The story behind EcoBuilder starts with a howl—the howl of wolves in Yellowstone park in America. But it was not always possible to hear it; in 1926, wolves were declared officially extinct in the park due to a lack of anti-hunting regulation at the time. In the following years ecologists noticed that the ecosystem in Yellowstone was not as healthy as it used to be. The loss of the wolves meant that elk no longer had any natural predators, leaving them free to eat up as many plants as they wanted without risk of predation. This led to the abundance of plants hitting an all time low, causing smaller animals such as beavers and fish to struggle and eventually go extinct as well. Attempts were made by wildlife conservationists to suppress the elk population by moving or hunting them, but were not sufficient to bring the ecosystem back to its original state. Ecologists then came up with the idea of reintroducing wolves to try and save the ecosystem, and in January of 1995, 14 wolves were captured from parks in Canada to be reintroduced into Yellowstone.
And it worked! The elk population was successfully suppressed, and what occurred was known as a 'trophic cascade', meaning a chain reaction of effects rippling 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; and so on and so forth. After watching a documentary about this, Dr. Dan Goodman at Imperial College came up with an idea: wouldn't it be cool to simulate a world in which to make these decisions yourself?
And so he set out on a quest to make a video game where this was possible. Dr. Goodman is a neuroscientist, however, and to supplement knowledge on the ecology side he got in touch with Dr. Samraat Pawar in the Life Sciences department, and together proposed a student project to make the game. Two PhD students, Jonathan Zheng and Hsi-Cheng Ho, have been working in collaboration with Dr. Goodman and Dr. Pawar for the past 4 years to design and build the game into what you can play today!
EcoBuilder is a puzzle game where you build your own ecosystem of plants and animals, and can make the same sorts of decisions that ecologists made in Yellowstone. You throw together a bunch of species of different shapes and sizes, decide who eats who, and depending on your decisions species will either survive or go extinct. This is not unlike the premise behind other 'god games' in the market, such as 'The Sims' or 'Spore'. However, the unique element of EcoBuilder is that the simulation that decides extinction and survival is modelled using the same equations that researchers use to study real world ecosystems. This means that natural phenomena can be reproduced inside the game, leading to ecosystems that behave as close to reality as is feasible, given the constraints of running it on the phone in your pocket.
This means that the game has a powerful capacity for outreach and teaching purposes, as the player will learn how ecosystems function and therefore why they may collapse from even small changes to their structure. Raising awareness for environmental issues is as important as ever, especially given the fragility of many ecosystems around the world due to the effects of global warming.
That is only half of the game's objective, however, as the game also hopes to leverage citizen science: the concept of crowdsourcing the intellectual power of the general public to further research. If you get really good at playing the game, and thus finding interesting and unique strategies that lead to the healthiest ecosystems, then us researchers can analyse these strategies to help understand ecosystems better ourselves! The equations used in the game simulation are complex, and researchers do not yet fully understand their behaviour. This means that successful game strategies have the potential to make their way into the research literature and expand our understanding of ecology. And 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.