Hardcore Sporn

In his first posting on newstatesman.com's CultureTech Iain Simons gets red in the face over some Ha

Los Angeles, 2005. Deep within the sweaty bowels of the Electronic Arts booth at the E3 videogame trade-show in Los Angeles, and I’m amongst the journalists ushered into a dark black box room to be shown preview of the new project by Will Wright.

For those unfamiliar with the name, Wright is the uber-nerd. The fully-formed, undiluted lord-emperor of geek. He’s the man who made socio-economic computer simulations into a mass market product and in doing so finally gave gaming’s defenders some solid evidence to lean on. I’m not playing darling, I’m restructuring taxation to stimulate industrial growth. A tall, bespectacled figure of nervously twitching brilliance, his intensity is legendary - the computer program made flesh.

Having made town planning a solid-gold franchise with SimCity, his company Maxis produced a range of Sim-(insert noun here) titles before finally attempting to simulate human beings in The Sims. As the world swooned to the charms of a turgid soap-opera played out within a virtual dolls-house, publisher Electronic Arts commissioned a merciless series of expansion packs and finally a true sequel. Several tens of millions of dollars later, Wright went quiet.

Now a fully fledged niche celebrity and in the unusual position of being able to make whatever he liked as his next project, he resolved to try something a little more ambitious. Maxis went to work on creating a game that would simulate evolution in its entirety, wholly untroubled by restraint. It was this, Sim-Everything, that Wright first demonstrated to the world in California that summer. By then thought it had been christened with the rather more evocative name, Spore.

Starting from a single-celled life-form splashing around in the primordial soup and moving through to inter-planetary travel and beyond, it was Powers of Ten for the Playstation generation. One of the key hooks is the ability for all players to design, develop and evolve creatures that are uniquely theirs. The game’s universe is thus populated and sustained by these user-generated offspring which play, learn, sing, fight and of course breed together - creating an ever deeper gene pool. It’s like Second Life but with babies, and probably crashes less. Spore was instantly the most anticipated project in years.

2006, Leipzig Games Convention. Wright is on stage giving the same demo seen the previous year, this time to the public too. Everyone is still amazed, although slightly more curious to know when it will be released and what the actual, y’know, game will be…

2007, London. Release dates are rumoured and denied - no-one knows much more about the game, but in a hotel suite in London Wright is demonstrating the creature creation tool - giving journalists a hands-on try at building a life-form. Seemingly effortlessly, I sculpt some bio-sludge into the body of my beast. Pulling an armature skeleton around to shape the body, I’m suddenly adding limbs, eyes and mouths in a manner that would make Harryhausen shudder. Once composed, the extraordinary procedural animation system takes over and calculates how your creature would move based on the anatomical design decisions you have just made. Within minutes my creature takes its first breath and waddles into life. It looks ridiculous and brilliant.

User Generated Content. The holy grail of web 2.0. But - as all web 2.0 projects know, it’s a huge risk to place the main content burdens of a project in the hands of an unknown audience. Spore has to be a major mass-market product to recoup its development costs, and the techniques of 3d modeling demand a spatial literacy not neccessarily present in the casual user.

Recreational CAD, anyone? The tool for empowering the non-skilled user to rapidly obtain pleasing design results would need to be exceptional - and, it is. The creator is beautifully accessible, distilling the most nuanced sculptural strokes into gentle moves of the mouse. To use it really is to get a sense of your own untapped creative potential within your grasp. The kind of creative design software that would previously cost hundreds, if not thousands of pounds, is now embedded within a videogame and currently available to download for free as a limited version.

Electronic Arts, the publisher, is celebrating the release of the creator software by inviting ‘75 of the most creative innovators from around the world’ to create a creature of their own. David Lynch, Brian Eno and of course MC Hammer are all sharing their Sporlebrities with the World. It’s a moment for critical acclaim, shareholder celebration and the real kick-off for the final launch campaign. Sadly for EA though, the internet, that great leveller of pomp, has seen to it that there’s really only one story about Spore this week.

The budding Creature designers have shown what’s truly on their minds, and it’s largely priapic. Youtube is awash with a sticky tide of ‘Sporn’ as users upload their animated organs and EA’s brave new World is going to have to think carefully about how to deal with the waddling members of its customers. A few user accounts have been closed down already, for breaching the terms of use - but making subjective judgements about complex sculptures when over 250,000 creatures are being created in a single day already is going to be a huge task.

It seems strangely apposite that this game about dna and evolution has inspired so many inventive and varied representations of procedurally animated sex. Despite being gifted with one of the most powerful and accessible modelling tools in the history of computing, many users will still opt to create a waddling penis. Spore truly is the stuff of life.

Download the Spore Creature Creator for Mac or Windows.

View the acceptable face of Spore creativity

Iain Simons writes, talks and tweets about videogames and technology. His new book, Play Britannia, is to be published in 2009. He is the director of the GameCity festival at Nottingham Trent University.
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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.