Griffith researchers Associate Professor Alexandra Coghlan and Mr Lewis Carter, current PhD candidate, have joined forces to combine their interests in the environment and marine conservation to develop a virtual reality game called ‘Resilient Reef – a VR game for reef conservation’ to educate and build awareness and empathy for protecting marine ecosystems.
Armed with a new social enterprise called Eco Games and an interesting game idea that allows users to build their own virtual reef world—while learning about the science of ecosystems and managing threats, such as plastics, coral bleaching and sea urchins—the team has built and tested a game prototype that has received praise from hundreds of users. After 18 months in development, the team is now on their way to Phase Two, thanks to the assistance of a Crowd Funding campaign and the social enterprise community.
“Lewis and I founded the social enterprise Eco Games to create fun and engaging VR games with real-world conservation outcomes,” Associate Professor Coghlan said.
“We teamed up in this enterprise through a shared love of natural environments, a desire to put our experience and knowledge towards a good cause.”
Associate Professor Coghlan, from Griffith Business School’s Department of Tourism, Sport and Hotel Management, is a marine and environmental biologist as well as a dive master. She has been researching environmental tourism for over a decade and involved in nature-based tourism and conservation for nearly two decades. She is passionate about making conservation fun and interesting for everyone.
“With the help of a small team of app developers and with seed funding from the Australian National Commission for UNESCO, Lewis and I combined our varied skills in VR and gaming, and marine biology to create our first game called ResilientReef,” Associate Professor Coghlan said.
“It’s a way for people to connect with nature at their own pace, through a game. And that was super important to me.”
Mr Carter is currently a PhD candidate at Griffith University, researching game design and emerging technologies while working on the project that started Eco Games. He is an academic tutor, an avid lover of games, and eager to use his skills and knowledge for environmental impact. He explains the ResilientReef game further in a video.
“When you put the VR headset on you’re faced with an empty seascape and it’s up to you to build a reef and look after it. As your reef grows, more wildlife will move in, but it will be up to you to expand your reef so that bigger wildlife will want to move in,” Mr Carter said.
In Phase Two the game is being updated to facilitate in-game purchases that link game management outcomes, such as removing threats like plastics or coral bleaching from your virtual reef, with donating to aligned conservation causes, e.g. Cairns Turtle Rehabilitation Centre and other marine wildlife rescue centres.
“As you play the game you are going to face threats, like bleaching events or sea urchins, and it is up to you to protect the reef. So for example if you found a plastic bag in your reef and it’s harming your turtles, you can buy an in-app purchase that will remove plastic bags and this money would go to turtle rescue centres,” Mr Carter said.
New user interfaces and menus will be developed for the game that will connect with a range of conservation organisations, so that users will be able to select preferred suppliers to direct their donations. The team are looking to reach their Phase Two funding goal through the Crowd Funding campaign by mid-year, and their ambition is to have a new edition out by the end of the year.
“In Phase Two our vision is to tie purchases back to conservation efforts, so that it will make it a little bit easier for you to handle these threats, and that money will go towards conservation efforts related to them,” Mr Carter said.
“We’ve tested the game and we know it promotes marine conservation awareness and empathy, but now we need help to build it bigger and better and bring in real-world action.”
So far a range of supporters from Great Barrier Reef tourists and operators, to marine conservationists and social enterprise affiliates have played the game and enjoyed the new learning experience of mixing gaming and marine conversation. They’re all advocates in advancing the game’s development that will help ecosystems thrive and assist funding reef conservation outcomes.
“To make sure our game reaches the right people and is fun to play and makes people care about the future of the reef, we’ve been working with industry partners, particularly reef tourism operators,” Associate Professor Coghlan said.
The game’s development team have also connected with Griffith’s Yunus Social Business Centre and a social enterprise network called Impact Boom who are both supporting and involved with the Elevate+ Accelerator Program for new social enterprise start-ups in Brisbane.
As a part of the Elevate+ Accelerator Program sponsored by Griffith University and the Brisbane City Council, the team are attending a Start-up Business Pitch Event on June 6 in Brisbane. If you would like to learn more about the ResilientReef game, Associate Professor Coghlan and Mr Carter will be presenting at the event that will have fifteen social enterprises and the entire Brisbane social enterprise community attending.
To learn more about the ResilientReef game or how you can support marine conservation on the Great Barrier Reef, please contact Associate Professor Alexandra (Ali) Coghlan.