An interview with Grant Spickelmeier, Minnesota Zoo:
Principal Investigator of WolfQuest.
Transcription of Interview with Grant Spickelmeier
Grant: WolfQuest is a 3D, wildlife, simulation game. You are a wolf in Yellowstone National Park, and you have to learn how to survive. You have to learn how to hunt elk, find food, chase coyotes, avoid bears, encounter other, stranger wolves. Ultimately, hopefully, find a mate so you can establish your own pack. Along with that single-player module, there's also a multiplayer version of Wolf Quest. You can join three or four of your friends, and play in a pack.
This is a fully immersive game that kids download on their own. It's not distributed through schools. We wanted them to actively seek this type of game so they would be interacting with it in a very individual way. They would hopefully connect with the game and the community around the game, in a way that maybe they wouldn't, if it was a considered a "learning" game.
Who is the target audience?
Grant: Our target audience is teens and pre-teens, 10 to 15 year old, game-playing kids. Kids who are already out there playing games. We found that, up until now, about 60% of the people who are downloading the game are between 10 and 19. Although that's not completely exclusive, we did a contest on our forum, and the first winner of our trivia contest was a 70-year-old grandmother. We know we have a wide-age spectrum engage with the game. Really we are targeting those 10 to 15 year old, game-playing kids.
Why make a game? Are there advantages from an educational standpoint?
It's more interactive, I mean that's obvious. You are controlling your wolf, you're learning by doing. Instead of learning by hearing, or learning by reading something, you are that wolf. You're out there hunting, you're learning what strategies work, what doesn't work as you're hunting.
You're learning of the importance of a pack in taking down big prey. You're learning about, how not to get into too many fights so you don't lose your health. You're really, without even realizing it, learning a lot about how real wolves act in the wild, because if you don't act like a real wolf, there are built-in penalties to the game, you get into too many fights with stranger wolves, you lose your health, and you die. That's why wolves in the wild don't get into a lot of active fights with other wolves. They do a lot of posturing and non-physical communication, actually non-verbal communication, were they're lifting tails and hackles, doing all these things to communicate without actually having to get into a fight. That's the kind of thing you learn by playing and by interacting with the game.
We really feel that a video game is the best way to let kids get not only some of the individual behaviors and things that we want them to learn, but also to just get that feeling of what it is to be a wolf.
How do you balance educational goals of an episode with character and story development?
Grant: The whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Part of the struggle that we have on our team, which is two sides of the brain, the left side and the right side. The production side with our head writer, and the supportive writers, and our producers. Then on the content side, the two math content directors.
What happens is that both groups have a tendency to go down their own path in terms of what they believe is needed for the corpus of shows. We have 81 shows currently on air right now, but there are always new aspects that both groups want to explore, whether it is through character development or content development. Everybody's very passionate, by the way, there's nobody on this project that isn't passionate. So, in the tussle, what comes out finally is what happens behind closed doors between myself and my senior series producer. We just go with our impulse, which is, I think, to make sure that the emotional impact of the show works on both levels. It works both on the “ah-ha” side of the content level work, where the viewer looks, and thinks, and scratches their head and has the jaw drop down, "I never thought of it that way." That's on the content side.
On the character side, we try to draw on conflicts that kids of this age group have, very real conflicts. Self-centeredness versus team, ...learning style. Not understanding something and being frustrated by that, and how do you handle that? Where one person gets it and wants to just get started. Where as somebody else needs more time and more organization before they can begin to wrap their brain around it. We try to make all of that come out, we can't in every episode because sometimes the story doesn't call for it, but we try to maximize that feeling in the story so that it works on many levels.
What are the elements that have made this game so successful?
Grant: Wolves was a great choice from the very beginning. There are a lot of kids who are into wolves. They're naturally charismatic. There were already groups online, who were kids interested in wolves, who made their own websites, some were talking about wolves with other kids. They talk about dogs, kids who are into dogs really like Wolf Quest.
A lot of those kids found us on their own, we didn't have to do a whole lot of active recruiting. They started through Google and other platforms, found us, and then they go and tell their friends, and tell their friends' friends. We've kind of experienced the epitome of viral marketing with Wolf Quest with just people on their own talking to each other, and bringing their friends to the game.
What do players of the game learn? What are the outcomes?
Grant: I think outcomes, biologically, we want to teach them about wolf's physiology. How hunting is all about energy management…How different strategies for a lone wolf's versus a pack…How they hunt prey because they're basically trying to wear their prey out before they themselves wear out, that's a big concept we want to get across. We really want to get across the concept of wolves as part of a larger ecosystem.
