Extended Blog – Teaching Ecological Concepts Through Video Games

As ever more younger generations begin to immerse themselves (if they haven’t already) in the virtual world of video games, it comes as no surprise then that various educational institutions are now attempting to incorporate video games into their curriculum.  Already, numerous games have been developed that teach a wide range of subjects, from art to science, aimed at various age groups or education levels.  This alternative mode of education, also referred to as “edugaming,” provides an engaging and interactive learning environment that not only encourages active participation, but also adds a dose of entertainment that sustains student interest.  Edugaming allows players to learn at their own pace (unlike lectures) and the “multiple visual and auditory modes … capitalize on different learning styles.” (Mayo 2009)  These games often provide information in fixed quantities, allowing the player to master the basics of a subject before delving into its complexities.  Edugaming also can reinforce information learned through lectures or through the games themselves by providing continuous and immediate feedback.  Every button tap or mouse click yields responses in the game and a steady stream of rewards is offered for even the smallest success.

Among the subjects that are being taught through video games are STEM (Science, technology, engineering, and math) courses.  These fields of study are becoming increasingly digitized and networked over the recent years and will no doubt continue to do so.  The incorporation of video games into STEM education will enable students to become more technology-savvy and prevent them from falling significantly behind in these subjects (as they are amongst the academic disciplines critical for success in the 21st century) (Education 2010).  These games focus primarily on teaching elementary- to college-level students problem solving, analytical thinking, multitasking, and strategizing skills.  Although these video games are still in their “embryonic stages” with respect to thorough integration into educational curriculums, a lot of organizations are still going on ahead and developing these STEM-related games.  For example, NASA recently released a free online video game, Moonbase Alpha, where users can play the role of an exploration group that works in a futuristic 3-D lunar environment.  A multitude of other video games aimed at STEM education have been developed by small and large organizations alike.  Even a multi-year competition, The National STEM Video Game Challenge, has been created to motivate interest in STEM-learning by encouraging students to submit their own STEM game designs.

Having introduced you to STEM edugaming, what we would like to highlight now are those video games and simulations aimed at teaching students the scientific concept of ecology.  Ecology, briefly, is a branch of science concerned with the interrelationship of organisms and their environments (Merriam Webster).  Video games that serve as educational mediums for ecology focus on various levels of it, including populations, communities, and ecosystems.  Within these levels of ecology, these games may concentrate on a particular facet or combinations of these, such as niches, biodiversity, sustainability, and restoration.  Game to game, players may discover varying degrees of complexity with respect to game play, and many introduce a large degree of realism through graphics or mechanics.  While some games are not entirely successful in portraying an ecological concept properly, many do manage to nail down the basics. Even games entirely not intended for teaching these STEM concepts may possess them nonetheless, contributing to the basic understanding of ecology by the average player.

To elaborate on this type of edugaming, we’ll explain how various video games teach specific ecological concepts …

An ecological niche is the ecological role of an organism in a community, especially in regard to its food consumption.  It essentially describes how populations affect and are affected by resources and predator/prey quantities.  In many video games, the role of an avatar is also largely determined by the surrounding environment and its associated conditions.  In turn, these conditions can be altered by that individual.  In Spore, the organism you create can initially become a carnivore or an herbivore, and eventually an omnivore.  As a carnivore, a player may hunt other organisms or scavenge, or eliminate other groups of organisms to the point of extinction.  As an herbivore, the player may only consume fruit, but can either ally other herbivorous or omnivorous organism or eliminate them as a defensive measure.  Although not authentic with respect to organism interaction, the player is still given a role that cannot be changed once given.  The player may choose what role to start off with in the “creature stage”, but they must play that role throughout the game (as they are not given the option to change between herbivorous, carnivorous, or omnivorous organism).

WolfQuest does a better job of highlighting the niche of the player’s avatar, as opposed to the game Spore.  Developed by the Minnesota Zoo and game developer company Eduweb, the free 3D simulation video game is aimed at helping players understand wolves and the roles they play in the environment.  It does this by allowing players to take on the life of a wolf and to play out its role in a virtual Yellowstone National Park.  Players must hunt/scavenge elk and hares, avoid grizzlies and other wolves, form a pack by finding a mate, finding a den, and raising pups.  WolfQuest also offers an online forum where players may ask questions for wolf experts, post tips & strategies, share artwork & stories, etc.  It is a game that tries to include as much realism as possible through graphics and content (i.e. geography, behavior, and weather), given its highly limited funding.  It teaches players the importance of predator-prey interactions, life-death experiences, and diverse wolf behaviors through simple interactions that are surprising interactive yet relatively easy to grasp an understanding of.

