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Sunday, April 14, 2024

Video Games Need Better Dinosaurs. Paleontologists Can Help

In 1982, one of the first 3D games ever released doubled as one of the earliest examples of survival horror. In the pixelated 3D Monster Maze, you not only had to find your way out of a maze but survive being hunted by a T. rex. In the decades since, the dino-horror genre has only grown, from 1999’s DinoCrisis to 2016’s Far Cry Primal, but dinosaurs have also become more than in-game monsters. 

We’ve seen dinosaurs as allies (Yoshi, Pokemon), dinosaurs as attractions (park sims like Zoo Tycoon or Jurassic World), or dinosaurs and their fossils as collectibles (see the in-game markets of Sims or Animal Crossing). The way games have depicted both ancient animals and the paleontologists who study them has gotten richer and deeper as time has passed—though there’s still plenty of pixelated T. rexes chomping off people’s heads.

But what do paleontologists—the ones collaborating on new discoveries, solving ancient mysteries, and simulating dinosaur physics in labs—think of paleontological games? I flew to Denver to find out. From mazes of Mesozoic posters to surreal ballroom gatherings, I’ve been around asking.

Last October, thousands of members of the Geological Society of America met in Denver, Colorado. Ever since their founding in 1888, their annual meeting has been a central gathering place for geologic minds, opinions, and hundreds of posters that fill hangar-size conference halls. Though part of a historical society, the next gen of geologists in Denver were diverse, excited, and connected. At the GSA social hour, amongst the flow of free soda, hard seltzer, and experts in Saskatchewan uranium deposits, undergrads sported crisp gorpcore outfits and hunted for TikTok-famous geologists in the crowd.

These real-life scientists are far from the snooty, dignified, bow-tied paleontologists depicted in games, most famously Animal Crossing’s Blathers. “He’s very annoying. I hope I’m not like him,” says Rebecca Starkey, a student at College of Charleston. Experts say that the paleontologists we see in games—the colonial antiquarians, the Indiana Jones adventurers,  and the “brilliant lone scientists” who scoff at teamwork or basic ethics—limit both media representations of the geosciences and also potential gameplay mechanics. Collaborative dinosaur fieldwork is full of gameplay opportunities, especially in a genre flush with minigames about racing to collect and sell bones. Geologist Robin Trayler will even avoid board games about the topic. “At least the commercial ones have an antiquated view. I don't want the field to be viewed as cutthroat and competitive; it should be about collaboration.”

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“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 Norris 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.

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The most marine-centered event at GSA was also one of the loudest voices in the chorus for pro-ammonite games. The final night of the conference, I stumbled up to a Hyatt Regency ballroom for the long-awaited social event “Friends of the Cephalopods.” Under a vaulted ceiling, academics, museum workers, and the octopus-curious passed around a flagon of Kraken Rum. They drank to cephalopods and laughed whenever a vertebrate came up in conversation. Among them, in Sable-like cloaks, was Olivia Jenkins, art and programming lead on Ancient Oceans, an ammonite roguelike game out of University of Utah’s Ammonite Motility Modeling Lab. Working alongside assistant professor Kathleen Ritterbush, the game was based on the lab’s research into how ammonites lived and competed for resources.

In different oceanic eras, players will take on different shell permutations as they try to survive, balancing factors like speed, endurance, and hunger. Jenkins hopes Ancient Oceans will be enjoyable to all—not only cephalopod friends. It sacrifices some accuracy for entertainment, but that doesn’t mean players won’t learn. 

“I learned more about the Cold War from Metal Gear Solid 3 than I ever did in the public education system,” Jenkins says. “Just by having it be incidental to information that was directly relevant to me as a player, I was able to learn about it and had incentive to remember details.” Bonus information can be tucked into optional parts of the game, inspired by the Super Smash Bros Brawl trophy gallery. The Geoscience Communications paper authors also discussed similar options like glossaries or encyclopedias as helpful guides for the paleo-curious without forcing anyone to learn. “I'm trying to encourage people to look at the information that is being provided by the game without shoving it down their throats,” Jenkins says. “And that's a tough balance. Hopefully, I hit it.”

An augmented-reality version of Ancient Oceans, using Unreal Engine 4 on museum tablets, is slated for release in spring of 2023, with more gameplay-centric beta versions releasing in the summer.. The project is funded by the National Science Foundation, and Ritterbush has budgeted for Ancient Oceans to be updated every year as new discoveries are made in the lab and in the field. If a shell shape or species is discovered to have new benefits, that will be programmed into the backend of the game and be reflected in new strategies to win.

Paleontology studies the world’s oldest organisms, the bedrock of biology and ecology, but that doesn’t mean the technology to share this research is stuck in the past. Posters at GSA focused on virtual field trips, interactive fossil software, community-building podcasts, and Minecraft—both to teach and to simulate geologic phenomena. Video games are just another tool to toy with billions of years of history. That history can be played with in just as many permutations, whether that’s cooperative dig sims or gotta-catch-'em-all animal hunting games.

On a breezy rooftop bar, I met Vanderbilt University assistant professor Neil Kelley, who appreciated Pokémon’s animal diversity as much as his pro-Blathers peers across the rooftop. “In terms of the representation of really obscure groups that never get any kind of popular media representation, there's a lot of them in Pokémon,” Kelley said. As we spoke, his kid huddled beneath him, catching Eevee in Pokémon Go. “Good exposure to biodiversity!” Kelley said as we took notice of the live monster-catching going on below us. Eevee, Kelley explained, was a great example of adaptive evolution, as Eevee can transform itself based on environmental factors. I asked what adaptive evolution was, and, before I could stop myself, I was once again, accidentally, learning about paleontology.

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