Gamifying conservation: What could go wrong?

A #GamifyingConservation thought piece on unintended adverse consequences by Sasha Sebright, Research and Events Consultant for the Luc Hoffmann Institute, and MPhil in Conservation Leadership candidate at the University of Cambridge.

Every action results in an inevitable and indefinite network of knock-on effects. Future tech in particular often comes with unintended consequences. Not all of these will be undesirable, but the drive to identify and mitigate against risks has always been of great personal importance, in part due to seeing the wellbeing of those without a voice or a seat at the table so often neglected during the decision-making process. When I first became involved in the Gamifying nature conservation project, a significant portion of my intrigue stemmed from such concerns. Might the commodification of nature be exacerbated by a future fundraising model that heavily relies on digitising wildlife? As technology advances and global connectivity enables the rapid spread of ideas and data, it seems more important than ever to identify potential negative outcomes before attempting to cause major disruption. 

Anticipating the unexpected

The conservation sector urgently needs to discover novel ways of attracting revenue if we are to close the global biodiversity funding gap. This is where games and gamification come into play, with gamification being endorsed as an innovative tool to generate engagement, motivation and behaviour change. Without a doubt, well-designed gamification can produce powerful individual and collective results. However, little research has been directed towards the potential risks of gamification, and even less knowledge is present regarding the application of gamification to conservation efforts. 

Combine gamification with nature conservation and you have an intervention that blurs the boundaries between the environmental and behavioural sciences, human and non-human, nature and culture, real and virtual. As such, a complex network of outcomes is triggered, the scope of which I attempted to uncover. The research for my thesis, “Disrupting the Conservation Marketplace”, at the University of Cambridge revealed four main categories of risk for the Gamifying nature conservation initiative: gamification and its impact on 1) giving value to wildlife data, 2) ethics, 3) behaviour change and 4) beliefs and social norms.

Within these themes are numerous unintended adverse consequences, several of which are highlighted below. The severity or relevance of risk is entirely dependent on personal perspective. Exemplifying this bias is the possible widening of inequality caused by the globally asymmetric nature of digital literacy and access. Assuming the gamified experience utilises the internet or other advanced technology, the ease at which a community can access and use the platform will vastly impact the level at which they can benefit from it. 

Potential unintended adverse consequences

An emerging threat revealed in the literature is that of ‘cyber poaching’, whereby the sharing of real-time geospatial wildlife data or the hacking of GPS animal collars and online data sets could act as a roadmap, leading poachers directly to tagged animals. It might not just be the welfare of wildlife that is in jeopardy if the demand for data accelerates due to newfound value. Intensified use of surveillance technology has already elicited concern for the psychological wellbeing and privacy of local communities. These social impacts have been observed with ‘human bycatch’ (the inadvertent capture of human images on camera traps), and the creation of fear in communities at the sight of drones due to a lack of understanding or an association with police control or warfare. 

A lesser-discussed yet potentially pervasive underlying issue for wildlife conservation could occur with the perceived exploitation of nature. Could the creation of a virtual world featuring inexhaustible resources oversimplify and misrepresent conservation struggles? Might adding collectable animals that can be bought and sold in this virtual world contribute to normalising or exacerbating the illegal wildlife trade? The narratives that are presented will alter how society perceives nature’s worth, how people empathise with non-humans and, ultimately, these narratives will impact the development of social norms and future environmental actions.

Think critically, act mindfully

With so much apparent risk attached to gamifying conservation, is it worth pursuing innovations in this arena? In my opinion, yes. Prioritising preventative risk identification at this stage means the generation of better informed, equitable and sustainable conservation solutions. 

Careful design and use of gamification elements can ensure the experience is enhanced for both short- and long-term engagement, aiming to stimulate intrinsic motivation and users’ empathy toward other species. Acknowledging the threat of cyber poaching means that measures can be implemented to protect wildlife-data privacy, including safeguarding the storage and sharing of geospatial data using time lags and reduced location accuracy. Solutions should strive to be inclusive and accessible in both design and benefit-sharing, avoiding the use of manipulative or exploitative gamification design. Finally, but crucially, interdisciplinary collaboration is needed to further research existing gaps in knowledge, including how data collection technologies impact human and animal welfare.

In the past I may have leant towards risk aversion, but it has become abundantly clear that inaction is not an option. Disruption is necessary; future interventions should strive to identify and minimise harmful consequences to all stakeholders, both human and non-human, while remembering that the ultimate risk could be failing to act at all.

Sasha Sebright, Research and Events Consultant for the Luc Hoffmann Institute and MPhil in Conservation Leadership candidate at the University of Cambridge.

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: Exploring the potential of gamification to finance nature conservation: a new report