So it finally happened. Wanton destruction on an unprecedented scale. Entire civilizations wiped out with the flick of a wrist. Totally innocent sentient beings running for their lives, with no hope of cover from the firepower of a much more advanced species.
Until tonight, Spore had been a beautiful educational game Miles and I played together some evenings. An exploration of evolution, from cells swimming in primordial soup to inchoate creatures finding their legs and their appetites, to tribes discovering one another through song and charm, through civilization building, the strangeness of religious wars, and finally into the technological sophistication and problem solving of the space stage.
Through it, Miles was discovering how the world as we know it came to be. The importance of adaptation, the consequences of evolving without eyesight, or with a too-small mouth, the importance of keeping factories, homes and entertainment in balance, the trade-offs between having slow-moving crab claws or jet propulsion.
There had been difficult points in the game, when we had been forced into Hobbsian choices between eliminating a few diseased members of a species and letting illness take over an entire world, or between killing and being killed by malevolent species from other continents or distant star systems. But suddenly our 7-year-old was interacting differently. He had evolved into the space stage, piloting a sophisticated craft through the galaxy, trading blue spice for yellow, learning the finer points of terra-forming new worlds. Having discovered a new planet populated by a people still in the tribal stage, hovering above their world in a craft they couldn’t begin to understand, he had opened fire with everything he had, decimating one village after another.
“Why are you killing these people?,” I asked, assuming (hoping) there was a good reason, that he had been asked by the Habafropzipulops to eliminate some new form of growing evil. But the response was simple, and grim:
“They’re only in the tribal stage.”
Of course, our son had been working his own way through the tribal stage just a few weeks earlier. Had he forgotten already that everyone goes through the tribal stage? That ignorance of the future does not make you deservant of death?
We had a long and involved conversation about good and evil, about the difficult trade-offs and judgment calls we’ve sometimes had to make on our way to the current world. But none of it sank in.
“They’re not real. Why does it matter?”
All these months of playing a game I had hoped would help him to understand human history and to sharpen his moral compass had failed, because at seven he was already too good at distinguishing between meatspace and gamespace. On one hand, he had us. People worry that kids will absorb too much from games, will be unable to distinguish between fantasy and reality. But the problem here was that he was too able to make that distinction, and thus able to pick off entire civilizations since they were “only pixels.” How do you answer something like that?
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not worried that he’s unable to distinguish between good and evil. He’s got a heart of gold and is generous and wise beyond compare. But still, it was rattling to see him doing this. We told him that if he was going to play like that, he couldn’t play.
What we were having trouble communicating was that the game was a teaching tool for both his mind and his heart, and that it was important to us that lives were not trivialized.
That was the part that was difficult for him to distinguish. Children can be more wise than you give them credit for, and can also be more literal than you expect. He sees Spore as a game, not a metaphor. And he knows that the game is just a game, that pixels are just pixels. Meanwhile, we want him to see the game as an experiment through which his instincts play out, and that his instincts and morality will guide him away from the wrong courses of action.
At the same time, what young boy doesn’t want to play shoot-em-up, to draw pictures of tanks and aircraft carriers, play with green plastic army men?
In the end, we told him that he would have to play Spore with a good heart or not play at all. The look on his face was intense — one part perplexed, one part fascinated, one part incredulous, one part mad. We don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater here. We’ll see what part of the message sticks.