I Wish for an Animal” (in Farsi: Heivanam Arezoost | حیوانم آرزوست) is an award-winning multiplayer mixed-reality game about wildlife conservation that I developed for my MDes thesis at the University of Washington. I designed the game to promote wildlife conservation to residents of my home city of Tehran who don’t yet consider this an important issue.
Tehran, like many other megacities, maintains a precarious relationship with the natural world. For many urban-dwellers, their daily exposure to nature is limited to their pets and apartment plants. They are removed from the realities of the natural world and also from rural communities, creating a belief that preserving the environment is a job for environmentalists rather than themselves.
Although rural communities are seen as a primary threat to wildlife populations through poaching and other traditional practices, because of their recognition, relative wealth and political influence, Tehran urbanites have the potential to positively affect wildlife by actively engaging with the problem by supporting rural communities, changing their consumption habits, raising awareness and making the right political choices. However, a sentimental reaction to the problem, and especially toward poachers, has caused city residents to push for strange policy decisions (like a multiyear ban on legal hunting) based on emotional conclusions (such as hunting is evil under any circumstance). Though there are several reasons why wildlife suffers in Iran, the urban population’s unfair blame is shifting the burden of wildlife extinction onto the rural community.
To help city dwellers examine their everyday impact on the environment, I created a three-day game that engaged them with the problem within their daily routines. “I Wish for an Animal” consisted of a physical component, a model of a city, and a virtual component, text messaging. The game’s center-point, the model, told the story of a city, a village and a protected area where animals were dying out because of human negligence. Players arrived at the city (physically at the center-point and virtually through text messages) with the purpose of saving animals in the protected area. By succeeding or failing at various missions, participants affected the city, other players and the animals in the protected area.
Choosing a game as a medium to engage residents with this issue was inspired by the research of Stanley Asah, who suggests in his paper “Motivational Functionalism and Urban Conservation Stewardship: Implications for Volunteer Involvement,” that volunteers will commit more to conservation activities if they “meet their more pertinent personal and social goals of connecting with and giving back to their communities, socially interacting with other volunteers and defending and enhancing their egos.”
“I Wish for an Animal” created a temporary public sphere for urbanites to discuss the impact they have on the environment and other communities. This project was done with the help of a well-known NGO in Iran, Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation (PWHF), and conservationist Amirhossein Khaleghi. You can watch a video of the event at Vimeo.
Photos and Stories from the Game
I implemented the game in April 2015 in Tehran, installing the physical components in the basement of a mall in the city’s wealthiest neighborhood. The site was selected to attract the attention of wealthy urbanites, whose consumption choices tend to impose significant demands on rural villagers and wildlife. While text messages were sent and received, I transformed the model based on players’ decisions: locations were destroyed, statuettes were moved and tracked by colorful yarn, animals were killed and nailed to the wall, and players died and went to the cemetery.
There was only one main goal in the game: saving the animals. As the game proceeded, players understood that they needed to cooperate, compromise and sacrifice in order to succeed together. They either won as a team or all lost.
On the third day, the text message server went offline. We discovered that the Cyber Police (police departments in charge of cybercrimes) had stopped the server because of wording (“the police”) used in the messages. We convinced them that the texts were for a game and harmless, and the server was reconnected. However, the game’s momentum had already been disrupted. To engage the participants again, I asked everyone to come back to the center-point the next day and play physically around the model. This created an unexpected opportunity for me to engage directly with players.
During the game, players raised a number of questions, including: “Why do we have to kill animals to save them or to run a city?" "Why do certain decisions result in saving or losing animals?" "How do we measure balance in the environment?" "What is an ecological footprint?” These questions served as starting points for a group discussion.