Is there a video game from your childhood that stands out above the rest? For me, that game is Zoo Tycoon. As a kid, I was a voracious viewer of Animal Planet nature specials. I couldn’t learn enough about animals – their behaviors, their habitats, and their relationships with humans. When Zoo Tycoon 2 was released in 2004, I was delighted to find that the sequel featured many upgrades to the original game, including more accurate animal behaviors. Though there was a lot to learn from the Zoo Tycoon franchise, such as time and money management, my favorite part of the game was the animals. Due to my frequent Zoo Tycoon gameplay, I became a grade-schooler who could tell you all about the different subspecies of Plains Zebras, the reasons why the Giant Panda population was in decline, and a host of other animal facts.
via Zoo Tycoon Wiki
Even though I did not end up a zoo keeper, the game instilled adult-me with a working understanding of conservation: why it is important, how it’s approached by zoos and professionals, and what my part in it is. The knowledge I gained from playing Zoo Tycoon as a child transferred into my present-day thoughts and actions. If you’re a frequent reader of the blog, you’ll know that bridging the gap between playful experiences and their applications in real-world contexts is one of the main principles in creating impactful learning games!
Now more than ever, the planet needs our attention and our efforts towards sustainability, conservation, and more. If you’re looking to introduce the learners in your life (or yourself!) to zoology, conservation, and natural science, video games can be an excellent source of education. Games can simulate cause-and-effect and consequences over long periods of time, allowing us a better representation of the environmental change that we can’t observe in our day-to-day lives.
Check out the following list of conservation and environmental science games below. We hope they can be a jumping-off point for education and action – let us know your thoughts on this list on Twitter and Facebook!
Plasticity is a puzzle-platformer game created by students at the University of Southern California as a part of the USC Dornsife Environmental Studies Program. In the game, players explore a trash-ridden world as Noa, a girl who has left her home in search of a better life. As players make their way through floods and piles of plastic, the decisions they make affect the story, the gameplay, and the environment. While discussing the motivation behind Plasticity with the USC Games Blog, the game’s director Aims Zhang said “‘My team and I came together to make Plasticity because we wanted to inspire others to care about their environmental impact and relationship with single use plastics. We looked at tons of articles, studies and documentaries on how single use plastics not only wreak havoc on the environment, but on so much wildlife and even communities of people.’” You can download and play this 2020 Games for Change Award winner for free on Steam.
Speaking of Games for Change Award winners, Alba: A Wildlife Adventure is a game about saving wildlife and nurturing the environment. Created by ustwo games, players explore a Mediterranean island with protagonist Alba and her friend Ines. Players are tasked with identifying and photographing wildlife, rescuing animals in peril, and caring for the island. Alba: A Wildlife Adventure is designed for players to play at their own pace, and demonstrates that “small actions can make a big difference.” You can play the game with an Apple Arcade subscription, or purchase it for PC, Nintendo Switch, or Xbox.
Along the River of Spacetime is a VR experience game created by designer Elizabeth LaPensée (who also created When Rivers Were Trails, among other titles!). The game also includes contributions from musician Jordan Thomas (also known as Exquisite Ghost) and translator Perry Bebamash. Created with Indigenous Futurism in mind, the game includes teachings on Anishinaabeg land practices, ecology, astronomy, and more. Throughout the experience, players work to restore rivers and eco-systems in Nkwejong (Lansing, MI) by activating stars and creating constellations. This game is available exclusively on Oculus Go, and you can download the game from itch.io.
Dubbed the “spiritual successor to Zoo Tycoon,” Planet Zoo is a sandbox and simulation game where you can build your dream zoo. Manage your zoo carefully in campaign mode, or unleash limitless creativity in sandbox mode. Build habitats, raise generations of unique animals with distinct needs and personalities, and keep guests happy in this next-generation zoo sim! As it happens, this game just released a Conservation Pack in June 2022. With this pack, players can learn about endangered animals such as the amur leopard and the axolotl by placing these animals in their zoos. The pack also simulates the critical role real-life zoos play in conservation efforts! Planet Zoo is available for purchase on Steam.
WolfQuest is an ecology game set in Yellowstone National Park. The creation of this game began in 2006 when The National Science Foundation awarded the Minnesota Zoo and Eduweb a grant to develop the game. Since 2013, the game has been solely developed by Eduweb, and it received a complete remake in 2019 called WolfQuest: Anniversary Edition. In this single and multiplayer game, players control a young gray wolf inhabiting the Northern Range in Yellowstone. With gameplay informed by research on the behavior of real wolves, players must hunt, establish territory, and raise pups in a quest to survive and create a thriving pack. You can purchase WolfQuest on Steam.
Wenazìi K’egoke; See Visions is an interactive VR journey through the Northwest Territories of Canada created by Casey Koyczan and Travis Mercredi. Under the dreamlike colors of the Aurora Borealis, players encounter many different animal spirits along the way. One of the game’s aims is to take players through the stories, myths, and legends of Canada’s Northwest Territories, but the game is also meant to reinforce a feeling of being present in the landscape. Co-creator Koyczan describes the game as “‘…all about being involved in the North,” and notes that the VR experience “‘…reinforces the subtle notion that we are on their [the animals’] territory.’” This game is currently still in development.
Aquation: The Freshwater Access Game is one of the games we designed with our friends at the Smithsonian Institute. Designed to raise awareness and literacy around issues of water conservation, this game provides players with a global perspective on water resource issues. Through strategic gameplay, players can build pipelines, use desalination plants, conduct research, set policy, and allocate resources to ensure no regions go without water. Learn more about how wealth and water have to be carefully managed to solve the world’s water crisis! Aquation: The Freshwater Access Game can be played in and out of the classroom. Play on a web browser or download the game for free on the App Store or Google Play Store.
Rounding out this list of games is one we previously mentioned in our article on VR and the Humanities. Created by Canadian filmmaker Paisley Smith and artist Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun, Unceded Territories explores the inextricable relationship between Indigenous rights and the environment. The game allows players to throw oil paint all around them, only to discover later on that the paint has irrevocably damaged the environment. Featuring music from The Halluci Nation, Unceded Territories is a visual representation of colonialism and its effects on the environment and Indigenous people. The game appeared at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2019 but is not currently available for download.
There you have it! This eclectic group of titles touching on topics from human rights to conservation to ecology emphasize how much of our own lives are intertwined with the health of our environment. Whether you’re brushing up on your water conservation know-how, or looking for a new way to teach your students about respecting the earth and all its inhabitants, we hope you found what you needed in this list. Have an idea for an environmental science game of your own? Let us know!
More educational games featuring our beautiful planet: