When Reality Becomes Virtual

By Brenda Moreno

“Humans currently spend over 3 billion person-hours per week playing computer games.”[1] While 3 billion hours may seem shocking, it shouldn’t be altogether surprising considering that we live in an age of technology, where new phones seem to come out before the previous version is even paid for. There is an intense fascination with technology that seems unrivaled by any other area, and it is this fascination that could be used to call attention to pressing challenges facing the world today.

Some of the most concerning current issues are the treatment of the environment and the biodiversity crisis. While there is a growing awareness of these issues, there is still a serious gap in general knowledge. One reason for this is sheer complexity. For example, in a research article written by Robert Costanza, a leading ecological economist, and his team, valuing ecosystem services is described as the assessment of “the relative contribution of natural capital to human well-being, in interaction with the other three major forms of capital – built, human, and social.”[1] To pretty much anyone but an ecological economist, this makes little sense. A clearer way to explain what is meant by this statement would be to show rather than tell. A possibility explored by Robert Costanza (Crawford School of Public Policy) and his team in a recent article in ScienceDirect is the use of games.

Picture by Ios hack on Flickr

Picture by Ios hack on Flickr

While there are already simulation games, like SimCity (pictured above), they don’t focus on ecosystems and biodiversity. However, these games do provide a frame of reference for what a game that teaches about ecosystems could look like. In the game described by Costanza et al., the game would “allow people to construct their own scenarios via investment and management choices.”[1] Players would start with a blank landscape and make decisions, starting from meeting the basic needs of food and water to more sophisticated ones, such as water purification systems, cultivating livestock, and manufacturing. These decisions would then impact the virtual environment. For example, if the player chose to degrade their land, there would be negative consequences, such erosion or increased risk of flooding.

With this kind of structure, games would allow players to see the effects of their decisions play out before their very eyes, and could see things such as rewilding, extinction, and immigration take place. Given control of these factors, people could see how even individual decisions can have a much larger effect as a whole. If the people were to see their landscape potentially even destroyed because of their choices, they might realize the impact of their decisions in real life, take this information and apply it to actual conservation efforts, as well as become more conscientious of every day actions. Perhaps then we would hear less of extinction stories and more of successful conservation efforts.

There are, of course, potential drawbacks to this system. The game would be a simplification of the real world, due to inherent limitations in our technology, but would also have to be sufficiently complex to model the effects on the environment that all the different possible actions would create. In addition to this, the game would have to be user-friendly: easy to control and get the hand of, so people do not become frustrated with mechanics. However, these problems could be worked out as the game develops, improving with the feedback of players.

As the authors mention, the “integrated gaming approach…could revolutionize the study of ecosystem services.”[1] By creating an interesting, easy to use, easy to understand method of playing out the effects of human decisions, we could bring ecological understanding and conservation efforts to the forefront of society, making it a tangible issue with concrete implications that can be clearly seen by everyone. As Robert Costanza notes, there is a “web of interconnections uniting the … global ecosystem.”[2] By making this connection from what’s on people’s screens to what’s going on in the surrounding world, we could make conservation and ecology as a whole topics widely acknowledged, and understood, by the population at large.

[1] (Costanza, 2014)

[2] (Costanza, 1992)


Costanza, R. e. (2014). Simulation games that integrate research, entertainment, and learning around ecosystem services. ScienceDirect, 195-201. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S221204161400117X

Robert Costanza, Ecological Economics: the science and management of sustainability. Columbia University Press, 1992.

This entry was posted in Conservation Biology Posts, Conservation Editorials 2015. Bookmark the permalink.

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