Gamers learning about wildlife by playing

Lone Wolf

Source: Photo by Hans Veth on Unsplash

Yes, you read that right. There is a growing body of evidence that gamers can learn about and engage with the natural world by playing a popular video game! In May 2021, the University of Exeter and Truro and Penwith College in Cornwall published a study: “The educational value of virtual ecologies in Red Dead Redemption 2”. It found that players of this popular video game learnt how to identify wildlife and predict animal behaviour from playing the game.

The study is part of a wave of new research examining the potential educational value of playing video games, and it has captured the attention of educators, historians and naturalists.

Many teachers are already using well-known video games to teach their students in a fun and immersive way. Minecraft is a popular choice, but many other games are also revealing their potential. The University of Exeter study explains that “non-traditional educational formats, including digital technologies, have many benefits, including novelty, immersion, a rich sensory environment and ‘learning through play’”. Video games may become one of our most powerful learning tools: the immersive, sensory learning environment keeps learners interested and entertained.

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Red Dead Redemption 2

Red Dead Redemption 2 (shortened to RDR2) is an AAA video game produced by Rockstar Games. It took about eight years to develop with a team of roughly 1600 people, and a budget exceeding US$100 million (perhaps far more). The lead writer even caused a labour scandal when he announced that the team were working 100-hour weeks. Later the studio published a statement saying that the 100-hour work week only concerned the head writers in the last three weeks of production. Whatever the story, it seems that their hard work paid off.

Andrew Webster of the Verge describes his experience of the game: “the game is absolutely gorgeous with an immense sense of scale. But what struck me during my all-too-brief time with the game wasn’t how huge it was. It was how deep it felt. The way I could walk up to any soul in town and strike up a conversation, or how if I wandered into camp at the right time I could catch all my friends waking up for breakfast, and pour myself a coffee and join them. I saw it most in my horse. Even in just a few hours, we bonded, and I felt terrible when my mistake caused her pain. Red Dead Redemption 2 doesn’t just present a world you can get lost in — it gives you one you’ll become attached to”.

The player assumes the role of Arthur Morgan who is a member of a gang of outlaws. The storyline follows his adventures as he takes part in shootouts, raids and gang conflicts. In the online version of the game, which was released one year later and is called Red Dead Online, players have the chance to customise their character and free roam the open world. Players can also choose to play the role of a naturalist in the online version.

The game is a prequel to the original Red Dead Redemption game and is a fictional depiction of North America in 1899. Players explore “a vast, atmospheric world” at the end of the Wild West era. The world is full of detailed simulations of natural environments, many of which are inspired by real locations: Yosemite Valley, the Californian redwood forests, the Great Plains and the Mississippi Bayou. These virtual ecosystems contain many kinds of wildlife that players can hunt, collect, study and photograph. The animals are as realistic as possible and interact with the player, but also with other animal species and the environment. This really makes the game world feel vibrant and alive. The wildlife in the game was the focus of the University of Exeter study.


Source: Tobias Keller on Unsplash

Wildlife survey results

The University of Exeter researchers created a survey in the form of a quiz, asking participants to identify 15 animal species from the game using photographs. Participants who said that they had played RDR2 received additional questions about their experiences of wildlife and natural environments in the game. The aim of the quiz was to find out whether the people who played the game were better at identifying the wildlife species than non-players. A total of 586 participants from 55 countries completed the quiz.

The median for players of RDR2 was 10 out of 15 correct answers in the multiple-choice section, which was three higher than non-players. These results show that gamers were better at identifying these wildlife species. In the free comments section, some players even reported increased knowledge of animal behaviour. While RDR2 was not developed as an educational game, it shows a clear tendency to improve players’ knowledge of North American wildlife. Quiz scores were higher for people who had played the game recently, who spent more time playing, and who had played in the naturalist role (online version only).

