Game of cones: school gamers recruited to save trees

With new threats to tree health never far from the news, the game plan for seven Scottish research institutes has been to work with computer game designers and create a freely-available platform on which young players can pit their wits against pests and diseases in the virtual forest survival strategy game CALEDON. The ultimate aim being to encourage a new generation of much-needed tree health specialists, following its launch in Glasgow today (September 21).

Forest cover is low in Scotland compared to many other European countries, accounting for only 17 per cent of the total land area. Meanwhile, Scottish Government targets to increase it by 100,000 hectares by 2022 are driven by the need to tackle climate change, diversify rural economies and create wildlife habitat. At the same time a growing number of threats to tree health are set against a shortfall in plant science expertise, presenting a major hurdle in achieving ambitious targets for forest renewal.

CALEDON, inspired by the popularity of virtual worlds in gaming, is first and foremost intended to be fun to play. Players make changes to their forest by planting, logging and curing trees and then advance through time towards their next turn. To succeed in the game players must learn the conditions that particular tree species favour so that they can plant wisely. They must also make choices about the type of planting stock to use. For example, genetically uniform high-yielding stock may seem to offer the best financial return, but such trees are more vulnerable to pests and disease. At the other end of the spectrum genetically diverse stock has advantages in terms of resilience, but costs more and yields less. Finding the sweet spot where trees thrive, income is being generated and wildlife populations are in balance requires knowledge learned through game play.

Learning to develop successful strategies is aided through an in-game encyclopaedia. It details the ecology for six tree species, the yield and resilience characteristics of three different types of saplings and information on nine pests and diseases. The encyclopaedia also has details of the terrain types and forest wildlife, including the impact that species such as deer that can cause on trees if their populations become too large. And, the game provides hints to succeed in achieving particular objectives along the way.

The science that underpins CALEDON is championed by the seven research partners in the UK’s PROTREE project and is part of Tree Health and Plant Biosecurity Initiative, a £7million fund to support research on, and engagement with, plant health. A novel aspect of the game, that is fundamental to the approach of the PROTREE project, is that trees can adapt through natural selection. In nature trees adapt to reach a stable balance with pests and diseases. The problem with much of our current forestry practice is that it does not draw on assistance from natural processes like adaptation.  High populations of deer limit natural regeneration which is the engine of adaptation. The aim of the PROTREE research is to identify natural processes which promote resilience. In essence it is all about helping nature to help itself.

The game can be played online or downloaded free at www.rbge.org.uk/caledon and is also being made available for iPads via the App Store. CALEDON links to levels three and four of the curriculum across Science, Technologies, Social Studies and Number and Maths. For more background visit http://www.rbge.org.uk/education/schools/resources/caledon

The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh is a charity (registration number SC007983)