Biodiversity and species extinctions are yet another set of concepts that is sometimes taught through ecological STEM games.  Biodiversity is the biological diversity in an environment as indicated by numbers of different species of plants and animals.  (Merriam Webster)  This ties in with species extinctions, as a large number of species extinctions lowers the overall biodiversity of an environment.  This set of ecological concepts is often reflected in video games through the variety of organisms seen an area, providing a sense of authenticity to the player.  Video games unrelated to STEM education often utilizes biodiversity without even realizing it, providing an ever-changing game environment to make the player feel as if it’s they’re in the real world (or an alien one).  For example, in Spore, the player runs into numerous other organism of every shape and size possible.  This is further expanded by connecting the game online, enabling other players’ creations to appear in the player’s game and expanding the biodiversity of the game environment.  Because the player can continually create new organisms on new planets, there’s a high probability that past creations can appear in another run through of the game.  The player may also choose to eliminate other groups of organisms during game play, thereby lowering the biodiversity in surrounding area.  This makes the environment of Spore ever-changing and exciting.

Another video game, Eco Detective 2, was developed by Canada’s Ministry for Agriculture and Agri-Foods in order to teach players about species at risk in Ontario’s Carolinian Forest.  Specifically, it elaborates on species diversity, threats to habitat, invasive species, and extinctions.  The goal of the game is to discover why certain species within Carolinian Forest are disappearing, which is accomplished by interviewing various species that are at risk of extinction.  Although a relatively short game (at 30 min.), it encourages players to use analytical and deductive skills to determine the cause behind particular species extinctions.   Unfortunately, the game has been taken down recently, but a host of related games have popped up across the Internet.

The tragedy of the commons is a fairly simple concept to grasp.  Essentially, it is an economic theory that states that independent action by individuals working in their own self-interest will result in a depletion of resources, despite knowledge that this is contrary to the common good.  This is a fairly terrifying prospect in reality.  It can result in a depletion of natural resources, from oil to food to water.  It is not, however, a worrying prospect in the vast majority of video games.  Video games, on the whole, tend to have an unlimited amount of resources (Chang 2011).  Games like Spore have an unlimited amount of resources for the player to use.  Then there is no way of a lack of resources to become a confounding factor in the game play.  This simplifies the game to a great degree, but betrays the very core of video games somewhat.  Video games are all about coming up with creative and efficient solutions to the problems that face the player.  By stripping away a variable (and an important one at that) the players are robbed of an opportunity to see how creative they can be.  Games like Mass Effect 2 have mining and resource hunting as an important part of their game play, but there is no consequence of robbing a planet of all of its resources.  The resources are used for currency, to purchase upgrades, armor and weapons, but the amount is almost unlimited, making it quite easy to get all the upgrades the player will ever need.  Resource management is therefore completely unnecessary.

These games, obviously, do nothing to teach people about resource management.  If a billion cows can be farmed with no consequences, why wouldn’t the player farm a billion cows?  There are games that have turned this idea on its head, and made the very purpose of the game recourse management. Minecraft, for example, is an unbelievable educational tool in this way. There is almost no limit as to what can be built, and the number of mods (modifications) that can be used is unbelievable (Short 2012).  Instead of allowing for an unlimited amount of resources to be had, Minecraft has a set amount of each individual block in the world.  The world is massive and there are a plethora of biomes, ranging from desert to swampland to taiga, so it would be hard to run out, but it is certainly possible (Short 2012).  Trees and wood are some of the rarest resources in the game, and if they are not carefully managed, can be used until the supply is exhausted.  This would be disastrous, as every tool in the game has some component that is made of wood. Playing solo it would take quite some time to destroy all the trees on a map, but it is very easy to do so in a small area.  Anybody who has played the game can attest to the frustration of having to run halfway across the map to find some wood so a pickaxe can be made.  In a multiplayer server, Harding’s principles become even clearer.  The resources in the world must be shared and partitioned if the players are to work together and advance together.  Running around and using up all the wood and diamond will quickly result in a loss of these resources.

Video games are often about destruction; tearing something down, killing the animals, mining away so a house can be built.  Even The Oregon Trail, a staple of educational video games played by children everywhere, was used more as a way to hunt animals than as an educational tool.  There are exceptions to the rule, however, especially in educational gaming.  For example, an educational game called Build-A-Prairie was designed to teach people about restoration principles in a devastated prairie habitat.  The game is simple.  A player chooses which type of prairie they would like to restore, the types of plants that they are going to use to restore it, and the types of animals that they think should populate it.  Some plants and animals are more desirable than others, and clicking on a species will inform the player of its importance in the ecosystem.

There is a problem with Build-A-Prairie, one that plagues many educational games.  It is absolutely, completely, stunningly boring to play.  Initially, each species will be investigated, but it soon becomes apparent that there is no penalty for guessing an incorrect species, and the game devolves into selecting species as quickly as possible.  This is only one such problem that plagues educational games.  They are often cheaply made from funding by grants, which will not pay for things such as marketing and distribution.  These games are then relegated to only the Web site or shelf of whoever makes it (Mayo 2009).  Larger games, such as Minecraft, Flower, and Spore are much more widely distributed, but typically have problems of their own.

