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What can video games, like Animal Crossing, teach us about conservation? | Natalie Yoh et al.

By Natalie Yoh, Jessica C. Fisher, Takahiro Kubo, Danielle Rundle

Now more than ever, scientists recognise that conserving biodiversity requires a global commitment. To ensure this, conservationists are using a variety of tools to help educate people on environmental issues and to help individuals build an emotional connection to their environment. Video games are already used in other sectors to encourage positive behavioural change, such as healthy eating, or for education, such as teaching people about mental health conditions. Conservationists are now considering video games as a platform for conservation messaging.

A scene inspired by Animal Crossing characters and animals, drawn by Danielle Rundle

Billions of people worldwide play video games and with Covid-19 restrictions, even more of us turned to this form of indoor entertainment. Whilst virtual nature (e.g., TV or virtual reality) cannot replace real-world nature experiences, it can provide an alternative when it isn’t possible to access the outdoors. Video games, in particular, allow players to interact with their virtual environments and games (e.g., MyConservationPark) can encourage players to engage in pro-conservation actions. Evidence suggests that playing such games can lead to changes in real-world behaviours, such as increasing donations to environmental causes, and it helps us build an emotional connection with nature.

The most recent installment of Animal Crossing, the 2020 release of Animal Crossing New Horizons, coincided with the onset of several lockdowns across the world. The series producer, Hisashi Nogami, stated that he hoped that Animal Crossing fans would be able to use the game as an escape during the difficult times of the pandemic. The Nintendo game franchise was already immensely popular but Animal Crossing New Horizons sold over 26.4 million units (as of July 2021) and soared to the second-best-selling video game ever in Japan. This was in part due to new interest from those outside of the traditional gamers. Whilst it was originally designed with young Japanese girls in mind, over half of players are in their 20’s and 30’s and the game is equally popular across men and women. This, along with its international popularity, means there is a huge opportunity to engage millions of children, teenagers, and adults with conservation issues in a fun and interactive way.

Player demographic of Animal Crossing New Horizons by sex and age class. Data sourced from Raquel Robles (Accessed December 2020)

Broadly speaking, for those who haven’t played, each player creates and customises an island from which the player completes a series of daily tasks (e.g., collecting and selling fruit) and several more long-term goals (e.g., populating the museum with all the animals available to collect on the island). The game is open-ended so there is no way to win per se, but players can connect online and enjoy the slow pace of the game together.

In-game screenshots from Animal Crossing: New Horizons (Nintendo Game Content) (a) ‘Nook mile challenge’ to incentivise players to clean up litter, (b) the museum attendant promoting positive conservation messages, (c) a player is injured by a wasp sting, (d) the museum attendant reacting to a player donating a Stag Beetle, (e) museum display illustrating the taxonomic lineage of mammals and how it relates to villagers, and (f) museum enclosures for freshwater fish displayed by corresponding river zonation

In our recent People and Nature paperCould Nintendo’s Animal Crossing be a tool for conservation messaging?” we discuss the fun ways in which Animal Crossing can promote conservation/ecological messages.

This includes:

· How the game focuses on insects and fish, rather than typically more popular animals

· The different ways it provides educational information about an animal and its conservation status

· How the game promotes behaviours such as litter picking and recycling

· How it demonstrates ecological connections, such as the importance of deadwood for certain insects

· How it can be used as a platform for international conservation organisations to share information

· And how the museum provides an interactive avenue for discussions about evolution and taxonomy

However, Animal Crossing was not designed as an environmental education game. Therefore, there are aspects that don’t promote these messages and, in some examples, could actually harm conservation efforts. One example is how Animal Crossing may encourage the insect pet trade. Overexploitation of insects (for the pet trade or for decoration) is a major driver of population decline in Japan; we offer suggestions of how Nintendo could include information to make players aware of which species should and should not be kept as pets in the real world. In fact, Animal Crossing itself can provide an alternative, virtual way to keep threatened insects – protecting species two-fold. We propose eight such recommendations to Nintendo as options to improve Animal Crossing as a conservation messaging tool and for other game developers to consider.

Overall, games such as Animal Crossing provide platforms for conservation messaging which do not only augment but also transform people's relationship with the natural world. This poses a huge opportunity for game developers and conservationists to work together to share pro-conservation attitudes to billions of people through gaming culture. At a time in which access to the outdoors has been limited for many, what better way to learn about conservation than to have fun doing it virtually? For more information check out our summary video here.

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