By: Brian Crecente
Spore, Will Wright's far-reaching game about life, the universe and everything, is a journey, not just from microscope to universe, but of discovery and imagination.
It's also the clearest example of how, in creating his games, Wright taps so deeply into the principals of his grade-school education which was based on a pedagogy built on child development first formulated more than 100 years ago in Rome.
Because of this, Wright's greatest achievement isn't delivering the universe as toy in Spore, the digital dollhouses of the Sims or even the planned towns of Sim City.
It's his ability to touch a gamer's imagination and inspire their intellect. To create not just games, but places and spaces of exploration
The secret of good teaching is to regard the child's intelligence as a fertile field in which seeds may be sown, to grow under the heat of flaming imagination. Our aim therefore is not merely to make the child understand, and still less to force him to memorize, but so to touch his imagination as to enthuse him to his inner most core. — Maria Montessori
In Montessori schools, the emphasis is on instilling a desire to learn in children, not in lecturing them.
"In western education we take theories, we deconstruct them, we categorize them and then we teach them in classrooms," Wright says. "You are going to a school, going to a master, learning theory before you could go practice it."
"Before that system, it was about practice, it was more of a failure based learning. I think that's almost a more natural approach. It seems that Montessori is going with the grain in that naturalistic sense. It was later we moved to this narrative method, sitting back, listening-to-a-lecture model ."
The pedagogy was developed by Maria Montessori while working with intellectually and developmentally disabled children as part of her post-graduate research. By removing the idea that children were adults in tiny bodies that had to learn through lecture and memorization, and instead focusing on sparking a thirst for knowledge, Montessori found children could direct their own learning.
"Here aim was to arouse in the children a spontaneous response to the materials and I see that in (Will Wright's) games," said Virginia McHugh Goodwin, executive director of the Association Montessori International, USA. "Creativity is a component to his work and that is also key to Montessori's work, because she sets the tone for creativity, the way she has her educational methods set up.
"To be creative you have to have the freedom to explore and to master the specific techniques and that leads to unleashing the human spirit so that the process of creating can come from within."
Montessori's first school opened in 1907 in Rome and her methodologies have since spread around the world. Including to places like Atlanta, Georgia, where Wright attended such a school until sixth grade.
Another important element of Montessori education is the use of self-correcting toys. These Montessori toys allow children to play without realizing they are learning.
"The structure of Montessori toy is that the kid will discover things while playing with a toy," Wright said. "Having the kid discover these principals is so much more powerful than a teacher coming up and saying we're going to learn about this.
"The way we approached Spore was a lot like that. What are the components I want a gamer to discover when playing with this?"
And that's not an unusual approach for Wright. None of his games are really games, he says.
"I build more interesting toys than interesting games," he said. "I always thought of Spore as a toy universe. I think there is an interesting distinction between toy and game. I think a toy is more open ended.
"The game is a subset of the experiences you can have with the toy."
And toys and play, Wright says, go hand-in-hand.
"Play is a toy version of problem solving that we're going to encounter later in life," he said. "Getting people to be playful around serious subjects is the most effective ways to develop an intuition to that.
"It gives us ways to kind of map things intuitively."
An Elegant Tool
"Free the child's potential, and you will transform him into the world" — Maria Montessori
Wright's first experience with Montessori was brief and intense, attending an elementary school in Atlanta until the sixth grade. The school introduced him to the idea of self-directed education through creative inspiration.
"I bring it up every now and the," he said of his Montessori education. "It gives people a grounding of where I am coming from. "
Goodwin says that many Montessori graduates tend to be more interesting in exploring things, in asking a lot of questions.
"They're critical thinkers, problem solvers, because they've had the ability to do that from a very early age," she said.
For Wright, Montessori helped him realise that when he was personally involved or interested in something he learned about it much more efficiently.
"When I was starting to research SimCity I started reading about urban dynamics," he said. "It became more of an obsession, because I was able to play with my guinea pig simulation, instead of trying to learn facts and figures.
"When Sim games started moving forward we wanted to draw that out."
He did that by creating games that were a form of autodidactic toy, that taught by inspiring people to become interested in a subject.
"It's about getting a player creatively engaged," he said. "Computers can get students very motivated to be interested in things."
But Wright contends that Montessori isn't as direct an influence on him as some might think. He doesn't, he says, come up with his idea for games from Montessori.
"I pick themes, things I've been fascinated with, then it's 'How can I convey this to a lot of people?'," he said. "Montessori seems like a very clean, natural way to make these subjects approachable."
