Video games for animal conservation

There is no doubt that the media and works of fiction, like novels and films, can contribute greatly to environmental and ecological education. One particular type of medium has grown considerably in the last decade: video games. It is widely known today that games out-perform Hollywood, generating much more revenue than the movie industry (e.g. Chatfield, 2009; McGurk, 2014). As such, it is not a big stretch to think that games can and should have a much more prominent role in eco-environmental education. However, this area still constitutes a tremendous untapped potential as virtually no video game company has dared to explore it.

The game Never Alone explored this opportunity a little and, despite being more focused on culture than ecology, it is a reasonably successful story that serves as an example of my point. Developed by the company Upper One Games and published by E-Line Media, Never Alone launched for multiple platforms in November 2014. The game was made in partnership with Inuit storytellers and is based on Alaskan indigenous stories. The player controls an Iñupiaq girl named Nuna and her arctic fox friend (Fig. 1) and certain in-game actions unlock special “extras”, which are short documentaries about the Arctic, its fauna and its people, focussing mainly on Inuit culture and myths. The critics acclaimed the game’s cultural context and the effort put into the educational aspects. The important message from Never Alone is that one can have an actual game with actual informative content, contrary to educational games used for teaching, which are usually offputting for students (and gamers) and may actually do more harm than good.

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Fig. 1. Scene from Never Alone, showing Nuna and her fox companion. Screenshot of the game taken from Riot Pixels. Copyright Upper One Games and E-Line Media.

Another success story can be found in the world-famous Angry Birds franchise, from Rovio Entertainment Ltd. Rovio took a more direct environmentalist approach and, in a handful of different instances, joined forces with several organisations in actual conservation efforts (e.g. BirdLife International, United for Wildlife, WWF). These efforts were mainly related to birds, of course, but some mammal species also received attention.

The last two years saw the release of two video games that prominently feature animals that usually never get the public’s attention, namely molluscs. These games are Splatoon and Abzû and they will be explored here in turn.

Splatoon was published by Nintendo Co., Ltd. and launched in May 2015 for the Nintendo Wii U console, becoming an instant hit. The game belongs to a genre called “third-person shooter”, but the characters shoot ink instead of bullets. And that is for a very simple reason: they are squids. Named inklings, the creatures from the game can alternate between a cartoonish squid form and a humanoid form, with tentacles springing from their hair (Fig. 2). As argued by Salvador & Cunha (2016), the developing team behind Splatoon took great care to be as biologically accurate as possible with their cartoonish squids, only compromising biology when gameplay features should take precedence. Despite this care in depicting the animals, and the certain awareness about squids Splatoon raised among the gaming community, Nintendo did not take the game one step further. Unfortunately, the company did not invest in the game’s potential for educating players and raising environmental awareness, nor move towards some kind of cephalopod conservation effort.

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Fig. 2. Scene from Splatoon, showing blue and orange inklings (in both humanoid and squid form) battling. Screenshot of the game taken from Riot Pixels. Copyright Nintendo Co., Ltd.

Abzû was developed by the company Giant Squid, published by 505 Games Ltd. and released in August 2016 for the PlayStation 4 console and Microsoft Windows. This game is an underwater adventure focusing on exploration of the sea and peaceful interactions with its fauna. Abzû features artistic, but still reasonably accurate, renditions of several animal species (identified by their common names or, eventually for the more obscure ones, by the genus name) and includes faithful depictions of behaviour, such as predation and shoaling. A remarkable section of the game consists of the player exploring the depths where Architeuthis lives (Fig. 3). Other molluscs include other squid species, octopuses, nautiluses and even a “forgotten animals trove” with living ammonoids.

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Fig. 3. Scene from Abzû showing the giant squid Architeuthis. Screenshot of the game. Copyright Giant Squid and 505 Games Ltd.

It is a shame that games such as Splatoon and Abzû failed to invest in ecological education, because the potential is certainly there. Not only have such games reached lots of people (especially children in the case of Splatoon), they also prominently feature invertebrates, which are typically not a priority in conservation efforts (Wilson, 1987; Salvador & Tomotani, 2014). Raising awareness of these animals, either through the cute cartoonish squids of Splatoon or the awe inspiring “krakens” of Abzû, could go a long way to bringing people to their defense. Moreover, molluscs have been featured in games for a very long time, but usually as monstrous enemies (e.g. Cavallari, 2015). Thus, games that depict these animals as positive protagonists or allies are definitely a change in the right direction.

Naturally, people have already realised that there is this potential of games for education. For instance, Games for Change is a nonprofit corporation, founded in 2004, dedicated to using games as a tool for social change. Although successful, for now few of the games they curate are high profile enough to attract much attention (some exceptions include Never Alone and Life Is Strange). Moreover, besides a couple of games exploring topics such as recycling and global warming, their focus is clearly on society and not on nature, so none of the games has a strong conservation edge. Fortunately, I am not alone in realising that there is this potential, as other academics (who may also be gamers) are also beginning to see this (Dorward et al., 2017). It falls to us to make sure that video game companies also realise this and that this immense untapped force for conservation starts to be explored.


References

  • Cavallari, D.C. 2015. Shells and bytes: mollusks in the 16-bit era. Journal of Geek Studies 2(1): 28-43.
  • Chatfield, T. 2009. Videogames now outperform Hollywood movies. The Guardian 27 September 2009. [accessed 14 October 2016].
  • Dorward, L.J., Mittermeier, J.C., Sandbrook, C., Spooner, F. 2017. Pokémon Go: benefits, costs, and lessons for the conservation movement. Conservation Letters 10(1): 160- 165.
  • McGurk, S. 2014. Gaming special: welcome to the world of grown up gaming. GQ Magazine 21 February 2014. [accessed 14 October 2016].
  • Salvador, R.B. & Cunha, C.M. 2016. Squids, octopuses and lots of ink. Journal of Geek Studies 3(1): 12-26.  [PDF]
  • Salvador, R.B. & Tomotani, B.M. 2014. The Kraken: when myth encounters science. História, Ciências, Saúde – Manguinhos 21(3): 971-994.  [PDF]
  • Wilson, E.O. 1987. The little things that run the world (the importance and conservation of invertebrates). Conservation Biology 1(4): 344-346.

This article was reproduced here on its entirety from Tentacle, IUCN’s newsletter focusing on mollusks (you can check the website [HERE]). A pdf file of the original article (Salvador, R.B. 2017. The unexplored potential of video games for animal conservation. Tentacle 25: 3-5.) can be found [HERE].