Bringing evolution to a technological generation: a case study with the video game SPORE.
Abstract: The video game SPORE was found to hold characteristics that stimulate higher-order thinking even though it rated poorly for accurate science. Interested in evaluating whether a scientifically inaccurate video game could be used effectively, we exposed students to SPORE during an evolution course. Students that played the game reported that they spent an average of 3 hours more a week with class material; these same students also scored about 5% higher on examinations and in the course. Methods to use SPORE to teach evolution are included; to create a teaching community that uses this game might make this edutainment product an even more effective tool.

Key Words: Evolution; SPORE; video game; teaching game; edutainment.
Article Type: Report
Subject: Video games (Educational aspects)
Video games (Usage)
Edutainment (Usage)
Evolution (Study and teaching)
Sciences education (Methods)
Authors: Poli, Dorothybelle
Berenotto, Christopher
Blankenship, Sara
Piatkowski, Bryan
Bader, Geoffrey A.
Poore, Mark
Pub Date: 02/01/2012
Publication: Name: The American Biology Teacher Publisher: National Association of Biology Teachers Audience: Academic; Professional Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Biological sciences; Education Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2012 National Association of Biology Teachers ISSN: 0002-7685
Issue: Date: Feb, 2012 Source Volume: 74 Source Issue: 2
Product: Name: Electronic Arts Spore (Simulation game); Electronic Arts Spore (Simulation game) Product Code: 3651920 Electronic Games NAICS Code: 339932 Game, Toy, and Children's Vehicle Manufacturing SIC Code: 3944 Games, toys, and children's vehicles; 7372 Prepackaged software
Geographic: Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States
Accession Number: 278881934
Full Text: Board games have been brought into the classroom for years (e.g., War) to help student engagement with material, and some colleges have built a reputation around using non-video games as classroom pedagogy. Barnard College Professor Mark Carnes has successfully developed the "Reacting to the Past" series (http:// since 1996. This pedagogy has been spreading through many institutions with rave reviews (Prince, 2005; Houle, 2006; Higbee, 2008). But today's generation is more comfortable and relaxed with technologies like video, MP3, and video games (Tapscott, 1998, 2009; Raines, 2002; Pardue & Morgan, 2008).

Video games have been mainstream in the United States since the 1970s with the debut of Atari's Pong (Kent, 2001); the Entertainment Software Association's "2009 Essential Facts About the Computer and Video Game Industry" shows that 68% of American households play computer and video games, and 63% of parents feel that video games are a positive part of children's lives. Most video games are designed and marketed for home entertainment use, not academia. LeapFrog Enterprises brought educational games into the home in 1995 (http://, but the bridge into secondary- and college-level gaming has been minimal. Some academics have been intrigued to use "edutainment" options like SimCity, Civilization, and Oregon Trail (Rice, 2007; Rice & Wilson, 1999; Squire, 2003, 2005), but science simulations, especially for evolution, have not been designed for the entertainment realm. John Conway's Game of Life (http:// and Jeffrey Ventrella and Brian Dodd's Darwin Pond ( are science simulations, not entertainment.

The makers of SimCity (EA Sports) debuted SPORE on Sunday, 7 September 2008. Marketed as a game that would let you "create the universe," SPORE played up the debate between creation and evolution. Further intrigue was generated when the game's creator produced an anti-SPORE website that used intelligent-design arguments against the game and its release (http://www. Both scientists and nonscientists were anxious about how SPORE would present the debate through game play. Student interest, together with statistics showing that college students spend several hours a week on video games (Jones et al., 2003), forced us to question whether SPORE could accomplish the educational goals we had for an evolution course that was entertaining. We were looking for a way to increase retention of evolutionary theory beyond the traditional lecture, laboratory, and assignments. Research indicates that computer games help children learn (Shaffer, 2006; Y. K. Baek, unpubl. paper), but some educators have reservations about bringing games into their classroom (Baek, 2008). Therefore, if SPORE could be used as an educational tool, it would be necessary to develop learning modules to support educators who have any hesitation. Generated educational modules are shared through this discussion.