All of the different plants and animals that are a part of Yellowstone are important to wolves. They pretty much eat elk and bison in Yellowstone National Park. Bears are an integral part to wolves because they chase wolves off their kills. Coyotes come and eat their kills So they have to interact with those animals as well. Those are the kind of biological things we want them to learn.
More importantly, even in that, we want them to get a greater sense of this is a really interesting part of the world. We want to engage these kids. A lot of gaming kids have really separated themselves from the natural world. You read Richard Louv's book, Last Child in the Woods, about nature-deficit disorder, teens and pre-teens because of TV, and media, and movies, and video games. They're getting more and more separated from the natural world. We're hoping through this game to actually reconnect them with what's going on out there in the real world. Hopefully engage them in some of this.
Were there any unexpected outcomes?
Grant: The numbers have been very overwhelming. In fact, we crashed our servers a couple of times just from the number of downloads. We'll get picked up by some gaming site in Germany, and all of a sudden we'll have hundreds of people trying to download at the same time. So that definitely has been unexpected.
The other thing that was a little unexpected, and maybe shouldn't have been, is how passionate these kids are about wolves. A lot of these kids come in with a lot of excitement about animals and about wolves in general. They don't have a lot of good information about them. We came into this thinking we'd have to encounter some overly negative stereotypes about wolves. What we've found is, we actually spend more time countering some overly positive stereotypes that people have about wolves. These are mostly kids who live in maybe an urban or suburban environment. They don't have much exposure to wildlife outside of what would live in the city. They tend to think of wolves as these kind of magical creatures that really have this amazing life, and they do wonderful things, and they would never do anything wrong.
So what happens in the forums, we get into discussions like the delisting of wolves in Wyoming and the northern Rockies area. Our kids, by and large, are very against it. The reason they're against it is because wolves might start getting shot. And they're so caught into the individual wolf, and how important that individual wolf is, that they don't necessarily hear the story of, “This is really a success for the species that they're being considered to be delisted, and as a species and as a population, they're doing pretty well to get to this point. There are definitely controversies about whether or not there should be hunting seasons on wolves but overall the delisting may be a good thing.” We have a lot of discussions with kids about that because all they hear is a wolf might get shot, and that to them is a very horrible thing. We like that emotion, we want them to connect to wolves emotionally and like them, but we also want them to have some scientific objectivity. Looking at the population and saying, “Hey, look at this, this is great, the northern Rockies are doing good.” Predator human interactions in the northern Rockies are real, and we have to acknowledge that. Ranchers live in that area, and they're not gonna go away, and so we have to acknowledge that as well. We get into a lot more of those type of conversations and I think we weren't necessarily expecting the level to which we have that type of conversation.
How many people are playing WolfQuest?
Grant: We're at about 180,000 downloads. That's unique downloads, that doesn't include people who repeat. We're at about 400,000 unique visits to the website. We're very careful, if you get into hits, you can say, "Well, yeah, we got four million hits," but it's really only about 400,000 unique people. We think that's really impressive, and even more impressive than that is not just that they come and they download, but they really engage. We have 10,000 registered users on our forum, and over 200,000 posts, we're averaging a 1,000 posts a day on our forums. So these kids are coming, and they're playing the game, and they're staying to meet like-minded people and talk about the game and talk about wolves, and that's what's really exciting to us as educators.
What is next for the game?
It's an organic process. I think at one point we were hoping to have everything at the beginning. For various reasons we started with less than the whole package, and that actually ended up being a good thing. What we found by releasing things in stages, by releasing new characters to the game, we added a grizzly bear to the game a few months ago. By adding the ability to hunt with your mate after you find your mate, that actually increases the engagement of the kids who are on the site, and keeps them coming back, keeps them checking up on what's going on, and continues to keep the dialogue going. So that's really worked out well for us.
We are hoping, within the next few months, to release another module that will now take it, you've got your mate, now you can actually raise pups. That's what our players really, really want, they want pups. I think many of them have already named their pups. They are very into that part of the wolf's life cycle. We also think it's very important biologically. Obviously the imperative to reproduce and carry on your genes to the next generation is something that's critical for all living things. So we want to give them the opportunity to have offspring, to learn how difficult it is to raise offspring. Now you're not only hunting for yourself but you're hunting for these big open mouths back at the den, and to really encounter that, engage with that.
We also are hoping to add a sheep ranch, Yellowstone National Park doesn't live in a vacuum, it is part of a larger ecosystem. Right outside the borders of Yellowstone National Park are ranchers. Wolves frequently will encounter sheep ranches, and we want our players to experience that, and experience maybe some of the temptation that a wolf would feel as you see these sheep, you know easy pickings right there, but you do risk potentially getting shot, or having other dogs barking at you, different things to keep you away from the sheep. And we want to encourage that, to allow that to happen in the game so that we can talk about it online, and talk about it through the forums.