Screenshot of white-tailed deer from Red Dead Redemption 2. Image credit: Instacodez via Flickr / Rockstar Games.

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Video games and other digital technologies have great potential for improving education. They have the ability to engage players in active learning, which means that the knowledge and skills gained tend to stick around for a long time. However, educational games don’t tend to be that popular, partly because their designers don’t have the time or budgets available to big entertainment game developers. So, if educational games are unpopular, could popular games be educational?

Red Dead Redemption 2 (RDR2) is a very popular game – it has sold more than 36 million copies – from the international publisher Rockstar Games. It is a wild west themed action-adventure game with detailed, simulated ecosystems, which feature more than 200 animal species, all coded to behave realistically. We were interested in whether playing RDR2 taught players to recognise some of those animal species in real life.

We made an online survey for video gamers, starting with a wildlife identification quiz. Participants had to identify 15 animal species featured in RDR2, but from real-world photographs. We compared the quiz scores of people who both had and hadn’t played RDR2. We also asked those participants who had played RDR2 what they thought it had taught them, and about their memorable experiences from the game.

We found that gamers who had played RDR2 were better at identifying the different animal species than gamers who hadn’t. Participants also tended to do better in the quiz if they had played RDR2 recently, had completed the main storyline of the game, and had played the game’s online ‘Naturalist’ role (which involves wildlife-oriented tasks like tracking and photography). Participants told us that they had also learned about animal behaviour from playing the game and recounted particularly memorable experiences from their time spent exploring RDR2’s detailed virtual ecosystems.

Even though their main goal is entertainment, big-budget video games also have the potential to teach people about real-world natural history. Their ability to immerse players in dynamic, realistic environments could therefore be put to effective educational use.