"I Shall Call It Cletus"

A hardcore videogamer plays God in the 
virtual world of Spore, where omnipotence 
is the mission and survival is for the fit.

By Emily White December 13, 2008 Published in the November 2008 issue of Seattle Met

SEPTEMBER 7, 2008: It’s an overcast Saturday morning, the cold breath of fall in the air. Jonathan Macken pulls up at the Southcenter Game Stop to pick up his copy of Spore. For more than three years, ever since rumors of the videogame hit the discussion boards, Jon has waited for this day. Boxes of the game are stacked by the cash register, ready for the Spore people. At 9:30am, Jon is one of the first.

Jon has taken a week of vacation in honor of the game. While his coworkers at Thales Avionics might use vacation time to fly somewhere with a real sun and ocean, Jon plans to hole up in his apartment flying over false suns and oceans, playing God in an animated universe. He has stocked up on supplies: ice cream bars, spaghetti, coffee, and a case of Coke Zero. “I am not going to worry about shaving or laundry or anything.”

Jon is my brother-in-law. Hovering around six foot three, he’s a towering, gentle person. Between the ages of 18 and 23 he lived primarily on Navy ships, and at 36 he still holds himself like a military man—formal and remote after years of saying “sir.”

In industry terms, Jon is a “hardcore gamer,” as distinguished from the “casual gamer.” While a member of the casual species might play simple videogames a few hours a week, Jonathan devotes whole days to mastering complex games. In the space of a weekend, he can finish a game designed to take weeks. For him, getting lost in the strategy is a fundamental form of joy.

He has been playing videogames since high school in Eugene. Back then he and a couple of buddies were into Dungeons and Dragons, SimCity and Reach for the Stars. They called themselves the Geek Squad. After high school, in the Navy, he played on the ship. “It was good for morale,” he remembers. After the Navy he took a job at Thales, a company that repairs, inspects, and upgrades airplane parts.
Since the dawn of his life as a player, the games have improved, evolved. While Jon might’ve been part of a geek fringe in high school, in the years since then videogames have gone seriously mainstream: It’s now an $18 billion a year industry that has been called “recession-proof.” (In _Spore_’s first three weeks on the market, over 1 million copies were sold.) Many believe games will eclipse movies, just as movies eclipsed books.

Long before he heard about Spore, Jon knew about its creator, Will Wright, the man who created SimCity, The Sims, and The Sims 2. Wright’s games were ideal outlets for a player like Jon, who values complexity over reactive violence and likes his imagination to be engaged. This is Wright’s genius. As he said in a 2006 speech, “[any] ownership we can give players over content” improves upon the game. “Players’ stories will always be more powerful than scripted stories.” The Sims is still one of the best-selling videogame franchises in history.

The Sims (short for “simulated”) occupies a virtual world where people fight, have affairs, run on jogging machines, lose jobs, rebel against parents. Unlike in a game where the object is to blow away enemies, the player’s job is to meet the Sims’ fundamental needs (like Hunger or Fun).

{page break}


As the game progresses, there are more inhabitants to follow and account for, desperate fake people rushing at you, full of need. If the Sim world becomes overpopulated, neglected members descend into depression—or die. “Fire, electrocution, drowning, sickness,” Jon explains. “After they die they can come back as a ghost and haunt the family.” The goal is to make every last Sim happy and healthy and free of ghosts.

Spore departs from the human world of the Sims; no people here, just creatures. As an “evolution game” replete with aliens, UFOs, creatures with mysterious death rays, and a form of communication called the “crop circle tool,” it is clearly targeted toward fans of science fiction and strategy games.

Spore players must pass through five phases: Cell, Creature, Tribal, Civilization, and Space. In Spore, evolution is advertised not as science but as escape: “Tired of your planet?” touts one promotion, “Build a new one!” A television commercial asks casually, “What do you want to be when you evolve?”

We drive back from the mall in Jon’s souped-up 450-horsepower Dodge Charger SRT8, a shiny gas guzzler built to break speed limits. The car is his spaceship—a transport vehicle that might whiz him through the galaxy of I-5 rush hour in record time—if he doesn’t run into any trouble. Jon is still tired from an end-of-summer road trip the day before, a sort of farewell party before his solitary mission into the land of Spore. If the term road trip conjures up an image of bodies crammed together, flesh to flesh, Jon and his friends maintained a gamers’ isolation: They traveled alone in their own tricked-out cars—“One guy even had a Ferrari,” says Jon—revving their engines, heading toward Leavenworth, keeping in touch through hands-free phones, congregating for a beer, only to get back into their separate machines.

We arrive at Jon’s apartment on Queen Anne Hill, a one bedroom stacked with science-fiction books, games, movies, and a prominently displayed model of the Star Wars Millennium Falcon spaceship made entirely of Legos. There’s an enormous flat-screen TV and an enormous cat named Cletus. Jon’s place is a boy-boy apartment, not a scented candle in sight. At times it devolves into a kingdom of fetid socks. Yet he has been known to go into cleaning frenzies, usually in anticipation of a visit from Mom. On these occasions his bed is made military style; one could bounce a coin off of it.