Instead, Montessori's influence is more subtle.
"I don't think it's something you work into a game, I think it's inherent in the structure itself," he said. "It's in the design premise.
"It's an elegant tool. It's not the end state goal. It just happens to be the best tool for the job."
Loops of Super Mario Bros.
Never help a child with a task at which he feels he can succeed. - Maria Montessori
As with the Montessori Method, in Wright's games failing is almost as important as winning.
"Montessori knew that children needed freedom to make mistakes, to develop skills that are unique to his or her personality," said Goodwin. "The freedom allows for the development of the creative thinking and the problem solving skills. To be able to look at things from a different perspective.
"Montessori allows for success and failure. She felt that people learned from mistakes. Mistakes are not looked down upon or frowned upon, they are part of the process."
For Wright, that was one of the hardest things to come to grips with as a game designer.
"One of the counter intuitive things I needed to learn as a designer was that players enjoy failures more than success," he said. "As long as it's diverse, they like to explore the failure space of a game."
All games are made up of what Wright calls interaction loops, events that have both a success and failure side to them.
"In Super Mario Brothers, once you succeed at knowing how to make him move you go on to the next step. Now you go up and hit a creature and you fail a different way."
Wright's games have always had a diverse and interesting mix of what Wright terms the failure space.
"It's the failure that's fun," he said.
But what you won't find in Spore is any form of direct completion with other gamers, another tenant found in Montessori teachings.
"Montessori does not encourage competition in the traditional sense," Goodwin said. "The idea with Montessori is that children strive to do the best that they can do."
Instead, in both Spore and Montessori, the emphasis is on collaboration.
"Children learn to collaborate and work with one another and then each child is motivated to reach his or her potential so they can contribute to the project in a collaborative way, their best skills," Goodwin said. "So there is competition, but it is done in a very nice way. And I don't see Wright with a lot of competition in his games."
We especially need imagination in science. It is not all mathematics, nor all logic, but it is somewhat beauty and poetry. - Maria Montessori
Because Wright isn't trying to lecture gamers or teach them the nuance of physics, evolution, of astronomy or biology, the science of Spore wasn't designed to be "dead on accurate".
"If you step way back and look at Spore as a whole it's meant to show a grand arch, the story of life," her said. "The Sims is like the story of life on Earth, Spore is life with a capital L."
"I wanted people to have a sense of the vast scope that their life is inside of. There's a journey in Spore from microscopic to galactic. There aren't too many experiences in games, books or movies that gives you that distant perspective."
And along with that perspective, the different stages of Spore allow a gamer plenty of aesthetic and strategic creativity, all geared at getting players not to learn but to express their creativity.
"A lot of people have a very low opinion of their own creativity," he said. "When you give them a tool to make things that they didn't think they could make it can be very powerful, especially when five or six people comment on it."
Goodwin says Spore "amplifies the imagination."
"When I look at Spore, that's what it seemed to say to me," she said. "That it really uses the imagination.
"Another thing I think I saw with (Wright), is that he is really, really into that idea of discovery and exploration. That is one of the key tenants of Montessori's work. The materials that she designed allow the child to discover. It's manipulative materials that go from something abstract to the concrete."
After the game's launch, Wright and his team started to see people step outside the limitations of Spore and continue to create.
"People were creating narratives of who their people are and how they evolve," he said. "It was really about ownership at some level."
The greatest sign of success for a teacher... is to be able to say, "The children are now working as if I did not exist. — Maria Montessori
The more than four hundred pages of Maria Montessori's book, The Montessori Method, is packed with lessons that seem at times written as much for game development as they are for education.
It often talks of creating a system of rules that don't inhibit, but enhance the experience.
Wright laughs in surprise when I tell him that after reading the book it seems to me that many games treat gamers as children, puppets that are lead through games by a strict set of rules, rules that often harm the experience.
He seems to be agreeing with me when he says that Spore was created to be very player focused.
"Where Montessori is very child centered," he says, "we are very gamer centered."
But modern games aren't as condescending in their design. They expect more now from players.
"If you look at them ten years ago they were more linear," he said. "But now the Sims, Grand Theft Auto, Roller Coaster Tycoon, even the Wii games or music games, they leave a lot more room for creative expression of the player."
And it's that desire to free that expression that seems to keep driving Wright back to Montessori's methods.
"I'm not trying to evangelize Montessori," he said. "I want people to feel creative and involved and feel like they've doing something constructive. Montessori is a great tool for that purpose."