Spore is an ingenious game where a player is essentially given control of the evolution of an aquatic microorganism from space, and oversees its development as it grows into a human-like species with society and culture (Bohannon 2010).  It is a fun game that does have some grounding in scientific fact.  There are theories that the first ever microorganisms on earth came from space (though they are not widely accepted), and it helps convey the underlying theory of evolution (Bohannon 2010).  Unfortunately, it varies significantly from fact in many instances.  The microorganism that the player controls can be chosen to be either a carnivore or an herbivore, which is a nonsensical idea when it comes to early life on Earth, where cells would have been chemosynthetic or photosynthetic (Bohannon 2010).  Evolution also takes place on a direct path, allowing for no deviation by the player.  The organism must evolve onto land (Bohannon 2010).  There is no mutation or variation between species, no natural selection, no hosts or parasites, the list goes on and on (Bohannon 2010).  Spore’s main goal is to be entertaining as well as informative, and it has to make sacrifices on the information side to allow it to be entertaining.  Not much would be more boring that playing as a photosynthetic cell, regardless of how informative the game is.

Educational gaming is going to be an enormous tool for education once the games can be made well and be captivating, but there are some pitfalls to take into account.  Spore’s habit sacrificing information to be fun is one.  It would be nearly impossible to account for every single thing that is involved in the evolution of a species, but there can be more room for direction of evolution than what Spore provides, and significantly more room for fact.  In dumbing down the process of evolution, Spore missed an important milestone that could have shown game companies how well true educational games could sell.  Other issues that plague the games industry as a whole include what Richard Louv termed “nature-deficit disorder” (Chang 2011).  There is concern that children are already tied enough to games and technology, and having educational games is just one more reason that they would have to stop going outside and interacting in the real world.  This may or may not be a legitimate concern.  Ideally, educational games could replace the non-educational games in a child’s life, instead of adding to them.

Educational videogames are an important and under-utilized tool.  Done properly, educational video games can be captivating, fun, and informative.  Humans tend to play a lot harder than we work, and there is no reason that the time we spend playing cannot also be time spent learning.  Clearly videogames can help to teach ecological concepts, and have been used to do so.  Minecraft can be used to instruct about the tragedy of the commons, Spore teaches evolution, WolfQuest biological niches, and Build-A-Prairie shows concepts of ecological restoration.  These games are not always scientifically correct, or always fun, but they are a step in the right direction.  Once these games can become fun as well as informative, and don’t need to sacrifice information for fun, they will become a staple of education.

Ashley Nelson
RJ Howey


“2013 National STEM Video Game Challenge.” 2013. Accessed March 18. http://stemchallenge.org/.

Bohannon, John, T. Ryan Gregory, Niles Eldredge, and William Sims Bainbridge. “Spore: Assessment of the Science in an Evolution-Oriented Game.” In Online Worlds: Convergence of the Real and the Virtual, edited by William Sims Bainbridge, 71–85. Human-Computer Interaction Series. Springer London, 2010. http://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-1-84882-825-4_6.

Chang, Alenda Y. “Games as Environmental Texts.” Qui Parle: Critical Humanities and Social Sciences 19, no. 2 (2011): 57–84. http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/qui_parle/v019/19.2.chang.html.

Chang, Alenda Y. “Playing the Environment: Games as Virtual Ecologies” (December 12, 2009). http://escholarship.org/uc/item/46h442ng.

Education, Committee on Science Learning: Computer Games, Simulations, and, and National Research Council. Learning Science Through Computer Games and Simulations. National Academies Press, 2010.

Mayo, Merrilea J. “Video Games: A Route to Large-Scale STEM Education?” Science 323, no. 5910 (1–2, 2009): 79–82. doi:10.1126/science.1166900.

“Serious Games | Moonbase Alpha | NASA STEM Learning | Virtual Heroes.” 2013. Accessed March 18. http://virtualheroes.com/products/nasa-moonbase-alpha.

Short, Daniel. “Teaching Scientific Concepts Using a Virtual World – Minecraft.” Teaching Science: The Journal of the Australian Science Teachers Association 58, no. 3 (September 2012): 55–58.

“Wolfquest.” District Administration 46, no. 8 (September 2010): 85–85.

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One Response to Extended Blog – Teaching Ecological Concepts Through Video Games

  1. cstabile says:

    This is a terrific blog post, RJ and A. You cover a lot of ground in it, it’s full of great information, and very effectively illustrated by examples from the games. You also point to the central problem with educational games: how do you make a game that’s fun to play, but also conveys information? The one thing that would have made this post perfect for me would have been to have some sense of how to improve ecological, science-based games. I think at the heart of this problem is something we discussed in class: the industry’s reliance on the formulaic and the belief that commercial games need to be totally fantastic and escapist to find a market. What a poverty of imagination drives this logic! Games like Fallout and CoD find their drama in militarized, Cold War masculinity. Why couldn’t EA create a game about global climate change that was factually based? You’d still have the kind of apocalyptic thinking that drives zombie games, but you could teach someone along the way. I suppose the sad fact is that an ecological consciousness and corporate consciousness are diametrically opposed.

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