* Experimental Procedure

Determining Whether SPORE Can Be Effective in the Teaching of Evolution

The Rice (2007) rubric for "Assessing Higher-Order Thinking in Video Games" was used to examine the potential for SPORE to possess the characteristics necessary to foster higher-order thinking.

Test Groups

Groups, "traditional" and "gamed," were exposed to the same baseline upper-level evolution course with the same instructor. The same common evolution textbook was required, and all lectures were designed around the textbook's content. Traditional in-class exams assessed class knowledge formally but were supplemented by additional assignments. Students were required to journal weekly on topic prompts about the readings. Journaling was an ongoing reflection that asked students to go back to past topics and expand their comments as they learned more textbook information. An online debate about evolution and creationism used wikis to foster students' critical thinking about the controversy. Students used the wiki to argue one side of the debate for half of the semester, before being required to switch sides for the remaining half of the semester. Several hands-on activities were also utilized to teach concepts like natural selection, cladograms, and phylogeny. Finally the classes were exposed to the same popular-press book that expressed the extreme views of evolution. Each reading was followed by a writing assignment that required students to synthesize textbook material, an extreme view, and their own opinion. The only difference between groups was the additional use of SPORE.

SPORE Group Play Events

SPORE was introduced to the gamed group after their first exam to ensure that some basic information was delivered to the students prior to their play events. By starting the game after the first test, we were able to gauge how this class might perform in comparison to the traditional groups by comparing test scores. After-class group-play events were set up so that students in groups of three or four could play the game as a team; each team started at the game's beginning. The instructor listened and noted the discussions during the 1- to 2-hour play time. Over the course of the semester, a total of five group play events were hosted.

Initial discussions began around the opening scene, which shows a meteor hitting an inhabited planet and delivering an organism. Group conversations about how the students would cause the species to evolve into a more complex one were common; for example, they often debated what the group should change in the Creature Creator, as well as the rationale for those changes. Groups would modify their species after group discussion and then try the new characters in the virtual world. Discussions often centered on how the morphological characters would aid or hinder adaptation and how changes to locomotion and transport would alter the success of the population. Students would eventually note how other encountered species used the same characters. Once a play event finished, the instructor held a traditional 45-minute "discussion section" with the students. Most conversations began when the instructor would read back some of the group conversations, pointing out specific misconceptions.

Group Play Variations

A way that we created randomness during game play, rather than by artificially selected "group thought," was to use six-sided dice. In any of the stages, students could use dice to determine whether they would mutate to more or less specialized body parts in Creature Creator. Numbers 1-3 meant the species would become less specialized, whereas 4-6 would become more specialized. To add even more randomness to the experience, we used a separate die to determine what body part actually mutated during each evolving session; for example, mouth parts were changed when a 1 was rolled, but legs were changed when a 2 was rolled, and so on. In a similar manner, during species interactions, you can use dice to determine whether you approach the new species as friend or enemy: 1-3 become a friend, 4-6 choose enemy. Student comments during these "natural selection" sessions became centered on what they wanted to happen, rather than what was the adaptation; therefore, opportunities arose to discuss evolutionary history, such as Lamarckian ideas, with the students.

The Writing Assignments

The game's marketing purposely built the science-versus-creation debate into everything surrounding SPORE. Trailers for the game use the phrase "someone made it/him/etc." multiple times, but words like survival, competition, and sex are major ideas also expressed. Accordingly, we developed written assignments to try and guide students accurately through the untangling of brilliant marketing and skewed science. The following writing prompts were supplied to students to stimulate critical thinking:

* Examining the opening scene of the game, discuss the points that are creationism and those that are evolutionary. Make sure

to analyze how EA Sports used these two perspectives to their marketing advantage.

* Pick out at least 10 scientific flaws found within the first two stages of the game. List them and then, using primary literature, discuss how the flaws are scientifically inaccurate.

* Go to the anti-SPORE website and examine the arguments against the game. Using science as your tool, defend SPORE and evolution.


