Palaeontology, dinosaurs and prehistoric animals are frequently subjects for video games. Players have the opportunity to construct their own “Jurassic Park”, go fossil collecting and combat dinosaurs. A new study indicates that these games may contain negative and harmful themes that can confuse and lead to misconceptions about palaeontology.

An international team of researchers, led by scientists from the University of Birmingham, played and studied a variety of video games containing elements of palaeontology. An eclectic range of video games were sampled including Super Mario World, Animal Crossing and the “Jurassic Park/World” games. The team attempted to map what was “palaeo-fact” and what was “palaeo-fiction”.

A timeline of palaeontology in video games
Timeline of palaeontology in video games. Picture credit: Clements et al/University of Birmingham.

Sorting “Palaeo-fact” from “Palaeo-fiction”

Dr Thomas Clements (University of Birmingham) and a co-author of the study explained:

“Loads of people are inspired by and get their understanding of dinosaurs from movie blockbusters like Jurassic Park, but no one talks about how massive the gaming industry is in shaping not only the public’s understanding of ancient life and also of paleontological science.”

A Triassic forest from a video game.
Gamers will be able to explore a number of terrestrial environments. A Triassic forest environment from a video game. Picture credit: Daniel Carter.

Pleasantly Surprised by the Accuracy

The researchers were pleasantly surprised by the accuracy of some of the games. However, they quickly identified numerous negative tones that were repeatedly reflected in the gaming environment.

Dr Clements commented:

“When we played through many of these games, we were pleasantly surprised about the accuracy of games like Animal Crossing that provide accurate and educational information in a fun and engaging way. However, we also found that many games contain misleading, negative, and sometimes quite damaging themes – many already widespread issues in the gaming industry. It is common for palaeo-games to contain ethically dubious science, the illegal collection of fossils, ‘monsterification’ of animals, poor representation of minority groups, and the hypersexualisation of women.”

Writing in the journal EGUsphere Geoscience Communications, the scientists analysed the representation of palaeontology in hundreds of video games, classifying them into several categories. They then defined a number of factors which may help or hinder a video game’s effectiveness in promoting palaeontology to a wider audience. Their study has implications for ways that science communicators can address these issues when talking to the public about palaeontology and has a wider role in helping to support gender equality and ethnic diversity.

Portraying Palaeontology to the Public

Co-author Jake Atterby (University of Birmingham), stated:

“This paper is about how the science of palaeontology is portrayed to the public, at a time when many people get a lot of their knowledge from media and entertainment. Audiences can subconsciously learn from the media they consume, including depictions of our science that are deliberately exaggerated for entertainment. This can give players a false impression of ancient life and the work that we do. It is important for palaeontologists to understand the public’s perception of our science to help when we communicate our research.

Everything Dinosaur acknowledges the assistance of a media release from the University of Birmingham in the compilation of this article.

The scientific paper: “The perception of palaeontology in commercial off-the-shelf video games and an assessment of their potential as educational tools” by Thomas Clements, Jake Atterby, Terri Cleary, Richard P. Dearden and Valentina Rossi published in EGUsphere Geoscience Communications.

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