't it? Hanging out inside familiar stories and virtual third places (cf. Oldenburg 1999; Steinkeuhler 2005), visiting a corner bar perfectly tailored to one's personal specifications . . .

Much is made, talking about massively multi-player online games, of the need for persistent worlds that at the same time are shaped by players, that change in response to player action: not Ender's electronic astral plane, but rather something "real," which is to say, shaped by everyone's actions instead of just mine. Is that what we really want? I frequently log onto City of Heroes not for interaction—and when I play, it is typically with a small circle of existing friends; almost never with strangers, with whom I can chat on the bus if I really have a craving for the social unknown, and with fewer experience point-related penalties—but simply for the comfort of the routine, to see my little cartoon form racing around the familiar landscape of Talos Island, to sell a few drops at the auction house and relax in my comfortable, no surprises virtual third world. The occasional episode of strangeness is entertaining—periodic Rikti alien invasions provide occasions for players to unite against a high-XP-yielding foe—but after a short period of time the eerie green light fades and the world is restored, unscarred.

Spore has perhaps hit on something with what I originally perceived as a (somewhat minor) flaw. Of course I want others to see my creation, but I don't want them screwing it up, and I definitely don't want them disrupting my carefully balanced ecosystem or invading my solar system. Leonard Nimoy-as-Spock puts it succinctly in "Highly Illogical": "Well, there goes the neighborhood." I doubt that players will soon run out of options to explore without a multiplayer mode, and the virtual space of the game will provide a reasonably rich ground for inner exploration, while still submitting to player control. It may not be what we need, but it's what we want.

[1] My relationship with Card is now much like my relationship with Heinlein, and a large part of me is glad that I was able to enjoy the book without the adult burden of my ever-more negative assessment of the author's ideology and, at times, personhood.

[2] Speaking of futuristic PCs, this is also one of my favorite parts of Idoru: the customized, tricked out machines that even adolescent girls carry around with them. Not that far from custom color iPods or my own laptop, generously decked out in Hello Kitty stickers, but just a little more.

[3] And if ever there were a time for escapist pursuits . . . I always thought that Ender didn't really seem to have it remarkably bad, for a 7th grader.


E. Cabell Hankinson Gathman photo



E. Cabell Hankinson Gathman is a Ph.D. student in sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is interested in social networks and relationships online, particularly how people maintain and develop relationships using a variety of technological channels, including MMOGs.
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