Conservationists hope a game invented by a PhD student, that uses the same equations used by scientists to study real world ecosystems, will provide some real-life solutions to save endangered species and conserve biodiversity. Researchers are optimistic that EcoBuilder will enable them to crowdsource players’ interesting and unique strategies that lead to the healthiest ecosystems, thus providing a pipeline of ‘citizen science’ input.

The student, Jonathan Zheng of the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering at Imperial College London, UK, was inspired by a real project to save the habitat of Yellowstone National Park in the USA. 

By 1926, wolves had been hunted to the point of being declared extinct in the park. The lack of wolves meant that the population of elk boomed. The elk, in their vast numbers, ate too much vegetation, which in turn caused smaller animals such as beavers and fish to struggle and eventually they became extinct as well.

Following failed attempts to control the elk population by hunting and moving them, ecologists finally reintroduced 14 wolves from Canada back into the park in 1995. They suppressed the elk, triggering a chain of effects that rippled through the ecosystem. Fewer elk meant plants could grow bigger and taller; more plants meant beavers could return and build dams again; the dams drew fish and more water back into the rivers and lakes. The ecosystem was saved.

The purpose of telling this story about the wolves is to emphasise that to create a pipeline of environmental solutions from citizen scientists, Ecobuilder is structured in two parts. 

Learning World first gradually teaches players ecological phenomena of how different sizes and biomasses of animals and plants interact with one another, as in Yellowstone, using colourful graphics and characters. In the scenarios that are presented, the researchers already know the answers, or the best ways to preserve the ecosystem without extinctions.

Crowdsourcing Environmental Solutions Through An Online Game That Builds EcosystemsOnce players master the Learning World (through achieving good scores) they move on to the Research World, which presents them with ecological puzzles to which the researchers are unsure of the answers. 

Players can build ecosystems of plants and animals, bringing together groups of species of different shapes and sizes. The in-game processes that decide extinction and survival are modelled using the same equations used by scientists to study real world ecosystems. This means that natural phenomena can be reproduced inside the game, with ecosystems behaving in realistic ways.

This is where the impact of game players’ decisions on “man-made interference” with the natural order of things could provide the researchers with some solutions to real life challenges.

Project co-supervisor Dr Dan Goodman, also of the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering at Imperial College, said: “Since scientific understanding informs governmental policy, perhaps one day the strategies designed by players may influence decisions made by real conservationists, just like those made to reintroduce wolves back to Yellowstone Park.”