Saturday, 10am. In the beginning there is the cell, floating through a primordial sea, deep blue water pulsing with life-forms vibrating with distant, screeching sounds. Monstrous shadows fill the depths. Jon’s role: Fashion a cell that can survive, evolve, multiply, and “win” when it reaches the center of the galaxy in billions of years. He names his cell Chomper, and using a dropdown menu, chooses to make it a carnivore. Darting through the ocean, avoiding gelatinous blobs that spew purple poison spray, Chomper eats anything red.

When Jon’s cell has grown strong enough, it lets out a raspy, impatient mating call and reproduces. Cartoon hearts and Carpenters-style instrumentals celebrate the happy event. Soon afterward somebody lays an egg. As Jon accumulates points, he spends them on evolutionary improvements—fins or some of that purply poison. Chomper becomes an omnivore. Now the thing also seeks out green leafy stuff, feasting on more salad than I have ever seen Jon eat in my years of knowing him.
“The world is getting more violent,” he says, as creatures rise from the depths. “I need some spikes.” Outside the hordes swarm around Queen Anne in search of brunch like ravenous cells. Jon has downed two Coke Zeros.

Within two hours, Jon’s cell swims ashore. He has achieved Landfall and the Creature phase. A small bar in the center of the screen declares “Congratulations!” and welcomes Chomper to his “Homeworld.” Jon names the world Cletus, after his cat.

On land, Chomper grows a spine and a small brain. Using _Spore_’s Creature Creator, Jon pieces together a dinosaur-like guy, selecting parts from a massive menu. A click of the mouse can reshape the body and determine the creature’s final fate. Four legs or six? Tusks or horns? Wings or a tail? Jon fusses with color until he finds a certain shade of purple. Throughout the process the creature shakes or moans, paws the ground, impatient to be finished. The final touch: four suction feet.

Since Jon has reached Landfall so quickly, I ask him if Spore might be an easier game than he had anticipated. Maybe he will finish in a day? He reminds me: Space, Space is the phase that is supposed to really get you.

On land the creature finds a cartoon paradise, all birdsong and wildflowers. Yet soon violent rainstorms wash out habitat, UFOs appear on the horizon, hostile species eat Chomper for dinner. The suction feet were no help at all. Given his gentle nature, throughout the game Jon always takes the diplomatic route before gobbling up an enemy or blowing up its home. Diplomacy takes many forms, the most striking of which is back-and-forth singing between life-forms, Close Encounters style. As he confronts a blubbery pink species, Jon’s purple beast blurts out a few wavering notes. The blubbery guy sings back and they move a little closer to each other.

But of course diplomacy can fail. Jon’s creature returns to the nest only to find it destroyed. When his singing displeases an adversary, it runs Chomper down and eats his insides (cue sound of bones cracking). When a creature dies in Spore, it doesn’t have to go back to the Cell phase; it starts over right at the point where it bit the dust. But unless the player successfully adapts, the creature will be stuck in an evolutionary backwater, a small-brained species constantly dying out.

Soon Jon determines, “I need to figure out how to stop dying… I need some guys.” It is not a surprising conclusion—as a Navy petty officer and a Thales employee, Jon has lived in a world dominated by “guys” for all of his adult life. He has learned the value of traveling in a pack.

As he gathers points he earns the abilities to sneak and charm. By late afternoon he has charmed his way into enough alliances to evolve and enter the Tribal phase. Billions of years have passed since his cell started chewing up little red chunks.
Tribal creatures live in huts in what looks like a Lewis and Clark encampment. Now Jon controls a small population of his creatures, and they journey into the world to befriend other species, blow up hostile villages, or find food. If they starve for too long, they start to die off. “I got equipment for the guys in my tribe to fish, but there is a monster in the water, so every time I fish he kills my guys,” Jon laments.

{page break}

Jon’s phone beeps. It’s the Ferrari guy from his road trip texting a bit of news. On the way home, he’d been pulled over and given an $800 speeding ticket. “AHHHH,” Jon shouts, laughing a little. One of his tribe had been taken out, stopped midflight by that little phrase: Sir, do you know how fast you were going?

In his job at Thales, Jon must always be ready for a crisis: An instrument needs a repair before a plane can take off, for instance. He spends much of his time in a vast lab where employees wear white coats and speak in low voices. The work is both repetitive and urgent, a lot like tasks he performed for the Navy—fixing computers and learning electronics, wondering if he’d be called to a war zone. (He never was, although he was once commanded to fire on a fisherman who had tied his boat to the ship on a night of rough water. Jon disobeyed the order.)

