Games for nature

February 24, 2012
From left: Bill Adams, Bruno Monteferri, Chris Sandbrook. Credit: Mark Mniszko

Can digital games and virtual worlds help us save nature? Conservation scientists Bruno Monteferri, Chris Sandbrook and Bill Adams explore whether computer gaming is a new frontier for conservation.

Deep in the rainforest, a monkey runs down a river, leaping from log to log over the mouths of the waiting crocs. So begins Congo Jones and the Loggers of Doom, a that challenges players to work alongside local communities to protect the Congo rainforest from loggers. Offered free by a UK charity that supports , the is just one example of a new trend in the gaming industry towards games relevant for biodiversity .

The emergence of such games is perhaps not surprising. Computer gaming is expanding fast. Worth $29 billion worldwide in 2005, the industry reached $40 billion by 2010. The underlying technology is advancing at an unbelievable pace, stretching media to unexpected places.

However, astonishing graphics are not the main factor driving people towards playing digital games. According to Tom Chatfield (author of Fun Inc.), “the games industry has discovered that the most successful games of all are those that come closest to real life, not in terms of ever more realistic sounds and images, but in terms of social interaction and interfaces with the human world.” On both counts, conservation ticks the boxes.

Although debate has begun about the implications for the of ‘games going green’, the risks and opportunities for have as yet been little explored. Can games adequately explain the complex ecological, political and social basis of biodiversity loss? Will virtual nature start to outshine living nature in the eyes of a game-obsessed world? Or can games engage a generation who have already lost contact with wild nature?

For the past six months, we have been running a pilot project to address such questions, culminating in a recent workshop for conservation organisations and game development companies, and funded by the Cambridge Conservation Initiative. Our goal is to promote a platform for potential collaboration and research on the use of games for nature conservation purposes.

But why should conservation organisations care about games for nature? Video games are an increasingly important social force. In the USA, 87% of the population play video games. Globally, half a billion people play online games for at least an hour a day. Games are also not the preserve of the homework-shy schoolchild: the average age of gamers is about 30.

Is this a good thing? Many commentators say it’s not, pointing in particular to the violence of games like Halo or Grand Theft Auto. Others disagree. Jane McGonigal, author of Reality is Broken: How games make us better and how they can change the world, argues that video games are a powerful platform to solve global problems. Another commentator, Tom Bissell, in Extra Lives: why video games matter, says much the same, tracing the power of gaming narratives to engage the player in ways that literature, music, film and visual art cannot.

So if video games are taking over the worlds of leisure and social interaction, and forming the world that people – particularly younger people – live in, what implications does this have for traditional areas of social concern, such as the environment? There are a number of games about human use and abuse of nature, such as Red Redemption’s Fate of the World. These form part of a growing field of ‘serious games’ with a social context and purpose: the antithesis perhaps of the classic ‘post-apocalypse’ warring worlds of popular imagination.

Moreover, conservation organisations have started using the underlying principles of games to make conservation initiatives more engaging for audiences. For instance, a number of games are being developed that require players to carry out activities in both virtual and real worlds, creating new opportunities for nature conservation.

In the course of this pilot project and workshop, have we answered all our questions? Unsurprisingly, we have not. Did we conclude that they were important? Absolutely: gaming is a deadly serious industry whose business depends on the pleasure it gives its customers, but it also has a vital role to play in shaping the way decisions are made about human use of nature. As Bissell argues in Extra Lives, “we’re going to change the world and entertain in a way that nothing else ever has.” That’s a promise no conservationist (and indeed no university) can afford to ignore.

Explore further: Smithsonian holds vote on video games for exhibit

Related Stories

Smithsonian holds vote on video games for exhibit

February 21, 2011

(AP) -- The Smithsonian American Art Museum is asking the public to help select video games that will be included in its first exhibit to explore the art and visual effects of gaming.

What makes gamers keep gaming?

December 9, 2010

( -- Creating Wikipedia has so far taken about 100 million hours of work, while people spend twice that many hours playing World of Warcraft in a single week, notes Jane McGonigal, a game designer and researcher ...

The family that plays together stays together?

April 21, 2011

( -- “Get off the computer and go play outside.” So go the words heard in homes around the country as parents and children clash over the social benefits of video games.

Video games shown to improve vision

March 15, 2007

According to a new study from the University of Rochester, playing action video games sharpens vision. In tests of visual acuity that assess the ability to see objects accurately in a cluttered space, game players scored ...

Recommended for you

A not-quite-random walk demystifies the algorithm

December 15, 2017

The algorithm is having a cultural moment. Originally a math and computer science term, algorithms are now used to account for everything from military drone strikes and financial market forecasts to Google search results.

US faces moment of truth on 'net neutrality'

December 14, 2017

The acrimonious battle over "net neutrality" in America comes to a head Thursday with a US agency set to vote to roll back rules enacted two years earlier aimed at preventing a "two-speed" internet.

FCC votes along party lines to end 'net neutrality' (Update)

December 14, 2017

The Federal Communications Commission repealed the Obama-era "net neutrality" rules Thursday, giving internet service providers like Verizon, Comcast and AT&T a free hand to slow or block websites and apps as they see fit ...

The wet road to fast and stable batteries

December 14, 2017

An international team of scientists—including several researchers from the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory—has discovered an anode battery material with superfast charging and stable operation ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Feb 26, 2012
of course this is going to work, kids can just stay inside and play games to experience nature where they can think about how their gonna save it with only two of the five power packs they need as well as 1500 exp and its gonna take at least 25 solar panels to clean up that massive oil spill. lucky they still got thirteen lives left.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.