Everything Dinosaur team members wrote a blog post a few days ago about how palaeontology is depicted in video games. The University of Birmingham led research, published recently in the journal EGUsphere Geoscience Communications, examined 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.

To read Everything Dinosaur’s blog post about this research: Palaeontology in Video Games.

Nanmu Studio Indominus Berserker Rex
A model of a genetically designed dinosaur. Inspired by InGen? Video games and other media such as films are having a big influence on how the Dinosauria are perceived by the public.

Classifying How Video Games Depict Palaeontology

In order to understand how palaeontology and other related Earth sciences are portrayed, the research team looked at palaeontological content and classified it into a number of categories.

Here is the list of categories the team used:

  • Ancient animals as adversaries – using ancient animals – typically dinosaurs and pterosaurs – as adversaries that must be killed. Examples include The Legend of Zelda, Tomb Raider and Peter Jackson’s King Kong video game.
  • Ancient animals as tools – for example Yoshi, an omnivorous theropod dinosaur who first appeared in Super Mario World as a mount for the Mario brothers in their adventures to rescue Princess Peach.
  • Fossils as collectables – items found throughout the game setting to help the player progress through the game. For example, Red Dead Redemption 2 features a side quest to locate 30 fossil specimens in order to assist an aspiring palaeontologist.
  • Ancient animal management simulators, otherwise referred to as “park sims” – games such as the Jurassic World Evolution aim to construct a financially viable park or zoo.
  • Ancient animal simulators – players control an individual animal through an entire life cycle in a natural, open world, environment such as Saurian or Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey.

Helping or Hindering the Perception of Palaeontology

Once the researchers had classified the video game content, they set about devising a rating system to determine whether the depiction hindered or helped the science of palaeontology and how it was depicted in cyberspace compared to the real world.

The factors analysed to determine the impact were:

  • Ancient death machines – ancient animals as vicious, frightening and brutish enemies for players to combat. AKA ‘monsterification’, the animal’s proportions and features like claws and horns are exaggerated – for example in Ark: Survival Evolved.
  • Fossil = dinosaur = Tyrannosaurus: lack of palaeodiversity – Dinosaurs have become almost synonymous with ancient life in the entertainment industry. Ancient animal diversity is often limited to a handful of “iconic” species recycled by the entertainment industry.
  • Palaeotrivia – In order to help players understand complex topics or introduce story elements, many games feature in-built encyclopaedias about characters, objects and locations in the game setting – particularly in park management games such as Jurassic World: Evolution series.
  • Depiction of palaeontological science – most palaeo-video games integrate science into gameplay that increases the knowledge of the player, but they can take creative liberties in order to make engaging gameplay mechanics. In essence, these games may depart from the science narrative all too readily.
  • Representation of ethics in palaeontological video games – Palaeontology has a long colonial history with deep-rooted exploitative practises which appear within games unchallenged, for example the illegal buying and selling of fossils in Jurassic World: Evolution.
  • Male, pale and stale – palaeontologists in video games are typically depicted as old, white men or the ‘Indiana Jones stereotype’ – for example Stardew Valley and Dinosaur Fossil Hunter.
  • Perpetuation of harmful, misogynistic, and racist tropes – while female lead characters are becoming more commonplace, games still sexualise women more than their male counterparts, particularly in depictions of early humans.

The Most Common Palaeontological Tropes

By highlighting the most common palaeontological tropes, both negative and positive, identified in video games, the researchers hope to assist science communicators when working in the virtual reality or gaming sector. In addition, by flagging common misconceptions and harmful tropes, the research team aims to raise awareness amongst game developers, who may be unaware that they could be perpetuating negative notions about the Earth sciences.

Mosasaurus model.
Nanmu Studio Mosasaurus “Lord of the Abyss”. A marine reptile model inspired by how prehistoric animals are depicted in movies and video games.

The prehistoric animal images used to illustrate this article feature Nanmu Studio prehistoric animal models. To view the Nanmu Studio range in stock at Everything Dinosaur: Nanmu Studio Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal Models.

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.