In the fl0w of Evolution and Creation

By J. Stephen Addcox

Can evolution and creation inhabit the same universe? What’s more, can games that take evolution as their foundation be venue for understanding creation? Such questions came naturally when I first played Will Wright’s Spore a little over four years ago. Though the game offered vast possibilities for developing a civilization, I became entranced with the first few stages of the game’s evolution simulation. Building an interstellar empire was fine, but growing my little single-celled organism was fascinating.

A few months ago, I got my hands on thatgamecompany’s Journey collector’s edition release and played flOw for the first time. The similarity between flOw and Spore’s opening sections is not surprising, as Jenova Chen worked briefly at Maxis before moving on to start thatgamecompany.

"The image of the artist slowly and carefully building his work, brush stroke upon brush stroke, colors mixing and melding, can only be a pale approximation of the delicate balancing act necessary for the development of life."
The argument about the origins of life on our planet has been continuous since the mid-ninteenth century, when Charles Darwin published Origin of Species. Christianity has tended to take a dim view of evolution, but in recent years this has begun to change as more and more Christian thinkers recognize that the science behind evolution is good science. Alistair McGrath, George Coyne, and Archbishop Rowan Williams are three prominent Christians who accept the basic premise behind evolutionary theory. Varying thoughts on how to reconcile evolutionary theory with the opening chapters of Genesis are out there, but most hinge on the notion that we should avoid trying to read Genesis in terms of a post-Enlightenment understanding of history. But no matter where an individual falls on this theological and scientific question, games like Spore and flOw offer contemplative and imaginative visions of the complexity of life and the mystery of creation.

The text that floats across the screen at the beginning of flOw tells us that “Life could be simple,” but this is misleading. While flOw may not be an incredibly difficult game, it creatively represents the beautiful complexity of life on the smallest scale. When I was a child, my father pulled his old chemistry microscope from college out of the attic and we went down to the ditch in front of our house. He scooped up a cup full of brown, muddy water–the kind of water that almost seems to stick to the sides of glass, uncomfortable in a clean environment. He placed a drop of the water on a glass slide and told me to look in the microscope; the water was alive. Tiny organisms moved back and forth across my vision. flOw recreated this experience for me, as my small creature floated through the translucent fluid.

In his Pensees Blaise Pascal reminds us that human beings are perfectly positioned to observe the massive size of the universe and the tiniest molecules. Life on our planet is constantly changing and adapting; and this process is often masked from our day-to-day experience. But flOw recalls Pascal’s astute description of humanity’s place in the scale of creation; it calls us back to a recognition of the intricacies of life at every level.

On the other hand, both flOw and Spore suggests that these microscopic samples of the development of life are incredibly violent. Unlike the process of natural selection, in which certain species are advantaged over others, flOw and Spore put players in an aggressive stance relative to the other creatures appearing on screen. While this violent quality is somewhat muted in flOw, it is much more prominent in Spore. I’m less keen on this representation as it has the potential to suggest a level of animosity inherent in creation that science doesn’t support. Is the natural world a predatory place? Of course, but not because organisms in the world are consciously attempting to become ascendant. Ultimately, these games draw upon human consciousness to represent evolution in a way that suggests predatory and violent purpose, but I’m not sure that a Christian understanding of evolution would require such a perspective.

As a graduate student of literature, my expertise is about as far from scientific research on the origins of life as it gets, but when I consider the possibility of a creator God and evolutionary processes existing together, I prefer to see a God of patient and persistent creativity. While flOw and Spore offer us a way to participate in a rendering of this process, they shouldn’t replace the imaginative mystery that we experience in the contemplation of creation. Still games such as these can serve to broaden our understanding of what an act of creation might be; no longer a snap-of-the-finger Sunday School magic trick, creation is a radiant and wonderful act. The image of the artist slowly and carefully building his work, brush stroke upon brush stroke, colors mixing and melding, can only be a pale approximation of the delicate balancing act necessary for the development of life.

As an epilogue, Flower, brings our place in creation into full view as well. While this was probably not the developer’s specific intention, Flower offers a meditation on the necessity for human beings to strive for a responsible and respectful relationship to the natural world–the created world. If flOw and Spore show us how meticulous and marvelous the act of evolutionary creation is, then Flower suggests how we might live as participants in and stewards of that creation.

Written by J. Stephen Addcox

J. Stephen Addcox is an Upper School English Teacher at The Westminster Schools in Atlanta. In addition to teaching Shakespeare and Jane Austen, he also enjoys using video games and digital narratives in the classroom.