By Annam Raza
How many of us have actually dived in the Great Barrier Reef? Or explored the waters off the coast of Costa Rica? I haven’t; despite growing up near the Persian Gulf, and going to university right next to the Pacific Ocean, I never got around to getting a scuba license. My interest in seeing the ocean was whetted by pictures or documentaries, a vicarious exploration of a foreign world, guided by a photographer or cameraman. A glimpse of an intriguing fish flitting away into the distance would often make me wish I could turn to follow it, but that was a privilege reserved for the actual diver, not the viewer safe in the comfort of her own home.
What if that wasn’t the case? What if you could explore a shipwreck, searching for fish and coral at Chuuk Lagoon, the site of a pivotal World War II battle, since transformed into a glorious reef, without leaving your own home? This is exactly what players do in the initial levels of ‘Infinite Scuba’, a next generation simulation game launched in March 2013 by Seattle game designers Cascade Game Foundry, partnering with many diving industry groups, including Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI), Diving Equipment and Marketing Association, Mission Blue (an ocean conservation group), various scuba equipment manufacturers such as Scubapro, Body Glove, Oceanic and BARE, among others. The game hopes to “raise public awareness about the importance of ocean health” by painstakingly recreating famous dive sites from around the world in order to spread information about important environmental issues through entertainment.
This is an incredibly unique response to Dr. Earle’s 2009 TED prize wish (which inspired the creation of Mission Blue itself, as described on their website): “to use all means at your disposal — films, expeditions, the web, new submarines — to create a campaign to ignite public support for a global network of marine protected areas.”
Although video games may seem like an unusual medium to employ to educate the public about conservation, research suggests that they can be used effectively for education. As Professor Resnick of MIT states, “many of [sic] people’s best learning experiences come when they are engaged in activities that they enjoy and care about…[one is] likely to learn the most, and enjoy the most, if [one is] engaged as an active participant, not a passive recipient.”
The Internet has a particularly remarkable number of active participants – you included. You are reading this blog post online, alongside (probably) several other tabs: email inboxes, Facebook, and a myriad of other websites. According to Jane McGonigal, a video game designer and inventor at Institute of the Future, more than half a billion people use a computer or play a video game for at least an hour a day- with over 183 million of those in the US. She says, “The average young person racks up 10,000 hours of gaming by the age of 21 – or 24 hours less than they spend in a classroom for all of middle and high school if they have perfect attendance. It’s a remarkable amount of time we’re investing in games. Five million gamers in the U.S., in fact, are spending more than 40 hours a week playing games – the equivalent of a full time job!”
So why not reappropriate this time to serve the purpose of marine conservation?
That is what the organization Games for Change aims to do. Their mission statement is “Catalyzing Social Impact Through Digital Games”. Founded in 2004, it consists of a group of people that create and distribute games that aim to create a social impact by engaging contemporary issues in a meaningful way. Clicking through the “play” section of their site makes it obvious they haven’t restricted themselves to merely the marine realm: categories also include poverty and economics, and they even have a “Games for Change” festival, which unites people interested in accessing the positive social aspect of games.
On an individual level, games can be used to teach children and young adults about the threats facing endangered wildlife. ‘Predator Protector’, an online game on PBS’s website that is meant to accompany the channel’s documentary ‘Ocean Adventures’ with Jean Jacques Costeau, has players “swim with sharks and experience the threats they face,” striving to stay alive and thus inadvertently learning about the vital role sharks play in the delicate balance of a marine ecosystem. It makes one reevaluate the label of ‘mindless predator’ that sharks have been burdened with by a misinformed media.
“Sea Turtles and the Quest to Nest,” launched by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Fisheries Service, is similarly structured. It is the second educational game in the WaterLife series, centering on loggerhead sea turtles, listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, and involving six stakeholders critical to the turtle’s protection. Players must work through a series of mini-games, which encompass activities such as beach cleanups to assist turtle nesting, improving the likelihood of the turtle’s survival. Without understanding how human actions affect turtles and how to improve the chance of survival for the species, players cannot succeed.
As players experience firsthand the harmful effects of human activities on marine animals, they are forced to think about the importance of conservation and the role we, as humans, play in the loss of biodiversity. These games require players to use their minds, combining “difficult challenges, possibilities, and use of information” in a way that can be used to establish “real pedagogical constructivism”. Constructivism is the learning theory that refers to the idea that “learners construct knowledge for themselves”, and is the most powerful argument for the use of video games in education: as players work their way through levels, they absorb information and store it away, subconsciously learning facts about conservation that may have bored them had they been presented to them in a traditional classroom environment. This can evoke powerful emotional responses in players – delight if they win, and sadness if they lose. More than knowledge, it is that awareness and emotion that is necessary. I firmly believe that although the most important part of conservation as a science is research, it is one’s passion for conservation, and his or her motivation to embrace it in all realms of their life, that can make it truly successful.
Image by Ian Burt