Gaming for Good: Developing Wildlife Empathy and Encouraging Conservation Behaviors
Growing up, I had access to hundreds of games at the touch of a fingertip—the sounds of Fun Run, Fruit Ninja, and Flappy Bird filled our classrooms when free time abounded in high school. And while I’d like to think those games didn’t affect my formative years, research shows that mobile gaming addiction (which I can confidently claim was experienced by my friends and myself at some time during our childhood) is linked with social anxiety, depression, and loneliness in adolescents (Wang et al., 2019).
But, despite this, mobile gaming probably won’t be going anywhere anytime soon, as touch screen gadgets, including mobile phones and tablets, are becoming more available to Americans of all ages.
Approximately 80% of American adults own smartphones (Demographics, 2020), which have become one of the main gaming platforms (Spajic, 2020). Not only that, but gaming applications for mobile devices have become one of the most downloaded and used application categories among both Android and IOS users (Spajic, 2020). Not only do the majority of adults own smartphones, but over half of American kids own a smartphone by the time they turn 11 (Kamentez, 2019). As a result, mobile gaming is a popular pastime for kids and young adults. In one survey, 46% of youth aged 13-18 were found to play mobile games (Clement, 2021). But this number might be increasing- data suggests mobile gaming is only becoming more popular. In 2021, NPD research found that ages 2-12 experienced a 9% growth in mobile gamers, while ages 13 to 24 experienced a 3% increase. This leaves us with a growing population of children and young adults becoming mobile gamers and therefore more opportunities for an increase in mobile game addiction.
Intrinsic motivators have been linked to both conservation behavior (Young, 1986) and community participation (Souto et al., 2014).
This makes mobile games and devices sound kind of evil, doesn’t it? But, what if we flipped the script and used mobile gaming for good?
Our planet is undergoing an increased rate of biodiversity loss that could lead to 60% of Earth’s species being lost within the next 500 years (Freeman, 2013), which is why we environmental educators are determined to act now. Community education and participation in conservation action have become crucial to the success of environmental management programs (Jacobsen et al., 2015) But how do we encourage community understanding and participation in conservation behaviors? Intrinsic motivation could be the answer! Intrinsic motivations lead to the act of participating in a behavior that results in personal satisfaction (Young, 1986). I’m positive that most of us have participated in hobbies, such as cooking, drawing, or even gaming, for fun- and if you have, you experienced an intrinsic motivator! Intrinsic motivators have been linked to both conservation behavior (Young, 1986) and community participation (Souto et al., 2014).
Intrinsic motivators have played a powerful role in my own life. Throughout my childhood, my aunt worked at a Fossil Rim Wildlife Center, a conservation center in Glen Rose, Texas. There I was exposed to critical conservation messaging by being provided personalized, up-close experiences with endangered species. Through these experiences, I developed a sense of empathy and responsibility to protect these species imperiled by human actions and behaviors. Over time, these motivations propelled me into a B.S. in Wildlife and Fisheries, a career in zookeeping, and my master’s degree program with Project Dragonfly. Wildlife empathy, that motivator I experienced to establish a career, is a concept that should be considered when developing community interest in conservation action (Owen & Kahlil, 2019). But, for many, those personalized encounters with cheetahs, maned wolves, and rhinos (oh my!) aren’t easily accessible- so what if we use a popular pastime that is more easily accessible to encourage wildlife empathy and conservation behaviors?
Shockingly, I’m referring to mobile gaming. Mobile gaming can play a powerful role in engaging players by framing conversations and wildlife such that animals are seen as the animate objects they are, as well as increasing knowledge, providing new experiences, and activating imaginations, which are several methods described by Owen and Khalil (2019) to increase wildlife empathy. Childhood is especially important in developing empathy, as the younger the brain, the simpler it is to change or build one’s patterns of thinking (Owen & Khalil, 2019). Media has been shown to play a powerful role in using storytelling on TV to teach children pro-social values, so, what if we just switched the media type to mobile games (Uhl et al., 2017)?
Thankfully, there are already several options available for mobile games to encourage wildlife empathy and pro-environmental behavior.
Check out this resource compilation of games. Share in the comments below any other games you’ve experienced that can encourage conservation behaviors!
Clements, J. (2021). Share of teenagers playing video games daily in the U.S. 2019, by platform. Retrieved March 4, 2022, from https://www.statista.com/statistics/1128294/video-games-frequency-childr...
Demographics of Mobile Device Ownership and Adoption in the United States. (2020). Retrieved July 10, 2020, from https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/fact-sheet/mobile/
Freeman, S. (2013). Biological Science. 5th edition. Pearson & Benjamin/Cummings Publishing Company, Inc. (Chapter 57 - Conservation Biology).
Internet of Elephants. (n.d.) Wildeverse. Retrieved March 30, 2022, from https://www.internetofelephants.com/wildeverse.
Jacobson, S., McDuff, M., & Monroe, M. (2015). Chapter 1: Designing successful conservation and education outreach. In Conservation Education and Outreach Techniques (pp. 6-32). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Kamenetz, A. (2019). It's a smartphone life: More than half of U.S. children now have one. NPR. Retrieved February 28, 2022, from https://www.npr.org/2019/10/31/774838891/its-a-smartphone-life-more-than...
NPD. (2021). Mobile gaming has seen significant growth in terms of overall participation and engagement across all demographic groups. Retrieved April 4, 2022, from https://www.npd.com/news/press-releases/2021/65-of-americans-and-canadia....
On the Edge. (n.d.-a). Kakapo Run. Retrieved March 30, 2022, from https://www.ontheedge.org/games/kakapo.
On the Edge. (n.d.-b). Save the Purple Frog. Retrieved March 30, 2022, from https://www.ontheedge.org/games/purple-frog.
Owen, K., & Khalil, K. (2019). Best practices in developing empathy toward wildlife. Seattle Aquarium, 1-20.
Paperbark Game. (2018). Paperbark. Retrieved March 20, 2022, from https://paperbarkgame.com/#/.
Souto, T., Deichmann, J., Núñez, C., Alonso, A. (2014). Classifying conservation targets based on the origin of motivation: implications over the success of community-based conservation projects. Biodiversity and Conservation, (23:5),
Spajic, D. (2020). Mobile gaming statistics for 2019. Retrieved July 10, 2020, from https://kommandotech.com/statistics/mobile-gaming-statistics/.
Uhls, Y., Felt, L., & Wong, K. (2017). Character Is Common Sense: A Report on an Initiative Linking Media, Kids, and Character Strengths. Common Sense. Retrieved from https://www.commonsensemedia.org/sites/default/files/research/report/201...
Wang, J.-L., Sheng, J.-R., & Wang, H.-Z. (2019). The association between mobile game addiction and depression, social anxiety, and loneliness. Frontiers in Public Health, 7. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpubh.2019.00247
Young, R. (1986). Encouraging environmentally appropriate behavior: The role of intrinsic motivation. Journal of Environmental Systems, 15(4), 281-292.