Did you know that gaming can be a valuable conservation tool?

Birds chirp, leaves rustle, and within seconds your phone has transported you to a forest in Rwanda. The sounds of the natural ecosystem immediately calm your nerves and as you pan left you see a little ball of fur. It’s a baby gorilla! The cute little one rolls over and eats termites one-by-one, savoring them and chewing thoughtfully. As you walk over to explore, the forest continues to grow around you.

It’s easy to expand this digital ecosystem… but does any of this make a difference in the real world? Could we use this experience to help threatened species, such as the gorillas?

As a research scientist, Ketaki Shriram, PhD., co-founder and CTO of Krikey, actually studied mobile game psychology at Stanford University to understand how immersive experiences could impact user empathy.

In a promising VR experiment where participants cut down a virtual tree, researchers saw them use less paper towels immediately following the experience… and for up to a week after! It was a powerful behavioral change that indicated the power of virtual experiences on empathy.

In another experiment, participants embodied a piece of acidifying coral in VR and saw themselves deteriorating in the ocean. The results: those who experienced the underwater virtual reality were more likely to show empathy towards the marine ecosystem.

Taking her research and applying it towards AR gaming, Ketaki and her sister (and Krikey co-founder) hope to use the ever-present mobile phones — plus the fun of immersive gaming — to build empathy for nature, as well as endangered species like the gorillas. “If we can thoughtfully build mobile games, blending creativity, kindness and scientific research - then maybe we can bring people together to contribute positively to society and protect our ecosystems,” said Ketaki.

So ultimately, the answer is YES — virtual and augmented reality are a proven tool to help serve conservation purposes.

And it’s our hope that not only will you have a ton of fun with Gorillas!, but that you’ll also feel more connected to these amazing creatures.

[For a deeper dive on the topic, see Ketaki’s op-ed “Augmented reality can foster empathy — and games can take advantage”]

Casey Rogers