Thales is contracted by Boeing, Airbus, and the U.S. military, among others. Company literature describes the company as “a leading defense contractor and a major player in civil and commercial markets.” Roughly translated, their work helps civilian planes fly and land safely, and war planes efficiently blow up enemy targets. All of it falls under the mission of making a “safer world.”
As inspector, Jon signs off on FAA forms that clear a part for placement on a plane. The finality of writing his signature is a central cause of job stress. “I am basically telling a pilot, ‘This is safe,’ ” he says, as his Spore vacation stretches out before him, days and days where he will not have to sign anything.

Sunday at dusk. Jon finally makes it to the Civilization phase. Here he is the deity of his own city, designing buildings and houses, weapons to guard the perimeter. Jon plays architect for hours—adjusting Factory smokestacks so they almost look like outstretched arms, carefully placing a floodlight so it always looks like premiere night at the Entertainment Center. (In a remarkable bit of subliminal advertising, the game requires all cities to have both a Factory and an Entertainment Center. “The factories make people sad,” Jon explains, “so you need the entertainment to make them happy.”)

As game play in The Sims progresses, there are more inhabitants to follow and account for, desperate fake people rushing at you, full of need.

Once his city is built, he’s assigned a mission: Colonize and conquer all the cities on the planet. When the last city surrenders and Jon is ready for Space, he has played fairly steadily for 10 hours and consumed three Cokes and two ice cream bars. His resources are low; he’s like a Sim who gets irrational when his fuel runs out. He pauses to feed on a spaghetti dinner.

Carbs coursing through him, Jon builds a menacing, gray spaceship and takes off to explore the planets surrounding Cletus. From high up, Jon trains a lens onto a planet’s surface and suddenly has a clear view of an alien world: perhaps an extinct civilization or a fully functioning one with architecture entirely different from his own. All this dreamy flying around looking at things—not a good idea. He keeps getting blown apart. At 12:43am, after being zapped one too many times by a superior alien ship, after seeing his vessel crumple like an empty beer can in the hand of a frat boy, he gives up and goes to sleep. Maybe he is not one of the fittest, not one who was meant to survive outer space?

On Monday morning he is stalled early in the Space phase, at the rank of Admiral. To finish the game, Jon must continue, over millions of years, to advance from Admiral to Celebrated, Renowned, Great, Legendary, Ultimate, and finally Omnipotent. Right now, though, the aliens are winning. “I have lost half my homeworld,” he laments around 9:30. It becomes clear to him that to survive he needs a mission at all times: to set up a spice trade with another planet, or buy an alliance. He can improve relations with other colonies if he earns enough points to buy a Happy Ray: Just shoot the thing down on them, and they forget they were supposed to be afraid.

Once Jon adds it to his arsenal, the Happy Ray starts to do its work, but wars still break out and pirates attack out of nowhere. By three o’clock Jon’s head aches. He decides to lie down and read the instructions. “I want to know if there is anything I don’t know.”

Four hours later, Jon awakens from a nap to find that his allies are going to war with each other. They ask Jon to give them aid, “but when I don’t help them they don’t like me. I pay them more money to keep them happy.”

By 11pm he makes it all the way to Great and goes to bed.

Tuesday, Jon wakes early, around 7:30. Bad news has arrived from the outer world: This will be his last Spore day. The week of freedom has been cut short. He has been called back to Thales to ready the lab for an inspection. “I heard this might happen,” he says, his voice heavy with disappointment.

He accelerates as the end of his vacation looms, the mouse clicking so rapidly I feel myself getting carpal tunnel syndrome just watching him. His frustration erupts (“Get away from me!”), yet as seriously as he takes the game, it doesn’t seem to raise his blood pressure (a calm shared by many hardcore gamers). More planets submit to his rule, and he becomes Legendary. The homeworld contacts his ship—they need him to construct more colonies—“But I am blowing them off,” he says. By midafternoon he earns the privilege to fly through black holes, a much-coveted skill, enabling him to move through the galaxy in an instant. The only danger: He never knows exactly where he will end up.

By 5pm he has advanced to the Ultimate level. One more to go. All the Coke Zeros are gone. He rations out some Hamburger Helper for the last surge. “I think there is a chance I will finish tonight.” As the dark comes down outside, Jon attains Omnipotence. But formidable enemies await: the Grox, who control every system in the galactic core. “I didn’t realize this,” Jon tells me, “until I was well into their territory.” Before he can escape to the relative safety of a black hole, the Grox declare war and demolish Jon’s ship.

Jon tries to sound upbeat. “I just need to figure out a place where I can retreat in battle without going all the way home.”

Killed on the verge of his greatest glory, Jon exits his universe. Like a creature resurfacing, tonight Jon must shave, wash clothes, and locate socks and shoes.

It’s 7:30pm and tomorrow’s workday looms like a planet way more powerful than his Spore homeworld. He must meet the needs of the other species in his world. He already hears the voices: Jon, Jon, can I see you over here? Can you sign off on this? Yet, even as he closes the box on Spore, the game remains as mysterious as anything he might have found out there in the crowded city—a place he did not build and will never control. Someday soon, he hopes, he will reach the center of the galaxy and find the secret paradise rumored to be hidden there.

Filed under