The Case for
More Games
About Wildlife

By Gautam Shah

The success of the games industry should no longer come as a surprise to anyone. Revenues outpace that of the film and sports industry combined. More than three billion people play mobile games alone, which is projected to continue to grow. And despite popular belief, those three billion players transcend age, sex, geography, and income level. For example:We face a global climate change crisis that makes many of us feel powerless and vulnerable and Africa is at the center of this coming disaster. Despite the fact that we did almost nothing to contribute to global warming, Africans will feel a disproportionate range and severity of effects from climate change. What can we do about it? Although each of our actions may seem insignificant, when we multiply these by the hundreds of millions of us, we can collectively have a huge effect and that must give us all some hope for a better future. So what do I do? I grow my own food.

With such broad reach and the average player playing games for more than 8 hours per week, there can no longer be any debate on the impact of games on people's lives and the influence they will continue to have.

At first glance, these numbers may seem at direct odds with the conservation crisis. After all, with more and more people spending more and more time on their phones, who needs or will have time for nature? But love for nature and a desire to immerse oneself in a game could go hand in hand. A 2020 study (Scrypt Media) found that approximately 1.1 billion people over 16 have a self-expressed interest in wildlife. Of those people, more than 70% consider themselves gamers. That is roughly 777 million people who could be engaged with wildlife content through the games they play.

But they are not.

While 100+ nature documentaries are published each year, at a potential cost of hundreds of millions of dollars, there is a dearth of equivalent games to be found. The conservation and media sector have simply not embraced games as a channel for wildlife storytelling and public engagement. This is a shame. Let’s take a look at some of the advantages that games have for engaging audiences over other, more traditional channels.

Games create an active experience.

They activate your sense of competitiveness, exploration, collaboration, or expression. Rather than passively sitting back, you must solve problems, overcome challenges, gain skills, and experience the highs and lows that come with that.

Games give you an identity and a role.

You are part of the story, rather than just a consumer of it. A good game makes you believe you are that person, animal, or object. This changes the depth of your investment in the outcome.

Games give you agency.

You get to make decisions. You, and perhaps also the others that are playing, dictate the outcome of the experience.

Games give you a feedback loop.

This provides an opportunity to learn, get better, and improve your decision-making and skills. The feedback might be instantaneous or over time. It may come from the game or other players.

Games can be social.

You may be playing with other players collaboratively or competitively. But even if you are playing alone, games build communities around shared interests within the game or even outside of it. They can form a connection between people with nothing else in common.

Suppose wildlife content or themes were more prevalent in games. In that case, the above advantages could be applied directly towards public engagement, but also to education, financing, and over the long term, behavior changes. And because everything a player does in-game can be tracked and recorded, they can form the basis for real-time scientific studies into the changes in people’s attitudes, knowledge, and emotions towards nature and wildlife.

So, what is holding us back? Why aren’t we investing the same time, energy, and dollars into making wildlife games as we do for wildlife documentaries or donation campaigns? Here are three possible explanations:

It is easy to do what we know.

We’ve been making wildlife documentaries for 70 years. There is an infrastructure for funding them and a formula for making them. We know exactly what we’ll get at the end of it. Whereas games are still scary. We don’t know the business models or how to reach people. The risks seem too great. They might have a higher ceiling but also a lower floor.

The negative stereotypes associated with games.

While dozens of different game genres and thousands of games have seen success, the ones that get the most attention tend to be more violent or dystopic in nature, lending to the argument that games promote unwanted behavior in youth.

Games are expensive to build.

A triple-A game will cost as much or more than your most sophisticated episode of Planet Earth, and at the other end of the spectrum, it is easier to put together a small film crew and do a shoot than design, build, and release a low-budget game.

There are no doubt risks associated with approaching any new endeavor, and pursuing games is no exception. There will be (and should be) more failures than successes. But given the current environmental crisis, we must upend how we think about our audiences and heavily invest in modern and next-generation tools to engage and activate wider, more diverse, and younger people with conservation. Games provide perhaps the most untapped opportunity to do this. It is time we level up and seize it.

Gautam Shah is the founder of Internet of Elephants, a social enterprise that develops groundbreaking digital tools to engage people with wildlife.