Is wildlife data gamification the key to engaging a new audience in conservation?

A #GamifyingConservation thought piece by Rafael Mares, Wildlife Data Scientist at Internet of Elephants, partner of the Luc Hoffmann Institute in the Gamifying Nature Conservation initiative.  

Can we harness wildlife data through innovative storytelling and gamification techniques to boost engagement and support for conservation efforts?

A wildlife story

Giraneza, a silverback in Rwanda, was the son of the leader of the largest mountain gorilla group ever recorded. At the age of 14, Giraneza’s father died in a battle with another silverback. Giraneza left his family shortly after and, from then on, led a mostly solitary life peppered with violence trying to form a new group. He defeated and killed two other silverbacks, Bwenge and Ugenda, whose groups were greatly disrupted. However, none of their females joined Giraneza. Finally, he defeated Gushimira, the leader of a group whose two females, Pasika and Kurinda, decided to join Giraneza. Having succeeded in forming his own group, the aggression stopped and he led a peaceful life until he ultimately died of pneumonia two years later, at which point his hard-won group disbanded.

The data behind the story

Giraneza’s story is not a work of fiction. The brief summary of his life is based on at least 23 years of detailed observations and hard work in the field by researchers at the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, in incredibly challenging terrain and conditions. He was, after all, a mountain gorilla living in the wild. From recording his birth to his daily movements, health, behaviour, social interactions, and ultimately his death, behind the story there is a richness of data recorded by observers on the ground that isn’t at all obvious from a catchy headline of a few key events. 

Like Giraneza, there are thousands of animals being observed throughout their lives, across species and landscapes as diverse as chimpanzees in Tanzania and orcas off the coast of North America, to globetrotting Arctic terns. Thanks to sophisticated and ever-increasingly accessible technology, the data sets on these animals are growing exponentially. 

The individual stories of these animals rarely reach the wider public, however, and typically only exist in the minds of the handful of researchers that are studying them. Decades of hard work observing and collecting detailed data on individual animals become statistics in a scientific article or conservation management plan. What if we were to open up those rich data sets, such as behavioural and life-history observations, GPS coordinates describing movement, photos or audio recordings to others beyond the scientific community? Could making wildlife data more accessible ultimately encourage innovative storytelling and help reach a wider audience?

Making wildlife data more accessible

Scientists are increasingly required to share data within the scientific community. It’s better for transparency and encourages collaboration and innovation. The data repositories Movebank and Dryad are just a couple of examples of how scientists share their hard-earned data. 

But what if we created other sharing models that made wildlife data more accessible to people in different disciplines or, indeed, to the general public? Think video games, animation, interactive maps, abstract art or anything based on real data from the species that have been and are currently being studied in the wild. The benefits in terms of public understanding, enthusiasm and support for conservation efforts, be they financial or otherwise, could be huge and could also feed back to the data providers.

At Internet of Elephants, we’ve focused largely on using wildlife data to create fun and inspiring mobile games. We see raw wildlife data, collected by researchers for research purposes, as an underused resource for engagement in conservation, and believe games are the perfect medium to reach the broadest possible audience with the stories data can tell. This is what makes our partnership with the Luc Hoffmann Institute so exciting to me: we’re challenging ourselves, as well as other creators and the conservation community, to think of bold, new ways in which to use wildlife data. I believe opening up wildlife data can help conservation researchers serve the ultimate purpose for which data are collected in the first place: to spread knowledge and appreciation of the natural world and provide actionable insights.

Rafael Mares, Wildlife Data Scientist at Internet of Elephants, partner of the Luc Hoffmann Institute in Gamifying Nature Conservation.

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.

Visit the project page: Gamifying Nature Conservation