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06/08/2020 The Communication Science magazine

VR Butterfly (World)

In a world where we are losing touch with our natural environment, can virtual reality save the day?


As studies continue to report alarming rates of decrease in biodiversity, the world tries to find adequate solutions. The latest innovation in the approaches to this problem came from the Florida International University’s interdisciplinary team of scientists, in a form of a virtual reality game dedicated to insect and plant species. The adventure game is designed to engage its players in a life-like exploration of natural environments with the aim of educating and sparking people’s interest in insect conservation.

Societal developments and progressive urbanisation have led to radical changes to Earth’s biodiversity. This is particularly worrisome in the case of insects, because of their provision of ecosystem services ranging from pollination to nutrient cycling. As more and more people move to the cities, they can lose touch with the natural environment. Over time, they can even forget the experience of natural environments and develop apathy towards it. That is why computer scientist Alban Delamarre and biologist Dr Jaeson Clayborn developed the VR game Butterfly World 1.0. They aim to reconnect urban societies with nature, by the means of direct interaction with the environment.

Butterfly World 1.0, as described in the open-access journal Rethinking Ecology, is an interactive virtual reality game designed “to engage the participant in simulated research and education”. It focuses on imperiled butterflies and is set in the subtropical dry forest of the Florida Keys (an archipelago situated off the southern coast of Florida, USA). Through an immersive experience, the players learn about the endangered Schaus’ swallowtail butterfly and its relationship with plants and invasive ants surrounding it. The players’ mission is to take photographs of various butterfly species and to remove as many invasive species as possible. Delamarre and Clayborn noted that as their efforts will continue, more organisms and environments will be added to the updated versions of the game.

Players do not remain simple observers, but that they engage in competitive and interactive simulations

According to the researchers, virtual reality “is the frontier in environmental education” as it offers possibilities traditional educational methods cannot. One of the major advantages of VR gaming is the direct interaction between the players and the virtual environment. That is why Butterfly World 1.0 does not rely on passive observation and instead encourages experiential learning in an immersive environment. The gaming functions ensure that players do not remain simple observers, but that they engage in competitive and interactive simulations.

The computer-generated experience also enables people to observe phenomena otherwise impossible or difficult to witness. For example, in Butterfly World 1.0, players can observe forest succession over long periods of time, interaction between rare animal species as well as the native wildlife in its pure form.

In the end we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught.

The direct interaction with the natural environment allows for development of a deeper understanding of the present wildlife. The game also aims at re-establishing players’ personal relationship with the environment. To explain this point, the game creators used the idea of Baba Dioum: “In the end we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught.” Delamarre and Clayborn believe that the novel idea of using serious gaming and immersive environments will not only educate, but also spark latent interest and foster empathy for insect and ecosystem conservation.  

Final Editor: Mana Reed Stutchbury
Cover: Pexels / Mali Maeder

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