At WILDLABS, we know that the conservation technology community brings together people from every professional background, with many career paths into this field, and just as many innovative ideas waiting to come to life through the right blend of skills, expertise, and passion.
Previously, we discussed conservation gaming with Gautaum Shah, creator Internet of Elephant's Wildeverse. As we learned in that interview, conservation technology is not just about the hardware or software used to study or protect species, but also about finding creative and engaging ways to reach the public.
Today, we're speaking with Diogo Veríssimo, Director of Conservation Marketing at On the Edge Conservation and part of the team behind Kakapo Run, a new mobile game with a unique goal: to prove that mediums like mobile games can lead to real-world conservation impacts.
Through his work in conservation marketing, Diogo demonstrates that supporting conservation tech projects takes people collaborating on every level, from tech development all the way through advertising, engagement, and impact research. Marketing may not immediately spring to mind when you envision a career in conservation technology, but it's as much a valuable part of this field as engineering or fieldwork, and a career path well worth considering for those who are passionate about why conservation technology matters: seeing results that benefit wildlife.
Beginning his career path with a focus on the field biology side of conservation, Diogo was part of the Conservation Leadership Programme, an early career programme that provides professional development through grants, training, and mentoring, and one that Diogo credits as having a massive impact on his opportunities and goals. Later, Diogo became interested in the concept of social marketing, which lead to the creation of conservation marketing as a vital part of public engagement and impact. Of Diogo's somewhat non-traditional conservation tech career path, CLP's Executive Manager Stuart Paterson says, "We’re delighted to see Diogo having so much success developing innovative digital marketing tools in support of conservation. He has become a recognised leader in conservation marketing and his work is generating more interest and support for threatened species.”
Read on for our interview with Diogo, where we'll discuss more about the importance of diverse career paths in conservation tech, the need for conservation projects (whether in the field or on a mobile phone) to create real results for wildlife versus merely collecting data or entertaining, and how Kakapo Run promotes positive changes to protect New Zealand's critically endangered flightless parrots!
Conservation tech has a huge variety of unique, non-traditional career paths because this field brings together collaborators with such different backgrounds and skill sets. Could you tell us a bit about your personal career path, and what eventually drew you towards working in conservation marketing and with conservation-themed games?
I started off with an interest in wildlife and wild places like many (probably most) people in the conservation space. However, in my late teens I slowly started realizing that while biodiversity was my passion, mitigating threat to extinction is all about people and the choices they make. This realization happened at a time when I was both an environmental biology undergraduate and working part-time as an environmental educator. It was clear to me that there was a big discrepancy in the way that we used data and science. There seemed to be this unspoken rule that when it came to issues like trends in population size, geographic distribution, or other ecological questions, data and evidence were key, but when it came to questions around people and human behavior, there was a distinct lack of rigour, and the scientific method was no longer important.
That was what moved me towards the social sciences for my Masters and PhD. In turn, I was introduced to social marketing, the use of marketing concepts and principles to do societal good, leading to the eventual creation of conservation marketing.
The focus on games is more recent, and last year I became the Director of Conservation Marketing at On the Edge Conservation. One of our core goals is to explore innovative ways to tell the stories of unique species threatened by extinction.
Exploring mobile games as a platform was of course an appealing option, given their fast-growing popularity over the last decade. And so Kakapo Run was born, an “infinite runner” style game where you help the Kakapo, a large moss-colored flightless parrot, to escape the invasive predators (e.g., rats and stoats) that threaten its survival.
What programs, trainings, and opportunities had the biggest impacts on your conservation tech career path?
I have been quite fortunate to have benefitted from a lot of support. One of the earliest examples was the opportunity to take part in a Tropical Biology Association course in Uganda. TBA courses bring together early career conservationists from Europe and Africa, and those interactions with colleagues from different parts of the world taught lessons that I carry with me to this day. Also influential was the internship I did with the Center for Eco-Cultural Studies in Sri Lanka, which was pivotal in my realization that conservation is about people.
Still, altogether the greatest impact was definitely that of the Conservation Leadership Programme. I have now been involved in two CLP projects as a Team Member, but have also benefited from Learning Exchange Grants that supported some of my PhD work, as well as conference attendance. I am now a project advisor for an ongoing CLP project in Nepal, and try to continue giving back to the programme in recognition of all the benefits I've received through the years. It’s a unique network of people on the front lines of conservation, and I would recommend everyone to check them out if you're interested in building a career in this field.
What insights would you offer to those who are exploring ways to reach the public through non-traditional conservation outreach methods, whether it's through game design, marketing, or other storytelling avenues?
In terms of conservation games and marketing, one key thing I learned from the making of Kakapo Run is that in order to have a chance at success, you need to be able to produce something that appeals even to those without a particular love of wildlife.
You need to be able to produce something that appeals even to those without a particular love of wildlife."
We can’t rely on the idea that animals are inherently appealing or that people will play a game simply because it’s for a good cause. If the game play, sound, or design aren't of a quality that can compete with top games, even commercially run games, then it is most likely not going to reach as many people as you'd like.
