Earth: A Primer is like a geology textbook for the Diamond Age: an iPad app in the style of Neil Ardley and David Macaulay's The Way Things Work that explains and simulates the ways in which lava, wind, temperature, and water shape our planet. It even has a built-in simulator that lets a reader play god, channelling millennia worth of unfathomable geological forces through their fingertips as they carve out canyons, grow volcanos, smash continents together, and more.
Designed by programmer Chaim Gingold, is so effortlessly beautiful that as I messed around with it, I thought it was bound to show up in an official Apple ad one day or another. That's how perfectly it realizes the promise of a truly interactive textbook. Yet Earth: A Primer did not start as a book at all. It started as a galaxy-spanning game—someone else's galaxy-spanning game.
The path to Earth: A Primer begins with Will Wright, a legendary game designer responsible for EA's classic SimCity games. Wright, hot off of his creations of the first Sims game, was looking for a new idea for a game in 2002. After watching Charles and Ray Eames's classic short film, Powers of 10, Wright had an epiphany: what if you modeled life in a video game the same way, simulating single-celled organisms in the primordial ooze and then expanding the scale, layer by layer, until you were modeling an entire galactic civilization?
Wright called his game idea Spore, and Gingold, hearing Wright talk about it at the Game Developer's Conference in 2002, was riveted. A Georgia Tech PhD student at the time, he asked Wright if he needed an intern. So the Sims creator gave him a challenge: if Gingold had to model any civilization in the universe using ten (and only ten) parameters, what would they be? Gingold hit the library, read the influential historical text Guns, Germs, and Steel, and wrote his response: a list of 10 civilization-building variables ranging from cultural identity to the way creatures experience time.
Gingold's answer impressed Wright, and from there spent the next six years—first as an intern, and then an employee of Wright's studio Maxis—building a series of tools for the Spore project. Some, like the creature builder, can be seen in the finished game. Others, like a a Powers of 10-style architecture simulator, never saw the light of day.
Gingold left Maxis a year before Spore was released, ultimately realizing that he was working in the wrong medium. Spore was well received both critically and commercially, though it was not the success that, say, The Sims was. One thing critics noted was that it was more a collection of simulations than a game in its own right, which Gingold says the team was aware of as early as 2004. "There was this huge universe, but no real gameplay path through it yet," he says. "It was as much of an existential question as life is: this big, empty cosmos, staring indifferent at the player."
But Gingold loved making simulators, and after leaving Maxis, he spent the next few years creating a "treasure trove" of prototypes that simulated various systems. But while these simulations were intellectually fascinating, they just stared blankly at the player no matter how they fit together. Then, in 2011, Gingold had an epiphany: maybe he wasn't working on a game. Maybe he was working on a book.
"One of the most important experiences for me is a sense of wonder in the natural world," says Gingold. "I'll never forget seeing Cosmos for the first time, and experiencing this sense of my own smallness and how interconnected the world I lived in was. I've always wanted to help other people see things that way, but I think I was doing it in the wrong genre."
As such Earth: A Primer is the natural convergence of an entire life's worth of influences: people like Jared Diamond, David Macaulay, Charles and Ray Eames, and Will Wright; the mountains he was surrounded by growing up in West Virginia's coal country; his love of using logic to figure out how to model what the universe manages naturally. Yet ultimately, what makes him happiest about the interactive book is seeing what other people get out of it.
"My agenda as a designer in this project was to push forward the conversation about what interactive books can be like," he tells me. "The other day, I was showing it off on Facebook, and my old first grade teacher, Miss Pickles, told me how she wished they'd had textbooks like this back in her day. I hope other people love it as much as she does."
You can download Earth: A Primer from the App Store for $10 here.