Comments from players reinforced the idea that playing the game had taught them about animal sounds, behaviours and habitats. In particular, the research showed that the players were more knowledgeable about wild game and fish species. This makes sense because players regularly encounter this type of wildlife in the game during hunting and fishing activities. People who played the online Naturalist role were able to identify a broader range of species correctly in the survey; and those who had completed the storyline to the end scored higher than those who had not.

Learning about nature from an entertainment game

While RDR2 is designed to be realistic and scientifically accurate, it remains a work of fiction. Certain animal behaviours were slightly altered to make the game more entertaining and exciting. For example, the predators in the game are far more aggressive than in real life e.g. wolves, bears and cougars. Many of the respondents assumed that these behaviours were an accurate reflection of reality.

The narrative of the game also has an emphasis on rugged, white, masculine colonialism on the frontier. There is a notable lack of female characters. However, the researchers discovered that there were still opportunities for social and ethical reflection. The game contains characters representing alternative world views: Harriet Davenport (naturalist and conservationist), Albert Mason a wildlife photographer, and Rains Fall an American Indian pacifist who encourages players not to kill wolves. Hunting is rendered in stark realism, with animals “visibly distressed” when wounded, which caused some players to feel guilty and question their actions. Skinning of animals is appropriately graphic. Players are able to hunt animals to extinction and pollute waterways through their mining activities.

The researchers noted that “a handful of participants felt inspired: to learn more about wildlife, take up photography or just appreciate real-world biodiversity around them”, adding that “scaled up to 36 million players worldwide, many of whom have little access to the diverse ecosystems featured in RDR2, it is possible that this immersive game has had no small impact on thousands of players’ ecological understanding and appreciation. This would be a valuable direction for future research”.


Source: Photo by Hannah Grace on Unsplash

Why video games? Why not just go outside?

Some people might be wondering at this point, why researchers would want to spend money on creating connections to nature using video games, instead of looking for ways to encourage people to spend more time outdoors. As a New Zealander, we have many opportunities to interact with nature and most of us have gardens at home or parks nearby, and our schools are usually filled with greenery. So, the answer seems simple: make people go outside more! Why waste time getting people connected to nature through a video game.

The researchers say that they are aware of the limitations of what they call “vicarious” experiences of nature. In short, a “vicarious experience” of nature is experiencing the natural world by reading a book, watching a documentary or playing a video game. They realise that “playing video games is often perceived as the antithesis of experiencing the natural world” and that “digital media compete for time with ‘nature-based’ activities”. Most importantly, less time spent outdoors in natural spaces has been connected with negative health and well-being, and even with lower participation in pro-environmental behaviours. All the same, these “vicarious experiences” of nature have always existed in the form of “artistic depictions, tales and received knowledge of the biophysical world” which are often “central to the transmission of ecological knowledge”. And today, not everyone has the luxury of spending time outdoors in natural spaces the way we can in Aotearoa.

Of course, we can’t find North American wildlife from the 19th century outside in the garden either. So, video games could provide a useful tool to add to our educational toolbox. If people can see a dodo bird or a moa and interact with it then perhaps they will be more likely to care about the fact these creatures no longer exist. That’s what nature conservationists interested in video games hope anyway. Perhaps people will take more interest in nature conservation if they see what we’ve already lost or what is threatened with extinction right now, whether it be a forest, a type of fish a river or a landscape, either virtual or real.

With urban sprawl and shrinking forests, virtual experiences of nature are starting to outnumber lived experiences of nature in many parts of the world. The “calls for reconnecting people, and children especially, with nature often revolve around recreating experiences of previous generations, assuming these will lead to pro-environmental behaviours”, but in many places this is no longer possible. As such, these calls for “real experiences” of nature are also often nostalgic and idealised experiences that are out of sync with many people’s day-to-day reality. In other words, let’s embrace both vicarious and real experiences of nature whenever and wherever we can. And honestly, there is nowhere else, in my local area anyway, that allows me to experience the landscapes and wildlife of North America, and in particular the 19th century versions. That, in itself, has to be worth something… A chance to see the world before it was criss-crossed with motorways. That’s a fantastic opportunity.

