Red Dead Redemption 2 players have learned how to identify real American wildlife thanks to their experiences in the game, a new study has found.
Set in Rockstar’s semi-fictional depiction of the American West, the hit title features simulations of around 200 real animal species.
To examine how the game influences players’ understanding and awareness of nature, researchers from the University of Exeter and Truro and Penwith College challenged players to identify photographs of real animals.
The study used real photos of 15 species found in the game, such as the white-tailed deer, jackrabbit, alligator snapping turtle, lake sturgeon and blue jay.
On average, researchers found that RDR2 players were able to identify between 10 and 15 American animals – three more than those who had not played the game.
Notably, the best performers were those who had completed the game’s main storyline, meaning they had played for at least 40 to 50 hours. Putting in the hours really does pay off.
“The level of detail in Red Dead Redemption 2 is famously high, and that’s certainly the case in terms of animals,” said Dr Sarah Crowley of the Centre for Geography and Environmental Sciences.
“Many of the animals not only look and behave realistically, but interact with each other. Possums play dead, bears bluff charge and eagles hunt snakes.”
The contrast in identification skills between players and non-players was often greatest for animals that are useful in the game, researchers found.
This included fish that can be caught and eaten, for example. Conversely, rarer animals such as the Golden Eagle were less commonly identified.
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In addition to identifying wildlife, the study found that some players also gained a deeper understanding of animal behaviour and ecology.
One participant in the study said the game taught them how to identify when a ram is preparing to charge.
“No joke saved me from breaking a leg in real life,” the participant noted.
RDR2’s educational qualities weren’t limited to the single player storyline, either. The game’s online multiplayer features have also helped foster a deeper understanding of wildlife, researchers said.
The “Naturalist” role – which allows players to become somewhat of a conservationist – appears to have helped participants further improve their ability to identify real-world animals.
Ned Crowley of Truro and Penwith College said the study highlights the positive impact which games can have in raising awareness of environmental issues.
“Being indoors on a computer is often seen as the opposite of engaging with nature, but our findings show that games can teach people about animals without even trying,” he said.
“Gaming is very popular, and should be taken seriously by ecologists and conservationists as a force for communication.”
Crowley added that while he didn’t expect to see AAA titles include specific messages about conservation, educators and conservationists alike could learn from how games engage and immerse players.