A video game garden: the delights of virtual botany

A video game garden: the delights of virtual botany

Something is afoot in the sleepy Shropshire village of Yaughton. The locals have vanished into thin air, and the roads throng with murmuring golden lights. Most unsettlingly of all, the local pub sells beer at 50p a pint. There’s a mystery to unravel, but when I visit with author and educator Adele Nozedar, we’re most interested in the plants.

Nozedar, who runs Brecon Beacons Foraging, is a font of botanical insight. As we amble past eerily abandoned cottage gardens, she points out leylandii conifers and Japanese hostas. In the woods above the village, she sends me squelching along streambeds in search of wild mint and bulrushes. She also calls my attention to anomalies: the presence of both rose and tulip flowers, for instance, that typically appear at different times of year, and the absence of common plants such as fat hen, hogweed and greater plantain. Some plants appear to be a collage of species; others resist identification altogether. We spend 10 minutes poring over one specimen with delicate white flowers. It could be Queen Anne’s lace, a kind of edible wild carrot. Or it could be a variety of hemlock, the poisonous herb fed to the Greek philosopher Socrates at his execution.

We could identify the plant if we could smell it, Nozedar remarks, but nothing smells of anything in Yaughton. This isn’t, of course, a real place: it’s the setting for the video game Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture. I’ve brought Nozedar here (or rather, asked her to watch me play over streaming app Twitch) in response to her book, Foraging With Kids, which aims to help children “put down their screens, get outside and engage with nature”.

The Fields of Elysium ... Assassin's Creed: Odyssey.

It’s a timely aim: adults have always worried about sheltered or deprived children missing out on the benefits of green spaces, but especially now, under lockdown conditions, when we have never been more reliant on our devices. Still, might video game settings such as these meet us halfway, by teaching young people about plants they can’t get access to? Nozedar is broadly impressed by Yaughton’s flora. “Their intention hasn’t been to educate, and the fact that they’ve bothered to make the plants look this realistic is really brilliant,” but she doesn’t think it stands alone. She suggests that parents might use it as a teaching tool by challenging children to work out what the game gets wrong. “It’s quite empowering for kids if they can spot something that isn’t accurate – it shows discernment.”

Today’s video games teem with flora and fungus, from the mimosa trees of Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey to the Colombian rainforests of Hitman 2, but they seldom encourage real curiosity about plants. Mostly, they are either generic “green herb” healing items or wodges of non-interactive scenery: only a handful, including farming simulations such as Stardew Valley, build meaningful activities around them. This obscures their educational potential and the immense artistry that goes into representing such complex organic objects within a limited computer memory budget.

“A digital artist could create a bush where every leaf and stem was made up of multiple polygons and moved realistically with the wind, but you could maybe have a dozen of those before the cost would cause frame-rate issues,” says Alex Swaim, a programmer with Texan video game studio BonusXP. “That opens a world where artists have to pick and choose what parts of a plant’s aesthetic are most important.”

A sketch from Arthur Morgan's notebook in Red Dead Redemption 2.

Swaim is fascinated by this act of picking and choosing. While in graduate school, he set up the Video Game Foliage Tumblr to celebrate craftier varieties of virtual vegetation. Asked to share his favourites, he points to the agave plants you’ll find in sci-fi shooter Borderlands. These look like bristling 3D growths with individually waving fronds, but they’re actually made up of cunningly textured flat surfaces fanned out in a loose star. To represent a field of agave plants exactly would take “tens of thousands of polygons”, Swaim notes. Some video games deepen the challenge by pursuing non-realist art styles. Another of Swaim’s favourites is Proteus, a game of matte-coloured wilderness landscapes where you’ll find mushrooms that vary by the season.

Professor Alexandre Antonelli, director of science at London’s Kew Gardens, would like to collaborate with a developer on a game featuring Kew’s gigantic collection of plant species (you can hear about the centre’s more unusual crops on the Unearthed podcast). Antonelli has spent years struggling to interest his tech-loving son in botany, only to stumble on unexpected common ground in the plant life of Rockstar’s cowboy adventure Red Dead Redemption 2. The game features 43 species, including oregano, which grows in Antonelli’s garden. “After he had collected it in the game, I said oh, if you want some oregano we can go pick it up right now. And he got really excited.”

In particular, Antonelli would love to make a plant-spotting version of augmented reality game Pokemon Go, in which you track monsters through your phone camera. “There’s an app called iNaturalist, where you can take a photo of a plant or animal and there’s machine learning to identify the species. It’s a fantastic thing to do with your phone but I think what we’ve been lacking is the game part, because especially for younger people, there must be some kind of reward.”

Should there be a plant-spotting version of Pokemon Go?

Motivating people across the globe to create records of local species might also help scientists rescue endangered plants, he adds. “With climate change and other problems, we really need to know where species are. It’s basic knowledge that we’re lacking today, and it’s much more expensive to send a professor, such as myself, somewhere to make an inventory.”

Gamifying anything risks making the reward the point of the process, and it’s easy to imagine users of a plant-spotting augmented reality game destroying plant habitats in their enthusiasm, much as Pokemon Go players have gridlocked high streets. Antonelli draws a comparison with the older hobby of collecting and pressing plants, that led to some species becoming threatened. There’s also a tragic irony to the idea of turning computer simulations, that are made and played at considerable environmental expense, into a repository for endangered flora.

Still, given that game-playing devices are already as ubiquitous as weeds, there’s surely no harm in exploring their promise as pro-social and pro-ecological instruments. “I think if you can pique peoples’ interest in the natural world and make them more responsible for it, it doesn’t really matter how,” comments Nozedar, as we conclude our tour of Yaughton. “We have to teach children what’s going on out there, and we have to make it accessible for them.”

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