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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North Yorkshire has approved the UK’s first fracking tests in five years. What does this mean?

Is fracking the answer to the UK's energy future? Or a serious risk to the environment?

Shale gas operation has been approved in North Yorkshire, the first since a ban introduced after two minor earthquakes in 2011 were shown to be caused by fracking in the area. On Tuesday night, after two days of heated debate, North Yorkshire councillors finally granted an application to frack in the North York Moors National Park.

The vote by the Tory-dominated council was passed by seven votes to four, and sets an important precedent for the scores of other applications still awaiting decision across the country. It also gives a much-needed boost to David Cameron’s 2014 promise to “go all out for shale”. But with regional authorities pitted against local communities, and national government in dispute with global NGOs, what is the wider verdict on the industry?

What is fracking?

Fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing”, is the extraction of shale gas from deep underground. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the earth at such high pressure that it literally fractures the rocks and releases the gas trapped inside.

Opponents claim that the side effects include earthquakes, polluted ground water, and noise and traffic pollution. The image the industry would least like you to associate with the process is this clip of a man setting fire to a running tap, from the 2010 US documentary Gasland

Advocates dispute the above criticisms, and instead argue that shale gas extraction will create jobs, help the UK transition to a carbon-neutral world, reduce reliance on imports and boost tax revenues.

So do these claims stands up? Let’s take each in turn...

Will it create jobs? Yes, but mostly in the short-term.

Industry experts imply that job creation in the UK could reflect that seen in the US, while the medium-sized production company Cuadrilla claims that shale gas production would create 1,700 jobs in Lancashire alone.

But claims about employment may be exaggerated. A US study overseen by Penn State University showed that only one in seven of the jobs projected in an industry forecast actually materialised. In the UK, a Friends of the Earth report contends that the majority of jobs to be created by fracking in Lancashire would only be short-term – with under 200 surviving the initial construction burst.

Environmentalists, in contrast, point to evidence that green energy creates more jobs than similar-sized fossil fuel investments.  And it’s not just climate campaigners who don’t buy the employment promise. Trade union members also have their doubts. Ian Gallagher, Secretary of Blackburn and District Trade Unions Council, told Friends of the Earth that: “Investment in the areas identified by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign [...] is a far more certain way of addressing both climate change and economic growth than drilling for shale gas.”

Will it deliver cleaner energy? Not as completely as renewables would.

America’s “shale revolution” has been credited with reversing the country’s reliance on dirty coal and helping them lead the world in carbon-emissions reduction. Thanks to the relatively low carbon dioxide content of natural gas (emitting half the amount of coal to generate the same amount of electricity), fracking helped the US reduce its annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 556 million metric tons between 2007 and 2014. Banning it, advocates argue, would “immediately increase the use of coal”.

Yet a new report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (previously known for its opposition to wind farm applications), has laid out a number of ways that the UK government can meet its target of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 without necessarily introducing fracking and without harming the natural world. Renewable, home-produced, energy, they argue, could in theory cover the UK’s energy needs three times over. They’ve even included some handy maps:


Map of UK land available for renewable technologies. Source: RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision.

Will it deliver secure energy? Yes, up to a point.

For energy to be “sustainable” it also has to be secure; it has to be available on demand and not threatened by international upheaval. Gas-fired “peaking” plants can be used to even-out input into the electricity grid when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind is not so blowy. The government thus claims that natural gas is an essential part of the UK’s future “energy mix”, which, if produced domestically through fracking, will also free us from reliance on imports tarnished by volatile Russian politics.

But, time is running out. Recent analysis by Carbon Brief suggests that we only have five years left of current CO2 emission levels before we blow the carbon budget and risk breaching the climate’s crucial 1.5°C tipping point. Whichever energy choices we make now need to starting brining down the carbon over-spend immediately.

Will it help stablise the wider economy? Yes, but not forever.

With so many “Yes, buts...” in the above list, you might wonder why the government is still pressing so hard for fracking’s expansion? Part of the answer may lie in their vested interest in supporting the wider industry.

Tax revenues from UK oil and gas generate a large portion of the government’s income. In 2013-14, the revenue from license fees, petroleum revenue tax, corporation tax and the supplementary charge accounted for nearly £5bn of UK exchequer receipts. The Treasury cannot afford to lose these, as evidenced in the last budget when George Osborne further subsidied North Sea oil operations through increased tax breaks.

The more that the Conservatives support the industry, the more they can tax it. In 2012 DECC said it wanted to “guarantee... every last economic drop of oil and gas is produced for the benefit of the UK”. This sentiment was repeated yesterday by energy minister Andrea Leadsom, when she welcomed the North Yorkshire decision and described fracking as a “fantastic opportunity”.

Dependence on finite domestic fuel reserves, however, is not a long-term economic solution. Not least because they will either run out or force us to exceed international emissions treaties: “Pensions already have enough stranded assets as they are,” says Danielle Pafford from 350.org.

Is it worth it? Most European countries have decided it’s not.

There is currently no commercial shale-gas drilling in Europe. Sustained protests against the industry in Romania, combined with poor exploration results, have already caused energy giant Chevron to pull out of the country. Total has also abandonned explorations in Denmark, Poland is being referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to adequately assess fracking’s impact, and, in Germany, brewers have launched special bottle-caps with the slogan “Nein! Zu Fracking” to warn against the threat to their water supply.

Back in the UK, the government's latest survey of public attitudes to fracking found that 44 per cent neither supported nor opposed the practice, but also that opinion is gradually shifting out of favour. If the government doesn't come up with arguments that hold water soon, it seems likely that the UK's fracking future could still be blasted apart.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.