The educational value of virtual ecologies in Red Dead Redemption 2.
Playing video games is often perceived as the antithesis of engaging with, and learning about, the natural world. Nevertheless, there is growing recognition that digital media is now a central part of many people's lives. This has led to increased efforts to harness the power and popularity of digital games for both ecological education and conservation advocacy. Games designed for educational purposes may be perceived as too niche, or have insufficient resources, to reach wider audiences. In contrast, big budget video games reach many millions of players, but are generally designed for entertainment rather than education. Red Dead Redemption 2 (RDR2), a Western-themed action-adventure game, is one such product. Nevertheless, due to its detailed, open-world simulation of late 19th century North American ecosystems, it provides opportunities for players to learn about real-world wildlife. We surveyed self-described gamers who both had, and had not, played RDR2. Participants undertook a wildlife identification quiz focusing on 15 species depicted in the game. We also asked participants about their self-reported learning and experiences of playing RDR2. We found that participants who had played RDR2 correctly identified more species in the quiz, with this improvement enhanced by having completed the game's main storyline, played more recently or played online in a 'Naturalist' role. The difference in performance was greatest for ungulate and fish species which have high in-game utility value. In addition to species identification, participants reported learning about animal behaviours and interspecies interactions. Their most memorable experiences were associated with RDR2's immersive environment and ability to provoke emotional responses. We conclude that big-budget video games can have educational as well as entertainment value and should be taken seriously by educators, ecologists and conservationists as a communicative force.