Student test scores and assignments were examined between the traditional and gamer classes. SPORE play events occurred only following the first exam to ensure a baseline across the sections. At the end of the course, students who participated in play events were asked questions to determine their level of engagement with the material.

* Results

Science magazine gave SPORE an F for its "use of evolution" but ranked the game with a B for "evolution being real." However, not all scientific merit is lost, because SPORE scored a 16 out of a possible 20 on Rice's rubric for evaluating video-game cognitive viability during our investigation (Table 1), which suggests that the game holds "several positive characteristics lending it to higher order thinking" (Rice, 2007). Elements such as a complex storyline that the player cared about and replay ability with varying results helped boost the game's usability. Additionally, a timeline exists within the game, which simulates realistic evolutionary time frames, and students can make population changes through the Creature Creator portion of the game. The game's ability to change an environmental cue or population's character (gene pool) at a game control panel (the Creature Creator) is similar to how an evolutionary simulation would work. Together with the cognitive viability potential, we began our study of the effectiveness of using SPORE to teach evolutionary concepts.

Prior to the release of SPORE, an upper-level college course in evolution was taught using a traditional lecture supplemented with critical writing exercises using popular-press media, classroom exercises, a debate exercise, and journaling. The end result was students obtaining grades that fit a traditional bell curve with few excellent scores. Students reported enjoying the course and "learning a lot," but they did not make strong connections to new material in subsequent courses.

When the course was repeated with the introduction of the game-play events, the strongest student involvement and highest engagement came when small numbers of individuals played SPORE together as a single player. Students self-reported that they averaged 3 hours more a week with the course material because the game allowed them to visualize the concepts. On the evaluation survey, one student mentioned that the game's inaccuracies increased understanding "the fine parts of natural selection, artificial selection, survival of the fittest, and genetic diversity because of the errors within the game. It was like a puzzle." Four students purchased an individual copy of the game so they could continue playing on their own time. These students were invested in determining new ways to play a scenario and wanted to see if the outcome was the same (self-reported). After discussions with the students who tried variations, we began using the six-sided dice for some of our play events to represent a more random experience.

Forty percent of game trial participants spent multiple semesters continuing their evolution education while they played the game beyond the course, and engaged in conversations with students and teachers alike; it is unknown whether nongaming participants did the same. For the next 2 years, students have come back to continue their individual games or have written to the instructor to discuss their home adventures with the game. We were intrigued that gamers continued to learn about the subject matter on their own time.

Beyond increased interest and debate, exam-score comparisons were very informative. Prior to game-play events, students in both groups were subjected to lectures and in-class exercises and tested with the same exam. The traditional class sections tested higher than the gamer section on the first exam (Table 2). However, after the game-play events, gamers scored ~5% higher on all remaining exams. The gamer class also scored ~5% higher overall in the course (Table 2).

Topics that the game did not directly address were the more complicated ideas of genetic drift, variation, and population biology, but the game did open an avenue to talk about these areas because they were lacking from game play. Student-directed questions like "Could genetic drift be brought into this game?" and "How would it influence your population?" caused after-class contemplation that benefited overall in-class discussion. These same questions could easily be turned into effective writing assignments.

As an added benefit of creationism and evolutionary theory being intermixed within the game, the class was led into stronger debate without having the conventional arguments taking up class time. The wiki assignment became infused with conversations based on game-play events. Also, students went to primary literature more often for evidence, possibly because of the increased engagement with the course material.

* Possible Technology Problems

We quickly learned that video games were not meant to be "in the classroom." Digital Rights Management (DRM) issues are serious problems that incorporate file corruption onto a computer that uploads a game too many times, as a way to eliminate theft. Home entertainment games are costly, with a minimum of $50 per game being a normal purchase price for a 3-load DRM. Technological support for games is minimal; academics may lack the understanding of computer software interfacing issues that are compounded by networking found at most academic institutions. The video-game industry does not support academic problems because the games are not designed to be academic simulations. Therefore, having a game-savvy IT department is helpful in case of trouble! Of course, many of the students are also savvy on these issues.

