Can National Parks and Video Games Find Common Ground?

Playstation videogame controllerNational Parks should not be left behind in the information age. The NPS can appeal to a younger generation of park visitors by speaking their language, by communicating directly through the channels they use and embracing technology as an outreach tool. Last week the National Parks Traveler wrote a post titled "National Parks Versus Videogames: Who Wins?". In the spirit of friendly debate, this is a rebuttal to one of the arguments he makes in his article. He states:
But can the [National Park Service] compete with video games, the Internet and home movies? It can, but perhaps a more important twist to that question is whether the agency needs to compete "head on" with those distractions.

There are some who believe the NPS needs to bring the park system into the cyberspace age by transmitting broadcasts teens can pick up on their MP3 players and by developing hand-held "pocket rangers" that will guide younger generations to a park's various attractions.
Some background: Last week in a study conducted by the University of Illinois at Chicago and funded in-part by the Nature Conservancy, researchers found a high correlation between the rise of media (including video games, internet, and movie rentals) and the decline in National Park visitation. Much of what Kurt says in his article I agree with, specifically the idea that Parks have "enough natural attractions that would entice the younger generations". How do we get kids with technology to discover the "unplugged" natural world that exists in our nation's parks?

I've already seen some good examples of interpretive outreach using technology within the Park Service. Glacier National Park has built a web page which provide audio and video podcasts with interviews of rangers and scientists within the park. These podcasts can be viewed online or downloaded to a portable device like an iPod. The USS Arizona Memorial conducts live videoconferencing programs with schools throughout the United States, literally bringing history alive inside of classrooms. Yellowstone National Park has produced a website called "Windows Into Wonderland" to appeal specifically to a youthful audience about the natural wonders found within its borders.

What about video games? There is another federal agency pretty interested in appealing to a young (predominantly male) audience. I'm thinking specifically of the U.S. Army. The Army has created a video game called "America's Army" which puts the player right in the middle of all the fighting action, complete with official army uniforms and armaments. The game is provided as a free download, and it is incredibly popular (among the top 5 played PC games on the market). The Army includes this game as part of their communications strategy.

Obviously the goals of the Park Service are quite different from those of the Army. I wonder if it is possible to tie the NPS into the world of video games. Video games fit generally into only a few popular categories: shooting, driving, and sports. At first you might think that a shooting game for the NPS would be totally inappropriate. But there are a number Park units with a history involving guns. Can you imagine the opportunity to defend (or attack) Fort Sumter during the Civil War? Or what about the opportunity to fight on either side of the line during the Battle of Little Bighorn? Because driving games typically involve vehicles, speed, and some type of destruction I can't imagine a scenario that would work within the NPS (frankly I'm a little scared at the thought that someone may produce a game where snowmobiles get to jump over the geysers in Yellowstone). As for sport, I imagine that a pretty fun game could be built involving mountaineering of different peaks around the Park Service. The skill necessary to cross a glacier at 14,000 feet in the middle of blinding blizzard conditions would make any game junky shiver with excitement and anticipation of the challenge.

There are probably a hundred questions that could be asked about the effectiveness of knowledge transfer through video games. Would these type of games foster an appreciation of the natural wonders found within our Parks? Would these games even create a desire to see the "real thing"? Because these games don't actually exist, answering these questions becomes difficult.

Teens especially seem to be tuned into the many new media technologies surfacing each year. If the National Park Service is interested in attracting this audience, it may be necessary to reach out to them using this new technology. And while devices like mp3 players may be out of place on a hike within a park, it is possible they may help introduce kids to the wonders of the trails.
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Comments

Jerry,

You're obviously a member of the Millennial Generation, those youngsters born roughly between 1978 and 2003, give or take a few years. That generation is notorious for getting its kicks from gaming, not experiencing. I have two sons in that niche, and they both feast on video games. Not once has either said, 'Hey, we should go here," or "Hey, we should do that" because of a game they played.

I fear that as we as a society continue to turn to electronics and cyberspace to get our kicks and "experiences," places like national parks will become more and more "cannned" into that medium and the actual places will become museums under glass, places that no one visits except via cyberspace. And we'll all be worse off if that day arrives.
Hi Kurt,

Well, I'm just a touch older than the Milennial Generation, but yes I had spent many hours of my youth playing Atari, then Nintendo, and Xbox. I guess my video game ideas give me away!

About 10 years ago, I remember hearing some of the same fears that people interacting with CD-ROMs about parks would not then visit those same parks. I wish I could quote a study that could prove or disprove that argument, but I'm not sure that one exists. Instead I can give you my own anecdotal experience. Before I ever had a chance to visit Yosemite I had been exposed for years to photographs of the place (primarily through posters of Ansel Adams famous prints). I will never forget my first visit to Yosemite. At the place frequently referred to as "Tunnel View", where visitors arriving from the Big Oak Flat entrance can get their first glimpse of Yosemite Valley, I was stopped dead in my tracks. My eyes were probably as big as saucers. I KNEW THIS PLACE! I had seen this collection before; Bridal Veil Falls on the right, El Capitan on the left and Half Dome far in the distance. [tunnel view : http://en.wikipedia.org/wik...]

Had I not been turned on to the photos of Yosemite, it can be argued that I would not have ever visited, or that I would not have felt such a strong connection with the place when I finally did see it with my own eyes. We've had photos for more than 100 years. Video games, the web, CD-ROMS, and mp3s are very recent additions to the arena of communications that seem to resonate particularly well with youth. My argument is that by ignoring these channels we lose the opportunity to expose kids to the grandeur and wonder contained in our Parks. By no means is it a substitute for the real thing, but it may plant the seeds for an eventual visit.