Environmental Computer Games Are an Endangered Species

If you build it, they will come – well, maybe, but not always. Especially if what you’ve built are computer games in which players try to save an endangered species.
My endangered species games failed to find a market. I should have listened to the industry insider who told me “people interested in the environment are usually better educated and better off than most people, but they don’t spend their money. They’re all talk, and they’re cheap.” Apart from being about “the environment”, the games also suffer from that other “kiss of death”: they’re “educational”.
Oh dear. Environmental, educational, and aimed at a market which won’t spend its money. Strike three, and I’m out of business.
Despite the dismal prognosis at birth, the games – The Whale Game, The Rhino Game, The Polar Bear Game, and The Mapinguari Game; the last one involving an effort to save the legendary Mapinguari by saving the Amazon Rainforest, its critically endangered habitat – gained generous reviews.
Dave Clawson of the International Rhino Foundation said he “found (The Rhino Game) enjoyable and…educational. I think the simplicity of the format would work well with children; it encourages them to read and follow along (versus a first person shoot ’em up game), it lets the user make choices, and it has an element of adventure, all while it attempts to inform them about rhino smuggling.”
One student, Amy Brockmeyer, wrote to say ‘I just played the rhino game. It is hard. I think I made all wrong choices. I ended up losing and with minus 35 points and
nothing but a rhino horn. I am going to try to master this game. This is awesome.”
A review in The Oceanside Star, a Canadian newspaper, said I “obviously believe that if we are to save the earth and its endangered species, we must enlist the younger generation – and if we do that, we’d better make it technology friendly and fun…Each game (The Rhino Game, The Whale Game, and Mapinguari – a giant sloth that lives in the Amazon) leads the player on an adventure to help him or her save the species. Along the way the adventurer learns a great deal and has a lot of fun. (The games’ creator) believes his product is filling a niche market, namely parents who want their children to be more conscious of the environment. ”
As it turned out, it wasn’t even a niche market. It was non-existent.
I even had the games include a lot of action and some violence – but players don’t inflict it.
They try to stop it. The games are also competitive; each completed game receives a Rating
so players can see if they improve as they play more games or if they can do better than other
Most of The Rhino Game occurs in Africa’s Garamba National Park. Players must struggle to even reach the park, but once there they encounter hostile rhino horn poachers, suspicious park rangers, inquisitive European TV crews, cruel wild-life smugglers, greedy bushmeat traders, angry elephants and hippos, and indigenous peoples whose lives have been ravaged by war.
They could be attacked by elephants in musth or rhinos protecting their young, find themselves in a river with angry hippos, try to rescue a rhino from a mine-field, try to hide from, or even shoot down, spotter planes, or witness a fight between a rhino and an elephant. They might suffer tropical diseases or their donkeys and horses could become ill. If things go really wrong, they have to leave as quickly as possible!
In The Polar Bear Game players go to the Russian Arctic, struggling with snowstorms and whiteouts; trucks getting stuck in melting permafrost, breaking down, being stolen, or catching fire; snow-mobiles crashing through thin ice; expedition members becoming ill; angry polar bears attacking their snowmobiles or camp; and suspicious indigenous peoples.
Players tranquilize selected polar bears to take blood samples to assess their health and record sightings of individual bears and female bears with cubs.
Players in The Mapinguari Game collect photographs, video, audio recordings, samples of droppings, and DNA and blood samples etc. as evidence of Mapinguari’s existence, hoping it will persuade the world community to protect the animal. Protection would mean protecting its habitat, the tropical rainforests, and, therefore, saving the forest’s indigenous peoples and their cultures.
On daily treks through the forest they face hostile ranchers, farmers, loggers, and gold miners, tropical diseases and infestations of parasites and insects, campaigns by skeptical scientists to discredit them, floods and fires threatening their camp, and attacks by anacondas, jaguars, and piranhas.
If players accumulate sufficient points, they select the evidence and arguments to use in a presentation to the United Nations which decides Mapinguari’s – and The Amazon’s – fate.
Players in The Whale Game observe the health of several oceans, test the DNA of whale meat bought in Japan or Iceland, and encounter hostile whaling fleets, hurricanes or typhoons, tsunamis, industrial fishing fleets, fishers using destructive driftnets, rogue waves, and many kinds of ocean pollution, including oil spills, plastics, sewage, fertilizers, and toxic chemicals. They try to divert a naval fleet heading for collision with a pod of whales and witness titanic struggles between whales and giant squid. They must also accurately identify any whales they see.
When they return home, they present their data and observations to the world community. Hopefully, whales and their ocean habitat will be protected!
Unfortunately for these endangered species, they won’t be helped by educational, “environmental” games. There’s so many “shoot ’em up” games which dominate the market.
After all, destroying is so much more fun than protecting and saving.
I should have known better than to take the path “less traveled by”; as Frost said,
“that has made all the difference.”


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