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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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

***

Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.