Do you play computer games besides the ones you design?
Oh, yeah. I spend maybe five hours a week playing games. On the PC, I still play Battlefield 2 and Advance War on my old Game Boy. Lately I've been into Guitar Hero. It's a game for PlayStation 2 that comes with a guitar controller, which has buttons on its frets instead of strings. You try to play along to real rock songs, and there's this whole little audience on-screen that'll boo you off the stage if you stink. When you get it right, it's really satisfying.
What makes a game compelling to you?
In the kinds of games I focus on, I'm interested in amplifying the players' natural abilities. I want a player to feel surprised: "Wow, I made this thing!" Then, because you feel ownership over it, you start feeling things like pride—or even guilt if you run the situation badly. People talk about how games don't have the emotional impact of movies. I think they do—they just have a different palette. I never felt pride, or guilt, watching a movie.
A lot of what makes things fun generally is people challenging themselves, learning new patterns. You're building a model in your head that will help you predict what the system's going to do and enable you to perform in that system more accurately. That's why kids play, I think. From a very early age, that's how we relate to the world. We look for patterns, we poke and prod: If I do this, what happens? That's how we learn causality.
So games are fun because they allow us to play with time?
Partly. You can think of games almost as time machines. They allow us to explore the possibility space around a given starting point. You can hit Start Over and do the Groundhog Day thing: Relive the same day and try doing this, replay the same day and try doing that. You can control time in a way that you can never do in real life and get some sense of how chaotic a system can be.
Storytelling is the same way. Say I'm a caveman and I almost get killed by a tiger. I can come tell you that I left my cave and a tiger almost got me. I'm sharing an experience and can now influence your behavior. Next time you leave the cave, you'll look out for the tiger. That's a time machine for experience—lessons that we might learn.
You've collected and analyzed thousands of hours of data gathered from people who play The Sims online. To what extent is playing The Sims a behavioral experiment?
It's an interesting kind of Rorschach test. The way in which people play the game says a lot about their personal interests and creativity. Some focus on giving their Sims skills, climbing the career ladder, building McMansions. Others focus on romance or building a family. Others are into creating a cast of characters and saving it on the Web; for them The Sims is more like a set of actors and sets with which to tell stories. It's up to you to decide how you want to make your Sim happy. SimCity is like that as well. We don't tell you that you have to build a big city, or a happy city, or a clean city; people come up with their own goal state that has a lot to do with their own value system. The game almost asks them, OK, what do you think a good city is? Or a good life?
You've modeled planetary dynamics, ant colonies, even the way players play your games. What's left?
Do you know about fitness landscapes? It's this idea that you can map evolutionary fitness. If you were this genetic combination, you'd be this fit. If you were that genetic combination, you'd be that fit. Any given population is basically climbing a fitness landscape. It's cross-correlated: The shape of the landscape is dependent on what all the organisms are doing, so even as an organism evolves, the landscape is always changing.
I did some modeling of this—fairly long-term models of creatures evolving on different landscapes. Interestingly, the results I got were very similar to punctuated equilibrium [an evolutionary theory championed by Niles Eldridge and Stephen Jay Gould]. You'd see regions of stability for long periods of time, then diversity would go up, then suddenly the whole system would go into chaos, you'd have this mass die-off, and then it would go back up pretty rapidly.
You're doing this for fun? That's what you do on the weekend?
Yeah, pretty much just for fun. I get really into biology. I find it more and more fascinating, especially macroevolutionary stuff. Actually, I think the idea of evolution is one that a lot of people have a hard time wrapping their minds around. They think, oh, you've got this one mutation and then the creature is a little bit better at seeing, therefore it survives. But, in fact, it's much more of a numbers game: You have thousands of creatures that have a slightly better chance of seeing, and statistically they survive 1 percent better. People aren't used to dealing with the numbers and the timescales involved. But once you look at it from that point of view, evolution just seems so much more plausible. It makes perfect sense.
In Wikipedia, Spore is described as a "teleological evolution" game. Do you think the game will bring natural selection to the masses?
You can look at it in a number of ways. What's ironic, really, is it's intelligent design. As a player, you go through an arc of being this lowly little cell, being attacked by pond scum, to eventually becoming a god. At the godlike level, you can almost do the whole creationist thing if you want: "I will create a planet; I will create species; I will put them on the planet." But you're a god without a whole lot of foresight. You put all this stuff on a planet, and it might go kerflooey. You might make a really badly balanced ecosystem. You're not necessarily an omnipotent god. That's even more fun. You have these godlike powers, yet the repercussions of them become totally unpredictable to you.
If you could rebuild Earth in any way—add or subtract any creature or process, for instance—what would you do?
What's my starting point? The Paleolithic?
Now, whenever, any time you want. The world is your oyster.
Hmmm. Well, the development of life was amazing and maybe incredibly improbable, so I wouldn't want to mess that up. The development of intelligence was possibly even more improbable; I wouldn't want to modify anything until that happens either. Even then . . . I wouldn't want to touch it, actually. If I started now, maybe I'd do something to increase the odds of humans surviving on Earth. But maybe not! Can I give you James Lovelock's answer? I'd probably eliminate cattle entirely. They're the Earth's second-largest producers of methane, which is a serious greenhouse gas. The clearing of rain forests is done mainly to accommodate livestock, so getting rid of cattle would help protect biodiversity.