everyday SCIENCE WolfQuest: Playing to Learn

Imagine the opportunity to explore a swath of Yellowstone National Park not from our human perspective but as a wolf. From this vantage point, learning how to hunt and get along with other wolves is a matter of life and death. WolfQuest, an interactive computer game, is designed to help the player learn about wolf behavior and the environment as a means to succeed in this educational equivalent of a multiplayer first-person shooter game.

Players enter the world of WolfQuest Episode 1: Amethyst Mountain as wolf avatars to find out firsthand what it is like to use their senses to track elk, pick out a “good” elk (one that is a little weaker than the rest), and then chase and hunt it down. Defending a carcass against grizzly bears and other competitors also is part of a day’s work. Players can go it alone or join a pack with their friends—but if they do that, they have to learn how to cooperate with other members of the pack.

Much to the delight of the game’s developers, David Schaller, and his partner from the Minnesota Zoo, Grant Spickelmier, players’ responses to the game have exceeded their expectations. “There is a following for our game,” says Schaller. “In fact, even before the game was launched, a few teenagers saw an announcement about the game on the Zoo’s website and posted links to our site on Zoo Tycoon and My Little Pony game forums. About 4,000 people downloaded the game in the first hour after it was launched, and another 250,000 have downloaded it since. These kids have, in fact, built a community.”

One of the ways that this community stays vibrant is through an online forum. Through their posts, kids wax eloquent about everything from the game development process to questions about wolves and places to go for more information. “Kids got so excited about the game that they sent in drawings and stories about wolves,” remarks Spickelmier.

To ensure that forum participants stay on task, a moderator gently guides the conversation by posting provocative research findings and facilitating productive discussions. For example, participants had many conversations about whether wolves were going to remain on the list of endangered species or be removed. The job of keeping conversations moving in a constructive direction takes between 15 and 20 hours of paid staff time each week. A team of 18 volunteer moderators, drawn from the teenage members of the WolfQuest community, provides support by filling in for the moderator when she is not working.

Wolf avatars ”face off” during an episode of Wolfquest.

Wolf avatars ”face off” during an episode of Wolfquest.

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