Published on October 21st, 2022 | by David Marshall

Episode 146/147: Palaeo Gaming

Computer games are a colossal industry, eclipsing those of both film and music combined. With so many people playing games, and with so many titles focussing on palaeontological themes, should we be concerned about the accuracy and quality of their content?

Joining us for this episode are Thomas Clements and Jake Atterby (both of the University of Birmingham), lead authors on a paper in which they address this issue as communicators of science. We discuss what some of the most common negative tropes within these games are, whether or not games should be used to teach palaeo, and why any of us should care anyway.

If you like this content and wish to see full reviews of many of these games (and lots more), please check out the Palaeocast Gaming Network channel on YouTube.

A timeline of major events in palaeontology, video games, and palaeontological video games between 1970–2020. It’s interesting to see that dinosaurs made an appearance so early in the history of gaming.
(a) Number of PC games released per year on Steam, the largest video game digital distribution service. (b) Number of games released per year that utilise palaeontological keyword “tags” on Steam. (c) Percentage of palaeontological commercial video games on Steam that contain dinosaurs versus those that only contain non-dinosaurian ancient animals (excluding crown group birds). (d) Breakdown of palaeontological commergial video games on Steam by categories
Examples of fossil collectibles in commercial video games. (a) “Generic fossil”. (b) Prehistoric skull (described in game as a ground sloth skull). (c) Trilobite. (d) Nautilus Fossil. (e) Dinosaur bone (note: this is a walrus skull). (f) “Enormous Trilobite”. (g) Raptor Claw. (h) “Perfectly Preserved Moustache”. (i) T. rex skull. (j) Ammonite. (k) Sabretooth skull. (l) Fossil Fern. (m) Footprint Fossil. (n) Fossil Rib Cage. (o) Helix fossil. (p) Anomalocaris(q) Coprolite. (r) Ammonite (s) Shark-tooth pattern (note: this is a Helicoprion tooth “whorl”) (t) completed Ophthalmosaurus skeleton consisting of two collectibles – Ophthalmosaurus skull (which includes the front flippers and anterior section of the ribcage) and the Ophthalmosaurus torso (consisting of posterior ribs, hind flippers, and tail section). Video games: (a)No Man’s Sky (2016, Hello Games). (b–d)Stardew Valley (2016, ConcernedApe). (e)Red Dead Redemption 2 (2018, Rockstar Games). (f–h)The Sims 4 (2014, Maxis). (i–m)Starbound (2016, Chucklefish). (n)Minecraft (2011, Mojang). (o): Pokémon series (1999, Gamefreak). (p–t)Animal Crossing: New Horizons (2020, Nintendo EAD).

Unfortunately, the majority of titles show dinosaurs as adversaries (65%). In many of these games, the dinosaurs could be substituted for any other monster/alien/zombie without drastically changing the mechanics of the game. Such titles are obviously not accurate, but might still represent a large proportion of any given individual’s exposure to palaeontological science.

ARK: Survival Evolved is a survival/crafting game with a palaeontological focus. It has one of the largest fanbases of any palaeontology-focused game. Unfortunately, the diverse and disparate range of fossil organisms depicted are all artistically enhanced and the are numerous anachronisms.
Compounding the issue are that entirely fictional organisms inhabit the world, thus blurring the lines between what appears as fact and fiction to a lay audience.
Fortunately, many other games take a much more considered approach and attempt to allow players to experience accurate simulations of past ecosystems. See Episode 65: Saurian.
Some games, such as Dinosaur Fossil Hunter, allow the player to simulate being a palaeontologist. In this case, you are unfortunately required to play as a cliched middle-aged white man in a fedora.
This game is wonderful for showing the laborious processes of discovering dinosaurs in the field and the subsequent preparation processes. Finally, you get to see your fossils on display in your own museum.
Unfortunately, the purported accuracy of these games exacerbates the mistakes and misconceptions that they contain. Here, a Geiger counter is used to detect bone within solid rock.
Other games, such as Fossil Corner are able to present scientific concepts in an engaging and entertaining way.
Here, the concepts of anatomy, cladistics and evolution through geological time are all very well communicated, however the game is obviously required to simplify these processes.

Interestingly, some of the best games for education are those that inadvertently include palaeontological content or that can be used as a tool for the delivery of educational material. Such titles would include real-world simulators like American Truck Simulator or Microsoft Flight Simulator.

Games such like Minecraft can be ‘modded’ to contain additional content outside of the original scope of the game. In the Prehistoric Nature Mod, a vast number of palaeontological organisms have been added to Minecraft creating might possibly be the most complete and accurate representation of the fossil record in its entirety.

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