* Discussion

Using a video game in the classroom has many challenges, both technical and pedagogical. However, this study showed us that when pedagogy is developed with thought and fun in the forefront, a video game can be both educational and entertaining. SPORE has many scientific inaccuracies, but using those inaccuracies helped keep student engagement high during the course. Students continued to play the game and use it as a tool to critically think about subject matter on their own time. Critically, the science flaws did not seem to impede learning, given that students exposed to the game did better on exams and overall in the course.

Research indicates that computer games engage the brain (Chat field, 2010) and help children learn (Shaffer, 2006; Y. K. Baek, unpubl. paper), but some educators still have reservations about bringing games into their classrooms (Baek, 2008). Specifically, "inflexibility of curriculum, negative effects of gaming, student lack of readiness, lack of supporting material, fixed class schedules, and limited budgets" top the list (Baek, 2008). A single copy of the game can be purchased and students can play as small teams to keep costs minimal. In our experience, students did not mind having game-play events outside of class time; therefore, doing this during scheduled class time is not necessary for success. Also, we have shared our teaching modules and encourage others to test the use of SPORE within the classroom through participation at the SPOREedu wiki ( We hope to continue to develop ways to use SPORE in the classroom and are actively looking for your experiences. (Of course, if you have your own ideas and would like to share, contribute to our wiki or contact the authors.)

DOI: 10.1525/abt.2012.74.2.7

* Acknowledgments

We thank the Biology Department at Roanoke College for purchasing the video game. And we thank the biology students who participated in the study--the student perspective was essential for this entire project.


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DOROTHYBELLE POLI ( is Assistant Professor of Biology at Roanoke College, 221 College Lane, Salem, VA 24153, where CHRISTOPHER BERENOTTO (, SARA BLANKENSHIP (, BRYAN PIATKOWSKI (btpiatkowski@, and GEOFFREY A. BADER ( are undergraduates and MARK POORE ( is Director of Instructional Technology.
Table 1. Video-game higher-order-thinking
evaluation rubric with SPORE assessment (Rice, 2007;
rubric used with permission). NPC = a nonplaying

Characteristics                                       1/0

Requires users to assume a role in the game,           1
rather than simply play

Offers meaningful interaction such as dialogue         1
with NPCs

Has a storyline                                        1

Has a complex storyline with characters users care     1

Offers simple puzzles                                  1

Has complex puzzles requiring effort to solve          1

Uses three-dimensional graphics                        1

Allows multiple views or camera pans and the           1
ability to zoom in and out

Allows different ways to complete the game             1

Simulates complex processes requiring adjustment       1
of variables by users to obtain desired results or
adjusting variables leads to different results

Allows interaction through use of avatars              0

Avatars are lifelike                                   0

Requires interaction with virtual elements within      1
the game

Requires knowledge of game elements beyond mouse       0
prompts, number entry (e.g., combining elements to
create new tools, understanding complex jargon)

Requires gathering of information in order to          1

Requires synthesis of knowledge in order to            1
complete or successfully engage elements in the

Environment effectively replicates real world          1

NPCs display artificial intelligence (AI)              1

NPCs display effective use of AI resulting in          0
dynamic experiences for the user

Offers replay ability with varying results             1

Total score: (Indicating placement on the Video        16
Game Cognitive Viability Index)

Table 2. Examination and final course averages [+ or -]
standard errors for participants in the traditional
and gamed test groups.

Averages     Traditional 1        Traditional 2            Gamed

1         71.75 [+ or -] 2.0%  74.13 [+ or -] 2.5%  70.95 [+ or -] 2.1%
2         68.66 [+ or -] 2.0%  70.33 [+ or -] 1.5%  76.60 [+ or -] 0.7%
3         72.36 [+ or -] 3.0%  73.40 [+ or -] 0.8%  78.50 [+ or -] 0.9%
Final      77 [+ or -] 2.1%     78 [+ or -] 1.4%     82 [+ or -] 0.4%
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