A frequent topic of discussion in the gaming world is whether video games have the potential to teach players about difficult scientific processes and if so, whether they can convey these processes accurately.
Ancestors and Shelter, both survival RPG’s with interactive evolution as a game mechanic, are the perfect examples to use in answering this question. Both of these games display the fragility of life and give players a sense of personal accountability for the process of evolution, the battle of the survival of the fittest.
If you’re like me and procrastinate from your upcoming assignments by immersing yourself in games, then these RPG’s are perfect for you. You can study for that biology test whilst doing what you love the most: it’s a win-win situation.
Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey
Developed by Panache Digital games and published by Private Division in 2019, Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey, is a third person, survival RPG.
In Ancestors, the player takes the role of a primate ten million years ago and must aim to successfully evolve over the course of 8 million years to our closest ancestor. The player is in complete control of this process of evolution. However, the game does not provide directions on how to progress, it is a learning process instead. After all, our own ancestors didn’t have cheat codes or tutorials on how to survive, unfortunately.
Ancestors rewards curiosity, by providing an experience bar called a neuronal gauge which allows the player to unlock neuronal points and evolve their primates into the next generation. To gain neuronal points, player’s must-have one primate offspring with them at all times when exploring the open world map of Africa, otherwise, no experience will be gained.
While exploring the map, player’s will begin to notice that any slight change of habit or structure may benefit their primates and offspring, beginning the process of Natural selection. This mimics what Darwin pointed out all those years ago: how individual species experience a change in their structure, to better suit their needs in their surrounding environment.
An example of one of these changes is shown through the evolution of the next generation of these primates, which allows the player to gain the ability to consistently walk on their two back legs, instead of walking on all four limbs. This term is known as bipedalism, where you can walk on two legs instead of four, well done you. The primate is then able to carry tools such as spears in their hands to better protect themselves from predators. As Darwin has previously pointed out, a change in skills enables a species to profit from this change, as it allows them to better protect themselves from predation and requires less energy than walking on all four limbs.
In Ancestors, new generations and clan evolution is the purpose of the game. Players must acquire new skills, mature genetic mutations and become a more advanced hominid to advance to the next generation, that is, to progress within the game. This seems to be a conscious design choice from Panache. By allowing players to have the ability to control how they would like to evolve their primates, they are able to trace the doings of their ancestors and learn about how the process of evolution works, such as the reproduction and heredity or the diversity and adaptations of the primates within the game.
Extensive scientific research was necessary for creating Ancestors. Mark Maslin’s The Cradle of Humanity was used as a reference text in the development of the game. This details the theory of human evolution in relation to East Africa’s changing landscape, which is where the game is set. It describes how this landscape was affected millions of years ago by climate change, which ultimately led to the brain development of our ancestors, due to the selection pressures that they faced.
So, you really are learning whilst immersing yourself in the beautiful environment within Ancestors, as it is all inspired by up-to-date scientific research.
Another game that has similar themes but is also extremely different to Ancestors is Shelter: a third-person, survival RPG which was published and developed in 2013 by Might and Delight.
In Shelter, the player takes the role of a badger mother, who is in charge of five cubs and the aim is to complete the game with all five cubs at the end: sounds simple right? Wrong.
The game does not portray a beautiful tour of the existence of animals. This isn’t Nintendogs where you can take your dog on a walk, give it a treat and it’s happy days. The badger cubs are repeatedly threatened by starvation, forest fire, floods as well as terrestrial and airborne predators throughout the gameplay of Shelter.
Although it may appear to be a sweet, maternal narrative of a mother caring for her cubs like most contemporary animal games, Shelter instead portrays the violent, horrific and depressing parts of nature, to stress the fragility of life and the reality of surviving through the pressures that are involved within Natural Selection. Although the player is unable to jump through time or witness evolution like Ancestors, Shelter teaches players about the selection pressures that animals in the wild face in the battle of the survival of the fittest.
Spoiler alert: at first, it appears that the player is in full control of the survival of the cubs and the mother badger throughout the game. But, sadly they aren’t. If the player has been able to keep the cubs alive until the end of the game, the mother badger will die instead, meaning that there is no possibility for all six badgers to remain alive. It’s heart-breaking and makes it inevitable that the player will feel personally accountable for the death of their badgers, even though one of them is always guaranteed to die.
The control that the player believes they have over the badgers shows how actions within the game matter and have consequences. The player believes they are in full control of the animals but it is in fact nature and external factors such as predators, Natural Selection and the environment which are in control of their fate, which ultimately determines what happens to the animals at the end.
Shelter teaches us about the process of evolution by showing animals within their natural habitat and the pressures that they face in the wild. The players’ attempts to ease these pressures for the badgers is a hardwired behaviour, in which humans feel responsible for taking care of animals. However, the reality of this is, is that nature is unable to be fully controlled, as animal instincts and food sources ensure that nature consists of a battle of the survival of the fittest.
The habitat and pressures that the badgers face within their environment displays scientific information about the evolutionary process, such as the structure and function in the badgers’ living systems, through the processes of reproduction and heredity as well as the regulation and behaviour of the badgers.
Might and Delight’s choice to display these processes also show how the player's actions within a game can be a way to trace the actions of others. That is, the pressures that animals face during the process of Natural Selection in the wild: to ensure that they have the best chance of surviving the pressures and changes in the conditions of life.
The most gut-wrenching part is that the player has to choose which cub to feed if there is not enough food sources available to them, which further displays the pressures that animals experience, specifically starvation.
The depictions of pain and struggle that the animals in both of these games must face, helps the player to learn more about the nature of animals in their environment, specifically their adaptations of the structure and function in living systems and the diversity and adaptations of organisms in animals.
Both of these games provide players with a rich, immersive, learning environment that helps them to understand the process of evolution and the capability of contemporary video games to teach players about scientific theory in a more comprehensible way. In these survival RPG’s, the game mechanic of interactive evolution gives players the ability to control the speed, process and causation of evolution, which highlights humanity’s moral responsibility to and participation in the natural world. By allowing players to have this control, they will learn how evolution works because they are the ones doing it and actively witnessing it.
I believe that these examples display that difficult topics such as the theory of evolution can be effectively educated through gameplay. Despite the difficult themes within these games, wouldn’t all of us prefer to learn about scientific topics through gameplay, rather than spend hours sifting
through a textbook?
What do you think, are there any other games you know that could be used to teach scientific theories? Let us know in the comments.
Enjoying our work? Give us a follow everywhere and tell a friend!
PLAY, OBEY, CONSUME.