Monterey Bay Aquarium Exhibit Channels Empathy Through Gamification
The Monterey Bay Aquarium in California has developed a unique way for visitors to feel empathy for wild animals and inspire visitors to care about protecting threatened species in nature.
The aquarium’s latest exhibition, Into the Deep—Exploring Our Undiscovered Ocean, allows guests to explore Earth’s chasmic oceans and experience some of the unusual and marvelous animals living beneath the surface.
The exhibit features a large bilingual video game named “Eat or Be Eaten,” where players become avatars of deep-sea creatures and try to survive the challenging environment of the midwater, a seldom seen area located between sunlit water and the deep seafloor. There’s little or no sunlight and no place to hide, but there are predators and dangerous microplastics created by man.
“We’re telling the story of life in the deep sea, which is the least explored and understood habitat on Earth, but is full of really cool animals,” Erica Kelly, director of exhibition content for the aquarium, tells Funworld. “We wanted to communicate that animals in the deep are living in a really challenging environment, and now there’s this added extra challenge that a percentage of the food they’re eating is microplastics.”
Gamifying the Experience
The tiny bits of food the animals consume are called marine snow because they actually look like snow. But unfortunately, mixed into it are microplastics. Kelly says the aquarium knows there’s a relationship between people who have empathy for wildlife and wanting to protect that wildlife, and the aquarium needed a way to tap into that.
“We arrived at using a video game because we realized that much of what we wanted to communicate is a lot of what gaming is—trying to deal with and escape challenging environments,” she says. “We’re really fortunate to have an in-house team of interactive media developers and designers with game development backgrounds and expertise.”
Harnessing the team’s talent, the aquarium developed and built the game in-house. Producers partnered with the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute to make sure the science in the game was correct. Through gaming, visitors can take on the identities of animals and develop empathy for their challenges to survive.
A Deeper Meaning
Kelly says the aquarium wanted to stress the importance of conservation without creating a depressing feeling in its guests, and the fun of the game strikes the right balance. “I’ve been doing this work for 20 years, and the constant challenge is trying to balance accuracy with fun,” she says.
After players choose their avatar, they control it at one of four PlayStations. They begin eating the white dots of marine snow and are told if it’s plant and animal parts or microplastics. The game lasts about a minute and then informs players if they ate enough food to survive, and avoided consuming plastic. Kelly says many visitors play the game more than once.
As for guidance to other aquariums or even zoos that want to use a game in this way, Kelly advises, “Test it, test it, test it, and do it with kids, because if they’re bored, they’ll tell you! We tested ours with aquarium families.”