“I do think that, generally speaking, video games are very poor at representing the people who actually do the science. They’re nearly always white blokes who wear fedoras,” says paleontologist Thomas Clements. “That’s one aspect of video game stuff I would like to see change.”
Clements and four other international natural scientists recently published a paper in Geoscience Communications outlining gameplay and scientist diversity among other factors that may help or hinder a video game’s effectiveness in promoting paleontology. “The point of this paper is not to wag our fingers at game developers and say, ‘You’re doing it wrong,’” Clements says. “It’s just an outline and history of paleontological tropes in games.” Finger wagging aside, the nature of video game patches and updates allows them to keep up with science in ways that VCR tapes of Jurassic Park just can’t. Animal Crossing could update its Spinosaurus fossil to be up-to-date with new research. Park sims could add feathers to their animal sprites, though that’s unfortunately rare to see—The Isle is one notable dino sim that will update their Utahraptor model later on, and Saurian is known to closely adhere to fossil records and new findings.
A lot of the games the group studied fall into “monsterification,” where ancient animals are grotesquely exaggerated killing machines with brutish, frightening intentions—usually to run toward enemies. This is great if you’re using these animals as mounted cavalry (Total War: Warhammer and Nanosaur) or want a guilt-free experience killing animals (Second Extinction and ARK: Survival Evolved). But like the stereotyping of paleontologists, this caricature of animal behavior flattens creative gameplay and forces designers down an overworn path of stale tropes.
At GSA, the most popular ancient animal to have a game was an ammonite, an extinct mollusk known for its nautilus shell. GSA members booed carnivorous dinosaurs. “Justice for herbivores!” University of Texas student Liam Morris shouted. “I would love a trilobite simulator,” University of Georgia masters student Cade Orchard said. Paleontology student Andrew Fredricks, who studies freshwater snails, couldn’t conceive of an ancient snails game without considering the financials. “Is the game gonna sell? If it’s about freshwater snails, I’m not even sure I would buy it,” he admitted after months of snail-based fieldwork. That’s the trouble about a few tropes dominating a genre of games: It can be difficult to even imagine gameplay or enthusiasm outside of those confines. Just as Wingspan surprised the board game community and showed that managing avian ecosystems can be challenging, fun, and winnable, surely there’s dozens of ancient ecosystem games out there. People just have to start play-testing them.
That’s exactly what University of Texas at Austin professor Rowan Martindale did with Reef Survivors, a board game she presented at GSA for the first time. The game, a two-hour reef ecosystem simulator where players must build a healthy reef that survives random disasters, feels like Plants vs Zombies if you replaced the undead with ocean acidification and hurricanes—not far from reality, actually. The game’s equivalent of character creation, where players pick from reef types and reef-dwellers, looked incredible, and it reminded me of the many adaptation strategies that reefs have in the race to save them.
Through postgame surveys, Martindale found that 80 percent of Reef Survivors players said they learned something from the game, and that collaborating with their peers helped them learn. Interestingly, students from lower-income backgrounds learned more by playing Reef Survivors. The game can also be modified for different situations: Martindale’s students have adapted it for American middle schoolers and Jamaican audiences. Even simplified educational paleontology games have unexpected benefits. Shortly before, paleobotanist Anne Raymond had reminisced about Dinosaur Safari, a 1996 computer game. “I played it with my son; it was dynamite,” she said, saying the game helped them connect and helped her explain what she studied at work.