by Ryan Thompson
Tyto Ecology is an ecosystem creation simulator. I took interest in the game because of my role as an elementary science teacher. I’ve spent my time with the game building rainforest, grassland, and desert biomes. I’ve placed giant Kapok trees and small varieties of grasses and shrubbery. Animals have been summoned forth into these habitats at my whim, and died slow, painful deaths from starvation. Some have survived, and the health of my ecosystems have stayed fairly high, but having insectivores in an environment with only a poisonous insect for food… doesn’t work so well.
The game prioritizes simplicity over micro-management. Dropping plants and animals in the environment creates groups or territories for the organisms. You won’t be able to place a single bobcat wherever you want; you choose its territory. Some players might miss the level of control this takes away from the players. You’ll spend less time figuring out exactly where to place that one mushroom, instead choosing its circle of influence. This level of simplicity makes the game more accessible in primary and secondary classrooms, as placement of organisms doesn’t require precision.
Sparing specifics of the Next Generation Science Standards (nextgenscience.org), Tyto Ecology nestles itself neatly within my science curriculum. Most obviously, the game provides an interactive way to lead to the understanding that organisms survive well in some environments, but not in others. However, since one can’t (yet) place a cactus in a tropical rainforest, or a polar bear in a desert, extremes of organisms in the wrong environment aren’t something that can be played with. Adaptations help animals survive, and some plants and animals are just better suited for survival. You’ll find tough, hearty species that can only be eaten by very specific animals (or, like the badger, species that can eat just about anything).
The strongest concept covered is that animals, plants and other organisms interact within ecosystems and these relationships can affect the survival of multiple species. Organisms that will interact with each other are clearly shown each time a plant or animal is placed in the environment. In my initial sessions, I was very content to see that I had herbivores interacting with plants, and carnivores interacting with herbivores. My quick contentment resulted in animals dying, in animations that aren’t frightening for children of any age. It was time for me to consult the biodex.
I really appreciate the biodex in Tyto Ecology. A quick-click of its page icon provides information on each organism in the game, and a glossary of terms that might help the player understand what’s happening in their ecosystem. Reading the biodex taught me that the ants I had so kindly offered to my insectivores were poisonous. It helped me discover which plants possess the best leaves or fruits for herbivores, which are used for shelter, and which are very attractive to pollinators – who will be more attractive to my insectivores than poisonous ants, for sure. The biodex is great for educational purposes, as it bristles with real-world facts, and becomes required reading to ensure balanced and appropriate interactions in your ecosystems.
There are two forms of energy currency for use in the game – Impact Points and Tyto Coins. Impact Points are required to place animals and plants in the environment. Tyto Coins are used to unlock organisms and purchase Impact Points. Should you find yourself in an environmental emergency, you can exchange your coins for points to quickly (hopefully) balance your ecosystem. These currencies could be a conceit for the iPad version of the game, as they encourage revisiting the game once your points have recharged. For the classroom, the limitation on how much can be done in one play session is a strength. This encourages small changes in the environment. I would suggest to students that they are attempting to engineer the perfect environment. Limiting the amount of changes that can be made in a session will help students to determine what’s working, what isn’t, and how to improve their ecosystems. Suddenly, Tyto Ecology is also connecting to the engineering design process.
If you’re looking for a large-scale, micromanagement zoo simulator, I don’t think Tyto Ecology is for you. The game does feel like a more casual experience. Some gameplay sessions were an hour, as I spent time in each of my three biomes. Others were just a few minutes, as I checked on my animal populations, read a few biodex entries, and placed a few new animal territories (and hoping these would outlive the last). Once more, this flexibility is strength in the classroom. Perhaps this is a beginning of period exercise, or a 15-minute reading center, or a quick reward for a class session well done. Alternatively, the game could be an entire lesson, effectively including reading, engineering, and science skills.