Computer games played for fun seem poles apart from the serious business of social science research. Now, geographers at Cambridge are exploring the role of gaming in biodiversity conservation.

Games have to be fun. And conservation often isn’t fun, it’s really serious, it’s about extinction and science and the future of humankind.

Professor Bill Adams

What we’ve done is to explore how you would link the competitive element in sports apps to data on animal movement, and what it would take to make that link work. Obviously you can do it technically, but the question is would anybody find it interesting?

"There is significant untapped potential for conservation in computer games – provided it is done right,” says Professor Bill Adams of the Department of Geography. He has been studying computer games and conservation for the past three years, with his colleague with Dr Chris Sandbrook of the UNEP-World Conservation Monitoring Centre.

The potential is certainly there: more than one billion people worldwide play computer games. The market is worth around $65 billion a year, and is growing at an annual rate of 10%. At the same time, games do have their limitations and a conservation game would have to be carefully designed. “A game to convince people to protect slugs would be very different from one designed to raise money for slug protection,” says Adams.

Computer games, like gamers, come in many guises. “Games are diverse and appeal to a wide demographic,” Adams explains. What they have in common, however, and what motivates gamers to play and keep playing, is competition and the element of fun. These are the key to the growing field of ‘serious games’: products designed for training, education, learning and behaviour change, which are common in fields such as medicine and health.

Their work on conservation games, published in 2015 in the journal Conservation Letters, led Adams and his colleagues to an idea for a conservation game called Race the Wild. They used an ESRC Impact Acceleration Account (IAA) project to explore the feasibility of using a game to develop research findings, using their idea as a worked example.

Race the Wild is a serious kind of game, but also fun. The idea is to link keeping  fit to conservation, by combining human movement data with animal movement data in an exercise app that allows users to literally ‘race the wild’. The game was inspired by  two things. The first was research on human- elephant conflict in Kenya by one of Adams’ former students Dr Max Graham. Graham, who now runs the Kenyan elephant charity Space for Giants, tracked wild elephants using radio collars and GPS tags to map where they went and when. The second inspiration was Sandbrook’s use of an exercise app on his mobile phone to track his runs and bike rides. Race the Wild combines the two.

Under their IAA project, the pair worked  with Peter Damerell to develop the Race the Wild concept. They explored the importance of ‘challenges’ in personal fitness apps like Endomondo, and worked out how to handle streams of wildlife movement data and tie it to the interests of British joggers and cyclists.

Space for Giants provided hourly data on elephant movement from Kenya, and the team created various ’challenges’ for students and volunteers from sports clubs to try. Then they interviewed users to find out what worked, and what didn’t. Adams says:

“As a technical challenge, developing an app like Race the Wild is relatively easy, but that’s different to being a commercial success”.

“We wanted to use the IAA project to find out whether people would pay to play the app, and whether that could generate enough money to fund the collection of the wildlife data and the conservation that the data is used for,” he explains.

The IAA project provided a proof-of-concept that research results (in this case about human -elephant conflict) can be turned into an app, using a game structure to reward users. It also showed that users enjoy ‘racing the wild’, and learn something from doing so.

The next step is to create the software for the app, and that requires partnering with a games developer. However, the IAA project has shown that a potential market exists for an app that allows people to compete not just with others but also with wildlife. Adams concludes:

“The devil is in the detail, but now we think we know enough to be able to pitch the concept to a games developer."