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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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder