Paleontologists Say Gaming Does Dinosaurs Dirty

Published: September 28, 2022 10:49 AM /

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A T-Rex skeleton in the game Dinosaur Fossil Hunter, one of the games named in a new study suggesting gaming does paleontology dirty.

A new study has concluded that paleontology is badly represented by gaming as a whole. The study points to "negative and harmful themes" that cause players to misunderstand the science of paleontology and those who practice it, with particular reference to games like Red Dead Redemption 2 and Ark: Survival Evolved.

The actual scientific paper is pretty lengthy, but in summary, researchers from around the world led by a team from the UK's University of Birmingham played a range of games "containing elements of paleontology". These games included Super Mario WorldAnimal Crossing, and Red Dead Redemption 2. Said study also includes a rather endearing diagram depicting the parallel histories of gaming and paleontology throughout the years, from the inception of Pong all the way through to the discovery of an "unusually complete ankylosaur 'mummy'" in 2017 and beyond.

Co-author Dr. Thomas Clements says that the team found "misleading, negative, and sometimes quite damaging themes" surrounding paleontology in the games they played, particularly referencing "monsterification" of dinosaurs and ancient animals, as well as hypersexualization of women and poor representation of minority groups. 

Two cowboys riding through an idyllic pasture in Red Dead Redemption 2
Red Dead Redemption 2 might be a gorgeous game, but a group of researchers say it gets paleontology all wrong.

In broad strokes, the study suggests that educational opportunities are being missed when it comes to dinosaurs and ancient animals in gaming. Many games focus on killing dinosaurs or collecting fossils for monetary gain rather than studying them; the study does point to games like Jurassic World: Evolution and Parkasaurus as having "the most detailed compendiums on ancient organisms", but suggests that if information in these games is inaccurate, it is "misleading".

Other issues the study points to include a lack of paleodiversity, with dinosaurs like Tyrannosaurus rex, Stegosaurus, and Brontosaurus often being overrepresented. Honestly, I tend to agree; where are all the TechRaptors? When those creatures do appear, they're often enemies or "ancient death machines" (which sounds pretty awesome) rather than simply animals trying to live their lives. The study's authors call this "monsterification", a process by which dinosaurs are rendered highly aggressive across the board without regard to whether those specific species actually were aggressive or not.

It's not just the dinos themselves: paleontology is also misrepresented

This new study's authors also say that as well as the dinosaurs themselves, paleontology as a field is often misrepresented. They point to a specific example in Red Dead Redemption 2, where the player meets a paleontologist "most likely inspired by [real-life paleontologist] Mary Anning" who later turns out to be a "terrible scientist all along". When this isn't the case, paleontologists are "male, pale, and stale" for the most part.

The science itself is also often depicted inaccurately, according to the study. Games take "creative liberties in order to make engaging gameplay mechanics", the study says, which could give players an "inaccurate or misleading" idea of paleontology. This can include misrepresenting evolution (naturally, the study points to Pokemon here), as well as cloning extinct animals, staying current with paleontological science, and misrepresenting the ethics of paleontology.

The main character, a very Indiana Jones-esque character, in Dinosaur Fossil Hunter
Dinosaur Fossil Hunter is an example of a game that misrepresents paleontology and paleontologists, according to a new study.

Not only is paleontology misrepresented, but according to the study, games featuring paleontology often fall prey to perpetuation of harmful stereotypes surrounding women and minority groups. While the study does suggest that "hypersexualization of women video game characters has decreased" since the 90s, citing Lara Croft as an example, it also points to a study from 2016 showing that women are still depicted "in secondary roles" and are usually more sexualized than men in games.

The study acknowledges that these tropes are not unique to what it calls "paleo-games", but that they "warrant attention" from science communicators and educators, as they might affect how paleontology is perceived. I'd highly recommend reading the full research paper; while it is quite lengthy, it's also fascinating, and it highlights what many gamers might see as an underrepresented problem in the world of gaming.

 

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