Educational games miss their mark

The problem with games designed to be educational, for example nature-oriented games, is that they mainly appeal to people who are already interested in nature. In other words, they’re ineffective because they don’t encourage the people who need more encouragement to take an interest. They preach to the converted and don’t reach anyone new. Moreover, educational video games are unpopular if they are perceived as being “educational” and they have much smaller budgets than a game like RDR2. They are usually disappointing gaming experiences for people who are used to playing AAA games.

On the contrary, the researchers’ hope is that “games that are not designed to be educational, and that already reach broad audiences, might nevertheless contribute to ecological education”. In short, “if educational games are unpopular, can popular games be educational?” While the researchers stress that they are not suggesting that virtual experiences should replace lived experiences, they conclude that “there is clearly a role for simulated wildlife and ecosystems in environmental education and engagement. Big budget entertainment games can educate and maybe even inspire people, even if it is not part of their mission statement” and these games should “be taken seriously as a communicative force”. Immersive gameplay and active learning seem to be the key to knowledge retention. And while knowing that a species exists is no guarantee that it will make the person care about it, you certainly can’t try and protect or advocate for something that is completely out of your radar.

Many children and adults today have very poor knowledge of the natural world. The study of natural history in schools has been declining in recent decades around the world. As an example, and not a recent one, the University of Exeter researchers cite a study from 2002 that showed that children in the UK were better able to identify species of Pokémon than they could British wildlife. The moral of the story is that conservationists have been much less effective at teaching kids about species diversity and identification than Nintendo and The Pokémon Company have. RDR2, while not suitable for children, is the proof that a popular video game designed for entertainment value, can serve educational purposes through its simulation of a real-world ecosystem.

Other promising video games for learning

There are many other games that show promise as educational tools. Gran Turismo has been used by police in Lancashire to improve their high-speed driving skills. Flight simulators have been used in the aviation industry for decades. Minecraft is being used in schools to help kids and teens improve their 3D building skills, spatial reasoning skills and has also been used to help kids connect with their classmates during the pandemic.

Assassin’s Creed is praised by historians for recreating various historical periods, such as the French Revolution, the Seven Years’ War, Victorian London, Imperial Rome, Ancient Egypt and Ancient Greece. Historians have been impressed by the dedication to historical detail by the game’s developer, Ubisoft. A 2019 study found that students of history enjoy playing Assassin’s Creed for the “sense of immediate access to history” that it provides (in contrast with school-based learning) and “a sense of human connection to people in the past, and increased perception of multiple perspectives in history”. It manages to bring history to life. This is important in a subject that’s sometimes criticised as being too dry or “only about dead people”!

One of the most promising things in Assassin’s Creed is the Discovery Tour mode. This is a free update to the base game (also available as standalone software) that allows players to freely roam through the game worlds of Ancient Egypt (Origins) and Ancient Greece (Odyssey). It is even possible to take a Guided Tour that will walk you through locations in the game with a commentary about life in the ancient world. This content has been described by players and historians alike as a virtual museum. The level of detail is breathtaking in many of the iconic environments and buildings, like the Notre Dame Cathedral (in Assassin’s Creed Unity). Caroline Miousse is said to have taken two years to recreate the building inside and out. When the monument burned down in 2019, many gamer fans suggested that Ubisoft’s research should be used in the rebuilding project. While this is unlikely to happen, it’s true that such detailed historic recreations of buildings and environments may prove useful in many areas other than gaming. As games become increasingly intricate, immersive and accurate they are opening up a new world of possibilities. Imagine a day, when instead of sitting at a desk in history class, you can put on a VR headset and walk through Ancient Rome with your teacher or classmates. Maybe we could even learn Latin in Ancient Rome on an Assassin’s Creed Discovery Tour.

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