Could games play a role in inspiring young people to conserve nature?

A #GamifyingConservation thought piece on the role gaming could play in nature conservation, by Maike Gericke, the co-founder of innovation studio Scrypt and the creative head behind Tiramisu. Maike is a specialist in bringing together technology innovation, systems thinking, human-centred design and behaviour science to optimise social and environmental impact. 

Why do people care about wildlife?

This is just one of the interesting questions addressed by the Gamifying nature conservation project. For most people, interest in wildlife starts somewhere specific. For me, it was the elephant seal at the local zoo and the characters I loved in childhood books. Later on, it was the first elephant I saw right in front of me on safari, or a flock of birds taking flight in front of my window. It felt like a privilege to get a glimpse of their daily lives. Now, that feeling of excitement is increasingly mixed with concern for the future of the creatures and species I see in front of me, and for our natural environment in general. 

It turns out, there are many people just like me: people who are not actively engaged in conservation on a daily basis, but who nevertheless have come to care deeply about the future of wildlife. Apart from just having a general interest in and passion for wildlife and nature, and a strong drive to explore the outside world, an interest in wildlife seems to have overlap with concern for the environment and for personal health and wellbeing – or both. 

Could nature conservation be the next viral sensation that people socialise around in games? 

Since 2020, thanks in large part to the pandemic, the world has seen a global uptake of gaming activity, mostly through mobile phones.  

A Scrypt / Internet of Elephants analysis shows that 67% of global internet users over 16 years of age that care about wildlife are, in fact, already regular gamers. That makes for an audience of more than 777 million people (based on data from GWI). And considering that gamers under 18 make up 20% of the gaming population in countries like the US, the total number is likely much higher. 

Why people play games differs largely by generation. Gen Z (9-25 years old in 2021) play to socialise and learn, Millennials (25-40 years old in 2021) play to socialise and escape, and Gen X (41-56 years old in 2021)  play mostly for the challenge. For Millennials and generations above them, socialising through games is mostly reserved for gaming pros and dedicated fans that bond over game experiences. But Gen Z players take a much more casual approach. Although girls tend to stay in touch via social media, 74% of teenage boys talk with friends through video games and 22% do so daily

It is not just the most frequent gamers that socialise via games: 50% of Gen Z already socialises via game worlds without playing the main game, and 70% expect to do so in the future – a future that will increasingly blend social media, gaming and entertainment into a seamlessly connected overlay of our physical lives. The metaverse. 

In that metaverse, might the current or next hot topic be nature conservation? 

Sparking wildlife interest in games for action in the real world

Parents and some nature enthusiasts are rightfully concerned that gaming experiences might drive children further away from the natural world, which plays a crucial role in developing empathy and kindness. 

But while Gen Z’s interest in wildlife is lower than that of older generations (especially among boys), environmental concern is still a major topic. Gen Z is keen to take action and expects nothing less from global brands. Yet that willingness to act is often impeded by being overwhelmed, the pressure of convenient choices, and general uncertainty about what to do. 

Everyone needs a spark. Everyone needs the same driver of interest in wildlife that the elephant seal offered me. Games are a preferred way for Gen Z boys, whose interest in wildlife could grow, to socialise and learn. What if they could increase wildlife awareness, empathy and understanding in a fun and entertaining way? 

Of course, there is nothing better than going out into nature and exploring it for yourself. But it’s important to recognise that this is not always possible. Not everyone has the luxury to leave the city behind. Nature-infused game characters, narratives and storylines can spark inspiration and interest across generations. They can provide meaningful learning and bonding experiences for Gen Z, bring much-needed escape to Millennials and integrate Gen X in conversations with younger people.

Games can therefore be a key way to get people to understand and care about wildlife. Gamification can also be a wonderful way to encourage and reward real-world, pro-conservation behaviour.

Maike Gericke, the co-founder of innovation studio Scrypt and the creative head behind Tiramisu.

The content of this thought piece represents the author’s own views and does not necessarily represent the views of the Gamifying Nature Conservation initiative nor of any of its collaborating institutions.

Related reading: How gamification could revolutionise conservation