Injecting science and nature into video games

Twenty-five years ago on October 18, Nintendo launched its Nintendo Entertainment System in the United States and—depending on your point of view—began a video game revolution that has taken entertainment technology to previously unfathomable heights. Or it has captivated the attention and interest of millions of children and adults, in over two decades of software and console development, prompting Americans to stay indoors and avoid exercise. Perhaps you see it both ways.

On the surface, video games and nature have very little in common. And there are plenty of reasons to think this way: Several studies suggest that spending time outside—which can vary from scaling a mountain to sitting on a park bench and admiring birds—improves cognition, attention and eyesight, and even reduces stress. On the other hand, research has shown that video games can improve reaction time and decision making and even promote lucid dreams.

But no matter the opinions surrounding video games, current statistics from the gaming industry reveal that video games have a hold on American consumers. According to the Entertainment Software Association approximately 67 percent of American households play video games.

As game designer Rusel DeMaria proposed last week at the Ecology and Education Summit, convened by the Ecological Society of America and the National Education Association, video games could be an important, but mostly untapped, medium for disseminating ecological science and environmental literacy. As it stands, the closest thing to an environment in video games is the virtual environment, which usually refers to the setting in which a video game is constructed; this can be anything from a desert landscape to an all-encompassing, multiplayer fantasy universe.

There currently are games that address conservation and even encourage children to get outdoors, such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s free computer game “Neighborhood Explorers.” There are also free games online that teach children about science, and even a video game that furthers research on protein folding. However, as DeMaria mentioned, there are not many science-infused video games—if any—that tap into the billion dollar entertainment gaming industry. There is no reason, DeMaria said, that video games cannot contribute to the public’s understanding of ecology and the environment.

In other words, if roughly 67 percent of American households own a game console, why not create an entertaining video game that is scientifically accurate? The catch, one might argue, is that video games, even if they are about nature, cannot replace going outside. Oliver Pergams from the University of Illinois at Chicago and Patricia Zaradic, director of the Red Rock Institute in Pennsylvania, reported last year that the increase in video game usage has led to a decline in nature recreation. The result, they said in a PLoS ONE study, could be a decline in conservation due to a lack of interest. However, as DeMaria explained last week, if consumers are going to be playing video games anyway, why not pique their interest in the environment by injecting ecological science and nature into the games?

Photo Credit: eightprime

UPDATE: There is an entertainment-oriented “eco-game” available for Apple’s iPad called Tilt.

Author: Katie Kline

Moderator of EcoTone and ESA's communications officer.

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  1. Interesting, thanks.
    The link does not work for “studies” in “Several studies suggest that spending time outside…,” and this is key for anyone wanting to pursue these ideas.

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