New Horizons for Biodiversity Awareness  

Words by Grace Brady

I’ll be the first to admit the fish I have tattooed on my body are strange. Sunfish, moonfish, redfish, dragonfish – a chronicle of the weird and wonderful lives indelibly on my skin. The ocean sunfish (Mola mola) is one of the largest bony fish in the world, and I have one on my right forearm. Sometimes people will recognize the sunfish, and I am told a wonderful story that usually involves a warm place, very far away, where it was seen in person. One time, however, someone recognized the sunfish and said, “That’s a sunfish! I know because they’re in Animal Crossing!”.  

As someone who has never played Animal Crossing but can aesthetically appreciate a pastel world of soft-edged creatures planting gardens, collecting treasures, and building communities, I was intrigued at the notion that a sunfish would exist in this game. To my pleasant surprise, there is academic literature on Animal Crossing: New Horizons, released in 2020. Researchers studied the game as a tool for increasing players’ knowledge about relatively unknown plants and animals. While interacting with rare species through the screen of a Nintendo Switch can appear detached from the natural world, this concept of virtual nature allows people to accessibly and tangibly engage with global biodiversity.  

Videogames such as Pokémon draw from elements in the natural world but fictionalize them. However, Animal Crossing: New Horizons features 80 marine and freshwater fish species, and 236 species of actual plants and animals overall. Some of my favourite species included in New Horizons are the once-thought-to-be-extinct coelacanth, rarely seen oarfish, and data-deficient sawshark. Due to low numbers or elusiveness, these species are often not encountered in the wild. However, placing them in the virtual naturescape of New Horizons allows players to connect to species they otherwise would not interact with in real life. 

Image credit: Sean Murray 

Over 40% of the species in New Horizons are listed on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List. The Red List is the world’s most comprehensive information source on the global conservation status of animal, fungi and plant species. Choosing species from the Red List to include within New Horizons can educate users on global biodiversity from the digital sphere. While it is not the primary intention, nor the responsibility, of the game developers to educate users, modeling game species after real species has proven an unlikely tool to highlight biodiversity awareness.  

The pop culture image of video games is perceived to be detached from the natural world, but games like Animal Crossing: New Horizons, challenge that notion. Centering real-life biodiversity within the digital sphere gives players a springboard to further explore the species outside of the game. This could entail further researching a species or looking into modern conservation initiatives. Or it can be as simple as recognizing a species from a game in real life, potentially in the form of a tattoo.  

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