At first, the universe is black, with a spiral galaxy whirling slowly at the center. A single planet comes into focus amid the stars. Suddenly, a meteorite comes blazing through the darkness, splitting open when it crashes into the planet. From the debris emerges a single-celled microbe, wide-eyed and curious-looking.

This is “your own personal universe in a box.” Sound appealing? It can be yours for $49.95.

Your personal universe, though, would be a computer game — released by Electronic Arts on Sunday — called Spore. Although Spore was designed by Will Wright, creator of The Sims — the best-selling PC game franchise of all time — the game goes beyond the daily lives of simulated characters, which was the focus of its predecessors.

Instead, Spore allows players to control the evolution of a single species, from single-celled microbe to intergalactic conqueror. The game’s foundation around evolutionary biology seemed intriguing, several Yale gamers said, and it gained somewhat of a cult following on the Internet in the months leading up to its release. Spore has not yet completely infiltrated the ranks of Yale gamers, but it has a strong following among students.

“It seemed like a pretty outlandish principle for a game to be founded on,” said Matt Adams ’10, who was excited about the concept when he first heard about it and played through to the fourth level before giant creatures kept destroying his city and he decided to start over.

Adams said he thinks the game appeals to a wide variety of gamers, from action fans to those who enjoy creating and building. And the game counts not only students among its fans, but also scientists. One of those scientists is professor Richard Prum, chair of the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department.

“I’ve never played a computer or video game before in my life,” he said, laughing. “But this was a game with an intellectual purpose, so I got a hold of it.”

Wright said in a Sept. 1 interview with the New York Times that he did intend for the game to reflect certain aspects of evolution: its patterns, scope and diversity. At the same time, though, he wanted to ensure the game was playable and entertaining.

Diversity of Spore

Beginning with the tiny microbe, players progress through five stages of game play. In the first stage, called the cell phase, they control the microbe’s movement, eating food and gaining DNA points. When a player has a certain number of DNA points, he or she can buy parts for the creature, which then enable it to more successfully obtain food and reproduce. Eventually, the creature moves onto land and enters the creature phase, followed by the tribal phase and the civilization phase, in which players build cities and then take over the planet, and finally the space phase, in which players settle and conquer other planets.

“Each phase is a different style of gaming,” said Adams, who compared the cell phase to early games like Pacman, the creature phase to standard third-person games and the tribal stage to real-time strategy games.

This diverse range of styles within the game is what allows Spore to appeal to many types of gamers, Adams said.

“Some people really like the customization, but you can also just slap your creature together really fast and get into game play right away,” Adams said. “You can be more diplomatic, or you can be more warlike. It’s a very healthy middle ground.”

Thomas Near, also professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Yale, had a slightly different explanation for Spore’s appeal. He acknowledged its wide audience but also said he thinks the online component – each player’s universe is populated by creatures constructed by other gamers – plays a major role in the game’s popularity.

“It’s an alternate reality, though it’s not very anthropomorphic,” Near said. “And you’re running into people who are playing, that you’re interacting with.”

Video game or educational toy?

But not everyone has found the game quite so engaging.

Ben Choo ’10 said he bought the game because his friends were talking about it, but found it disappointing because it focuses on the process of designing the creature rather than working toward a specific end result.

“The point of the game is not to win, it’s to invent and build a creature. But if I want to draw, I’ll buy paper,” he said. “It’s like paying $50 to make their video game.”

Similarly, Prum criticized the game’s open-ended nature. Echoing some of the game’s critics, Prum said there is a distinction between toys and games, and that Spore falls into the former category. He said he found the game fun to animate and create with but felt that it lacked the depth and complexity of a real game. Spore, he said, would have been better had it been more scientifically accurate.

“I think that that’s a missed opportunity,” he said. “There’s nothing more engaging than the game of life. Evolution is a fascinating and strategically complicated thing.”

The game may not properly depict the processes and nuances of evolution – in real life, animals do not actually trade in their antennae for bigger mouths or more legs. But despite this inaccuracy, both Prum and Near said the game plays an important role in promoting the science of evolution. They hope that by taking evolution as an assumed fact, the game will plant the concept in the public consciousness. Near said when he taught a class on the biology of fish at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, at least half the students did not believe in evolution.

“If some kid plays the game, and 10 years down the line comes across an evolution-denier, he’ll think, ‘Wait … evolution is mainstream. They made games on it!”

Spore is currently available in five different versions: Spore; Spore Galactic Edition, which includes DVD documentaries and other special features; Spore Creature Creator, which was released in June; Spore Creatures for Nintendo DS; and Spore Origins for cell phones and iPods.