Spore is Will Wright’s new game and it sounds wickedly cool, if you’re into that sort of thing. The New Yorker has a profile of him on-line which is jaw-droppingly good, hitting on many perennial geek obsessions, such as “The Powers of Ten,” a wonderful and perspective changing little film:
The key landmarks for Spore, however, were not books. They were Drake’s equation and “The Powers of Ten.” The former, which he’d shown me on the computer screen in his office, is a formula devised in 1961 by Frank Drake, a radio astronomer, to estimate the number of possible worlds in our galaxy that might be populated with beings that could communicate with us. (About ten thousand, according to Drake’s calculations.) The latter is a short film by Charles and Ray Eames, made in 1977, which begins with a man lying on the grass in a Chicago park, and then shows a series of images of the same shot, each taken from a position ten times farther away than the last one, until the viewer reaches the limits of the universe at 1024 meters (ten to the twenty-fourth power). Then it returns to the opening image and goes the other way, zooming into the man’s skin, until at 10-16 you reach the limits of the inner world—the space inside a proton.
I remember the first time I saw “The Powers of Ten,” when I was 18. It has stayed with me ever since, rivaling only Cosmos in its non-conscious effect on my worldview.
An interesting theme of the piece concerns education—Wright’s and how kids today learn:
Wright…believes that video games teach you how to learn; what needs to change is the way children are taught. “The problem with our education system is we’ve taken this kind of narrow, reductionist, Aristotelian approach to what learning is,” he told me.
“It’s not designed for experimenting with complex systems and navigating your way through them in an intuitive way, which is what games teach. It’s not really designed for failure, which is also something games teach. I mean, I think that failure is a better teacher than success. Trial and error, reverse-engineering stuff in your mind—all the ways that kids interact with games—that’s the kind of thinking schools should be teaching. And I would argue that as the world becomes more complex, and as outcomes become less about success or failure, games are better at preparing you. The education system is going to realize this sooner or later. It’s starting. Teachers are entering the system who grew up playing games. They’re going to want to engage with the kids using games.”
This feels right to me. But here is the counterargument:
Wright showed me an e-mail he had received from Lara M. Brown, a professor of political science at California State University, Channel Islands, in response to an essay he had written for Wired about the educational value of video games. Brown, who uses technology in her own teaching, wrote, “Most of us are in agreement that this younger generation—raised on video games—has learned to be reactive, instead of active, and worse, they have lost their imaginative abilities and creativity because the games provide all of the images, sounds, and possible outcomes for them. Our students tend to not know how to initiate questions, formulate hypotheses, or lead off a debate because they like to wait to see what ‘comes at them.’ They also have difficulty imagining worlds (places and/or historical times) unless you (as a professor) can provide them with a picture and a sound to go along with the words. . . . In essence, they seem to have lost the ability to visualize with their minds.”
Probably overstated, but there is something to this, too, I feel. The “solution,” it seems to me, is to realize that kids (and adults) play with a multiplicity of toys, from Doom to blocks to Harry Potter books to clay to the family’s pet ferret. Yes, a kid who only plays Spore may not experience enough variety to form a well-rounded mind. But that’s, like, duh. A kid who only does algebra will be pretty asymmetrically developed, too. There are lots of ways to be fucked up.
The rest of the profile is here. This is a classic 10,000 word New Yorker article: wonderful.