We knew it had to be fun, and not just a little fun! As fun as other games out there. Otherwise, we would only be reaching a niche market of those who already like birds and wildlife. We wanted to use mobile gaming to reach people who may not have invested time in learning about the kakapo on their own, but who were open to caring about them once we placed that message in a fun context that made them eager to engage.
Going down a gaming route when it comes to conservation outreach requires a substantial investment in terms of funds, as well as the right mix of people (tech, marketing, and conservationists) in the development to make it all come together. Of course, this will be a big challenge in conservation, where resources are often tightly constrained.
Our community members often talk about how hard it is to translate conservation tech data or projects into real results and impact. Is that also true for conservation-themed games, marketing, and public engagement?
Absolutely! Online games automatically generate a wealth of metrics and indicators which can seem very attractive and involve big numbers, but are for most purposes not that meaningful.
"If we want to make the case that games can be an asset for wildlife conservation... we need to get serious about impact evaluation."
For example, we can talk about how many thousands of people install a game, but that number does not relate in any way to actual benefits to biodiversity. If we want to make the case that games can be an asset for wildlife conservation, beyond just being a bit of entertainment, then we need to get serious about impact evaluation. This has not been the rule in conservation as a field in general, but is even harder when we are talking about online projects pushing for offline change.
The focus on impact was always in the back of our mind as we knew we had set the bar very high when it came to impact evaluation, when we decided to carry out a randomized control trial. Because the game has no adverts or in-game purchases, making a game that could drive change was our only bottom line.
The development process started by finding a type of game play that resonated with one of our flagship EDGE (Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered) species like the kakapo, aye-aye, purple frog, numbat, and pangolin. The Kakapo was chosen because of its high profile; from there, we began matching the species with the “infinite runner” style game play. In this type of game, players avoid obstacles and adversaries while running, a logical choice for the kakapo given that the main threat to the species is that it cannot fly away from invasive predators. We took inspiration from leading games in the infinite runner genre like Subway Surfer and Temple Run, with a couple of new twists and a fully Kakapo-centric storyline!
How did you navigate or anticipate any challenges in the area of creating real-world impact?
We recognized these challenges from the onset, and that was why we conducted perhaps the most robust impact evaluation ever conducted around a conservation game. We carried out a randomized control trial where, over the course of a week, 100 people were randomly assigned to play at least one hour of Kakapo Run, while 100 people played a leading game unrelated to conservation. We ensured that each group was not only comparable, but included a similar mix of those with an interest in conservation and with an interest in gaming. All participants were from New Zealand, as we thought it would be most relevant to understand the impact on those living in the same country as the Kakapo.
We then surveyed these participants and looked at how their knowledge, attitudes, social norms, and behavioral intentions around things like donations to conservation organizations, support for policies to control invasive predators, as well as whether cat owners in the group would be willing to implement additional measures to reduce the likelihood of their pet killing wildlife. We included this suite of indicators because we wanted to cover both factors that are most likely to change, such as knowledge, but also those more closely link to behavioral changes, which are more meaningful for real-world impact.
Preliminary results and details of our methodology can be found here. The results gave us a pretty clear indication that beyond just increasing knowledge, players were also more willing to volunteer for conservation organizations and to adopt measures aimed at reducing predation of wildlife by pet cats. This is one of the first times that there is robust evidence of a game having impact at a behavioral level in a conservation context.
"Creating a great game is only the beginning, and likely the easiest part of the process."
We hope that many of these effects will be multiplied across the number of players we can reach. Currently Kakapo Run has been played by about 30 000 people from all over the world, and we hope that number continues to grow!
The most valuable lesson in terms of conservation gaming is that creating a great game is only the beginning, and likely the easiest part of the process. After the game is finalized begins the challenge of getting people to actually play it. Sometimes there is a tendency to think that if something is good enough, people will naturally discover it. But will so many apps wrestling for attention, that's not true. We need to be strategic and resilient when it comes to the promotion of conservation games like Kakapo Run to ensure that it gets enough visibility for people to even realize that it exists.
Could you briefly speak to the importance of all the different skill sets needed to bring conservation tech projects to life and achieve results? This is so important for our community, since they come from all types of professional backgrounds!
That diversity of skills was indeed crucial to our project. And I should add that we should not only be speaking of the leadership involved in this game (Alex Johnston, Head of Communications at OTEC, Beth Blood, the CEO of On The EDGE Conservation (OTEC), Charlie Hasdell from Quantum Shift Studios, and Diogo Veríssimo), but of the many many others that were part of this effort at every level. The developers and artists based in Costa Rica who did most of the heavy lifting, the research recruitment agency and the participants that worked with us in New Zealand for our evaluation, the game publisher Playstack that helped with the launch and with the testing of the initial versions. We are talking about hundreds of people across the world who came together to make this game a reality.
I really cannot emphasize enough the extent to which everyone involved really played an important role. Putting together a game like this involves a lot of moving parts that need to be coordinated, and it takes a lot of effort on everyone's part to get it right!
What's next for you and the OTEC team?
We are actually starting to work on another game! No spoilers for now, but I can confirm it is going to be focused on a species that is different from the Kakapo in almost all ways you can imagine. Stay tuned!