The Conservation Game

Watching the football World Cup in recent weeks, I was struck again and again by the images from cameras roaming the stadium, pulling out faces from the crowd. As matches moved into extra time, or the torture of penalties, they showed close ups of people in extremes of excitement, torment, delight or grief. I was reminded of my Mother’s dismissal of football on the television: ‘how ridiculous, it’s only a game’: perhaps the passion was less visible in those black and white days. Or perhaps she, like many people faced with televised sport-fests today, saw games as a distraction from more important things. Certainly the poet Rudyard Kipling, despite his romantic portrayal of the ‘Great Game’ in Kim, was dubious about their significance. In The Islanders he castigated those distracted from national needs by ‘the flannelled fool at the wickets or the muddied oaf at the goals’. For Kipling some things were too serious for games.

Is conservation something that is too serious for fun? Chris Sandbrook, Bruno Monteferri and I did a bit of work back in 2011 to explore this idea, looking specifically at the field of computer and online digital games. Perhaps predictably, we concluded that there was a lot of potential for conservation games: and certainly that conservation needed to be fun if it was to appeal to anyone who did not share the ascetic inclinations of a monastic ecology graduate foreswearing a city career.

We have now written some of our thinking down in a paper in Conservation Letters. This is a Wiley publication, and our employers will not pay to make it open access, but the gist is easily reported here. Basically, we got very excited by three things.

First, games are everywhere. No longer the preserve of the lone joystick-wielding geek, they run on lots of different platforms. The development of games for smart phones (many of them hugely addictive: Angry Birds or Candy Crush anyone?) has made gaming-on-the go ubiquitous in many contexts, while multi-player online games unite people across the web in shared strategic action. It would doubtless have appalled my mother, but digital games are a central element in the lived experience of millions of people.

Second, we thought conservation could learn a lot from the emergence of ‘serious games’ that address real world problems (e.g. Games for Change or the Coventry University Serious Games Institute). Such games are well developed in fields such as medicine and social work, involving both professionals (helping them learn, or think more clearly) and clients and patients (helping them manage their lives). Jane McGonigal makes a great case for the transformative power of serious games.

Third, we got interested in ‘gamification’, the application of elements of game playing such as rules of play, winning points and competition with other players,to activities not normally considered part of a game, such as shopping, exercise or dieting, thereby making them more enjoyable, motivating and rewarding. This is well-established in the retail world, but pops up everywhere. The capacity to ‘like’ material on Facebook, or to give star ratings to Youtube videos, creates a competitive dynamic that encourages users to post and view more material.

We concluded that conservationists might usefully do much more with digital games, especially in work on education and behaviour change, in fundraising and research, and in monitoring and conservation planning. There are risks, of course. First, digital games can be a distraction from real world problems (a digital version of Kipling’s ‘flannelled fool’ problem).   Second, perhaps digital nature will supplant real ‘analogue’ nature: the immersive power of digital versions of reality could provide cognitive rewards that real nature (particularly crowded, impoverished or polluted urban environments) could fail to fulfill, eroding public support for conservation. Third, conservation games may mislead if their modelled or synthesised environments oversimplify or mis-represent real-world problems. So in a game there may always be more ammunition around the corner, lives can be restored, and worlds will re-boot in pristine form. Conservation is complicated, and the simple narratives that are most easily told by games may not always be helpful.

Nonetheless, the potential is there, and being recognised: for example one of the Cambridge Conservation Leadership masters students is featured as a character in a special feature in the multi-player role-playing game Runescape, which allows players to ‘adopt a rhino’ as part of an initiative for the NGO  United for Wildlife. There are also a range of ways to make money from games. In the smartphone world, the obvious way is to design and sell an app. Another is to offer something for free, and then lure the addicted gamer into an upgrade. Another is advertising.

Recently, Chris and I have been thinking of ways to put what we have learned into practice. We are currently working on a new project with Peter Damerell to explore the potential for a conservation computer game using exercise apps.  Exercise apps for smart phones such as Endomondo allow users to record their bike ride or jog and compete against other users through various challenges, providing motivation to do more exercise. They allow you to collect and store information about their runs, walks and bike rides, and to compete against other athletes to see who can go furthest or fastest.

Our idea is simple: how about competing against wild animals? Our project, Race the Wild, is developing the capacity to enable runners, cyclists or walkers with a smartphone to measure their performance against wild animals, linking to real movement data collected by conservation organisations from tagged animals.

Imagine finishing a run and finding out that you’ve completed 5km faster than a wildebeest and were just short of the distance covered by an elephant. Would that motivate you to push towards your next training milestone? What if you could try to match the daily travel distance of an elephant in Kenya for a month, or you and a group of friends could try to clock up as many miles on a bike as a cuckoo migrating back to the UK from its wintering grounds in West Africa?  That is what we would like to make possible. We hope both to make athletes (and the less athletic!) aware of how wild animals negotiate their way around human-dominated landscapes, and that from this we can generate revenue for conservation on the ground.

We are currently running a simple pilot version of this game concept using data from our friends at the Kenyan NGO Space for Giants. This makes it possible to compare your running, cycling or walking schedule with wild elephants, as they plot their way among ranches and fields on the Laikipia Plateau in Kenya.

Fancy the challenge? Then please sign up and give it a go! I don’t know what Kipling would have made of it, but I think my mother would have thought this sounded a properly serious kind of fun.

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4 thoughts on “The Conservation Game

  1. Hi Bill,
    thanks for the interesting post – please make sure to post your own progress. I’d be curious to hear which animals you or Chris outrun. For me, I probably wont even outdo the famous tortoise, but I would bet my money on Dan outrunning pretty much everything except perhaps the cheetah…
    All the best
    Bram

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