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Eat or be eaten: How the Monterey Bay Aquarium uses gaming to inspire empathy for deep-sea life

Erica Kelly, Director of Exhibition Content at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, shares how her team brought a large-scale video game into the exhibition space in order to highlight the issue of microplastics pollution and spark empathy among future conservationists.

In 2022, the Monterey Bay Aquarium opened its newest exhibition, titled Into the Deep – Exploring Our Undiscovered Ocean. The exhibition invites visitors to experience the deep ocean and encounter some of the weird and wonderful creatures that live there.

Within the exhibition, the aquarium team have created a large-scale video game called “Eat or be Eaten”. It enables players to take on an avatar of a deep-sea animal to try and survive the challenging conditions of the midwater, avoiding both pollution and predators. By highlighting some of the lesser-known creatures of the deep, the experience aims to communicate the threat posed by the plastics being dropped in the ocean every day.

Speaking about the motivation behind the game, Director of Exhibition Content for the aquarium, Erica Kelly says,

“Our goal is to introduce people to the deep sea. It’s the least explored habitat on Earth. We know less about the deep sea than we do about outer space. We wanted to introduce people to deep sea animals – many of which have never been seen in any exhibit in the world before – and to introduce people to conservation.

“If people are exposed to the deep sea, they care more about it. We want to spark whatever connection is necessary to make people care about this part of the ocean. Our mission in the aquarium is to inspire conservation. That’s our North Star.”

The game highlights the damage taking place midwater, which makes up most of the deep sea: a vast open space between the surface and the sea floor, with nowhere to hide. Marine life here faces constant threat from predators and, in recent years, the human-made threat of microplastics.

“A lot of deep-sea animals are filter feeders,” Erica explains. “They depend on tiny bits of food. It’s called marine snow, because it literally looks like snow, but it’s actually tiny pieces of plankton, decomposing matter and algae that act as a vital food sources.

“However, the animals don’t realise that parts of marine snow are now made up of small pieces of plastic, because so much plastic is making its way into the ocean.”

Encouraging conservation through gamification

By introducing gamification into the aquarium, the team found a way to hammer home the importance of conservation without creating an atmosphere of doom and gloom for visitors.

Erica says:

“Obviously, learning the severity of microplastics can be a bummer for our visitors who just want to enjoy a day out. A large-scale, multi-user video game tells the message clearly, but also brings an element of fun.”

In the game, players take on an animal avatar, and have a designated length of time to survive in the midwater. Marine snow starts to fall, and the player’s job is to eat as much of it as they can without getting eaten by predators – which will sweep through the game with no warning. In the end, you find out whether you survived or were eaten, and whether you got enough food or if some of your food was actually plastic.

As Erica explains, this game-play approach not only provides an engaging experience but also an educational one.

“We did a summative evaluation of the Into the Deep exhibition and found that the game has the highest holding power of all the exhibit’s elements. It’s the place where people are spending the most time, even including animal exhibits.”

Intergeneration play and learning

Highlighting the (literal) treacherous waters that deep sea creatures tread was a mammoth task for the team, but it was also one that went hand in hand with gamification. With generations of visitors taking part in the game, Kelly and the team were delighted to see families supporting each other in their efforts to win.

As expected, it’s the children who are most likely to get stuck into the game, with adults watching their progress and helping them out as the rules of the game start to become clearer.

“The kids are learning from the game, and the parents are learning as they watch the kids. Usually, the children’s main goal is just to beat the clock and get enough food, but the adults are picking up on the bigger message. And so, you get these wonderful interactions between children and adults as they start to piece together the meaning behind the experience.”

Aquariums and activism

Despite the enjoyment of the visitor experience, the interactive exhibit isn’t all about fun and games, of course. Erica and team wanted to give visitors food for thought to take away with them, and research suggests that they were successful.

“Through a combination of exit interviews and longitudinal surveys carried out four to five months after people visited, we’ve seen that the messaging around microplastics has genuinely taken hold. We’ve had responses like: ‘I knew about plastic in the ocean, but I had no idea how widespread the problem was.’

“That’s the hope. We are seeing that the impact of microplastics is really resonating with people.”

The efforts of the team reflect a wider movement to bring activism into cultural institutions. Where once museums, galleries and animal homes were thought to be places purely for education, institutions are now seeing their role as one of inspiration and action. And when it comes to issues with the urgency of the climate crisis, games and play can be valuable tools. Erica explains,

“Many of our zoos don’t come from a pretty place, and there’s a lot of anti-zoo sentiment, especially in younger generations. If these organisations want to stay relevant, they need to really shift their focus to conservation.

“There’s a real opportunity here. People are tired of being told that they’re the problem. They want policymakers and industries to change how they operate. Our conservation and science leaders have a seat at the table with political policymakers, and so we’re starting to explore how this shows up in our visitor experience.

“How do we get people in when we know they’re tired of having fingers wagged at them? I think the really interesting next step is seeing how zoos and aquariums will become a force to put pressure where it can actually achieve collective action.”

Inspiring empathy for the ocean’s less aesthetically pleasing critters

It’s no secret that deep-sea animals aren’t the most aesthetic creatures the ocean has to offer, and this was something the team had to tackle when undertaking their project.

Kelly says: “We know that it’s super easy to ask people to empathise with a sea otter or a penguin or something fuzzy or feathery with a cute face, but we thought: can we invite people to feel empathy for these gelatinous blobs with no faces? The evaluation suggests that we were successful, that people did feel empathy for these animals.

“We also had to make sure that the animals we were depicting would accurately face the threats we included in the game – that they would be eaten by certain predators, for example. We worked with the scientific advisors at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute to ensure that the animals are based on real creatures, and that nobody eats anything in the game that they wouldn’t eat in real life.”

Advice for other institutions launching projects? Test it

A game like “Eat or Be Eaten” requires huge amounts of planning, investment and hard work. Erica explains that in order to ensure success, planning, preparation and testing played a huge role:

“We tested this with actual kids because kids, if they’re bored, aren’t going to pretend they’re not, and that’s really good feedback. Testing is hugely important for knowing what still needs to be done.”

Initiatives like the deep-sea game usually come with a key message attached, but Erica suggests not pinning all your hopes on one medium in order to get your message across:

“This game exists within an environment that encourages conservation from multiple angles and through multiple experiences. It’s important, from a message communication perspective, not to rely on one experience to do the whole lift.

“These are free choice environments. People are going to choose to engage in some experiences and not in others. The more you can reinforce a message through multiple modes, the more successful you’re going to be.”

Looking ahead

According to Erica, pro-conservation behaviours have always been the central aim of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and this idea of sparking empathy in order to encourage conservation has huge crossovers with their work on the institute’s game. She says,

“Now the question is: How do we continue to do that? Is there a way to quantify the relationship between someone feeling empathy for an animal, and the choices that they go on to make in their own lives? Can we inform the kids who will be the future conservationists; those who will be responsible for environmentalism in years to come?

“Through engaging and playful experiences we hope to be able to help them develop that knowledge and empathy.”

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