Using Social Gaming to Protect Endangered Species – Wait, What?

No, no, you read that quite right. This is something that I recently came across as a featured report on the BBC Global News podcast. Hardshell Labs Inc. is a start-up company based in California that has really put one and one together. They figured out that while many people care about the protection of endangered species and other environmental conservation issues, they all too often don’t know what to do about it or how to do make a difference. Others are very active online gamers, but they don’t care about environmental issues. And this is where Hardshell Labs uses crowdsourcing and social online gaming to help people protect the environment in an easy and fun way.

Desert Tortoise

Desert Tortoise

Hardshell Labs has developed the Guardian Angel Rover, a rock-crawling robot equipped with a webcam that can be controlled via the Internet. Players will use their gaming skills to follow the endangered desert tortoise and protect the vulnerable baby tortoises from being attacked and eaten by ravens. The rover might eventually feature lasers and other equipment to scare away the ravens, but according to Tim Shields, the founder of Hardshell Labs, just driving the rover towards a raven that has landed near a baby tortoise will have a great effect.

There is even talk of using aerial drones in the future, which should get many people excited who do not want to spend money getting their own. Now, thanks to Hardshell Labs, they will get to fly them remotely and help protect tortoises and other species. Robots and drones have garnered lots of attention in the past few years, and offering the chance at controlling one as part of an online game should be a big attraction to all kinds of people who might otherwise not even care about some obscure endangered creature.

Ultimately the games designed by Hardshell Labs are aimed at using the crowds of online players to provide the long-term monitoring of the success of the desert tortoise. Tim Shields calls what they are trying to get off the ground “crowd-sourced conservation”. The company is in the process of developing global portals and templates that would allow the application of this social gaming approach to conservation to be used in many different places and for all sorts of species or other conservation challenges.

Ecological conservation efforts are generally both labor intensive and costly. Crowd-sourcing would take care of these obstacles, as the concept has already done in many other spheres where individuals failed to get something done, but collectively the crowd could take care of an endeavor almost effortlessly.

Taking conservation efforts online and gamifying them could be a huge boon to ecological problems, as digital technology allows for a kind of “playful environmentalism” where people who may previously have had nothing to do with environmental protection, or who live in their urban bubbles where nature is some abstract idea, can become engaged, learn about conservation efforts, and do good for the planet.

Hardshell Labs Inc. took their campaign to Kickstarter to get funded. Check out their entertaining video, which introduces the desert tortoise and explains the predicament the species is in. Hardshell Labs’ founder Tim Shields is a trained and renowned biologist, who knows the ins and outs of ecology and what happens when it gets out of balance.Screen Shot 2015-10-02 at 11.41.31

While this is very much still in its infancy, I can only imagine where this might go. People are always more responsive if you make things easy and fun for them, which is exactly what Hardshell Labs has figured out and is now using to leverage in the fight for conservation of the planet. If you consider that Farmville held millions and millions captive across Facebook as they tended to their virtual farms, what could happen if Hardshell Labs created a similar platform where people can share their activities with friends online and earn points for their efforts at scaring away ravens from baby tortoises, or perhaps flying a drone and releasing dispersant over a nasty oil slick after an oil spill?


  1. saunderh · ·

    First of all, this is an incredibly interesting post.

    My first question is about how Hardshell Labs plans to achieve profitability. Are they a nonprofit seeking to gain funding from environmental agencies? Or do you think they plan to implement their technology in other areas? Maybe charge the gamers using the platform?

    Second, I wonder if constantly having drones or robots interacting with endangered species might affect their own wellbeing. I would imagine that some group will probably study the effects of this.

    Overall, this is a really exciting find! I’m interested to see what this develops into.

    1. I agree, Hardshell Labs have their work cut out for them, and I have wondered about the interactions between endangered species and robots, too. The founder of the company is a trained biologist who has studies the species extensively, but I’m sure there will be other conservation groups that will voice their own concerns etc. This is in no way a perfect business or conservation model, but I love the creativity and outside-the-box thinking shown by these guys. Thanks for your comment!

  2. I love the term “crowd-sourced conservation” and really hope that this type of strategy works. I saw eco-friendly gaming becoming popular within kids apps during my internship this summer so I know there is potential, though these games were more about raising awareness of and correcting damaging habits. However, I see some holes in the plan for Hardshell Labs that they will have to fight as a first mover. My main concern is that gamers want fast-paced fun and excitement and even the videos showed that most of the time you will be standing still or slowly moving the rover to protect the tortoises. Adding lasers and gadgets is a whole other issue I’m not sure they want to pursue. That’s just one big concern I have, but will save the rest of mine to let other people chime in. Thanks for sharing this cool story, Christine!

    1. I totally agree with you @mfrederick13, that tortoises don’t make for fast-paced gaming. And yes, there are issues that Hardshell Labs will need to overcome no doubt. It’ll be interesting to see how this pans out. At the very least it’s a creative initiative that may lay the basis for future endeavors that are more engaging to a broader audience.
      Also, I’m glad to hear that Hasbro is working on eco-friendly apps, that’s very cool!

  3. Hello Christine, good post! It’s not the first time I hear about the issue of environmental conservation or the protection of endangered species on social media. Actually, I’ve saw lots of posts encouraging people to say no to fur, either with someone holding a slogan or with the image of bloody animals in those posts.

    However, it’s really my first time to learn that someone is trying to combine technology and social media, and integrate them to the process of species protection. By doing so, they not only double the effectiveness of each, but also engages a larger number of audience – people who care about the environment and endangered species but don’t know how to do and people who love playing online games but don’t pay attention to these issues.

    In addition, I like the point you make in the last paragraph. It’s a good idea to create a platform for people to share their activities and earn points for their efforts. That reminds me of what we learned about collective intelligence last week. In the “why to do” part, except money not involved in this case, love and glory are definitely two major incentives!

  4. Wow what an interesting post! This is a very interesting concept and i can see the games potential in getting people involved in protecting the animals. My major concern is that people will not be responsible with the game. I also have the same question as @saunderh in regards to how the technology will effect the well being of the animals.

  5. Totally agree with your idea that people are often more responsive when things are made easy and fun for them. It is awesome that Hardshell Labs is taking the complicated task of saving the planet, and making it into a simple online gaming platform. Really unique subject that I knew nothing about, so thanks for sharing!

  6. Unconventional and creative idea! I have similar questions as some previous commenters about the safety and responsibility issues of having untrained users and robots interacting directly with the animals and their environment. Also, I imagine there will be regulatory issues surrounding endangered species.

    However, I love the idea of using the knowledge and manpower of the crowd to solve issues that are typically prohibitively large and expensive. I wonder if they could somehow structure their social game so that there are moderators ensuring animal safety, or even have training games with levels that essentially prequalify users to actually interact. It reminds me of military drones/planes that are operated remotely by people, many of them previous, extremely successful gamers.

  7. I found this article quite interesting and the ideas innovative. I have to say that some of the questions that @saunderh raised were just what i was asking myself. Particularly the one, where we don’t exactly know how the interaction of these species with drones and robots my affect their living and existence. At the end of the day, if it helps them survive and survive without suffering, i am all for it. I believe that this is a huge issue today as we continue to find ways to make our lives better at the expense of other creatures in this world. There are few people finding solutions out there for the problems we are creating, but those who are are to be cherished. I hope hardshell labs is taken into account by other companies and more people start helping endangered species survive. More over, I would find it really interesting if people started using social gaming to start solving other problems; perhaps climate change for that matter haha. Great post!

  8. Fascinating post. My only fear is that internet trolls would take control of the robots/ drones and do more harm than good.

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