Kate on Conservation

Enter a world of unseen forests and play the role of a real life scientist


Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be a scientist, conducting research with the University of Oxford’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU)? Now you can place yourself in the middle of the action, by downloading Unseen Empire onto your mobile device (for free!), which puts candid images of over 230 different species in the palm of your hand.*

Unseen Empire

Unseen Empire is a free mobile game that can be downloaded from the App Store or Google Play. The latest release from game makers Internet of Elephants, presents players with the data and stories from a 10-year camera trap study into the life and habitat of the elusive clouded leopard.

Take the rare chance to virtually visit Southeast Asian to play the story of the largest camera trap study in history — and meet some incredible, vulnerable species while you recreate the study for yourself.

Developed with support from a National Geographic Society grant, Unseen Empire aims to reach adults and families with children alike; giving the wider public the chance to discover this rarely seen footage.

unseen empire trailer thumbnail

I had the exciting opportunity to talk with the game’s creator and Internet of Elephants’ Founder Gautam Shah, who also happens to be a National Geographic fellow — and I can’t wait to tell you more…

Discover this mobile game made with real conservation data

Most of us would agree that protecting biodiversity is a good thing, but very few of us know what it actually takes. That’s what makes Unseen Empire so special — it draws back the curtain on the immense effort by humans on the ground to keep our biodiversity and wild spaces intact.  

This newest title from the makers of Wildeverse, sees gameplay take place across 8 countries and 34 study sites — giving players access to hundreds of genuine wildlife photos.

This compelling game brings to life a huge 10-year study by Professor David Macdonald and his WildCRU team from Oxford University, to explore the impact of deforestation on the habitat of the clouded leopard.

The biggest camera trapping project ever attempted, the study resulted in the largest catalog of photos of any research project on any species. It’s this type of research that is critical in the creation of protected areas and earth-friendly economic policies.

Despite this groundbreaking achievement, however, study like WildCRU’s doesn’t travel far beyond academic circles. Unseen Empire changes that.

 “It’s a joy to see hundreds of images of fascinating species, and fun to check one’s own skills in identifying them,” Professor David Macdonald CBE, Director of WildCRU, Zoology, University of Oxford tells me, “but for me; the greatest excitements are seeing the huge geographical spread of our project accessibly gathered together, and to be reminded of the remarkable people whose lives and careers the project has advanced: remarkable talent, huge perseverance and very good humour all deployed tirelessly for the sake of conserving, and understanding, beautiful nature.” 

Meet game creator Gautam Shah

I had the chance to chat to Gautam about the making of the game, and its recent release…

Kate: Firstly, let me say I love the idea of making a scientific study like this one accessible to a wide-ranging public and family-orientated audience. What can players expect to learn or discover when playing Unseen Empire?

Gautam: Animals, habitats, people, and tech. There are 235 different animals, most of which they will never have heard about let alone seen.

Habitats and terrains that stretch from Borneo in the South to the mountainous regions of Nepal in the North and how those ecosystems have similarities that are conducive to clouded leopard populations, but also how the types of animals they will see will change as they move north.

They will learn about the incredible researchers that spend countless hours trudging up muddy slopes to lay the traps and then countless hours back at basecamp analyzing the data that comes through. And finally, a little more about the role that technology plays in wildlife conservation. You won’t become a scientist from playing this game, but you’ll definitely know a lot more about what it takes and why it is important.

That sounds great! The Clouded Leopard is an often overlooked wild cat, not nearly as famed as its larger cousins. Did you have any particular affinity for this species prior to creating the game?

Gautam: We’ve always got a desire to feature lesser known wildlife in our games, though it is not always possible depending on the opportunities that arise. So from that perspective, it was very nice to be working on a project with a focus on, as you say, an overlooked but gorgeous cat.

It presented a challenge for us though, as while it might have been easier to create a storyline that focused entirely on the clouded leopard, what really struck us about the study was the incredible diversity of wildlife that was captured on film, and so we eventually decided to make the clouded leopard a nice part of the game, but not the feature.

unseen empire clouded leopard camera trap image

I pride myself on knowing a fair bit about animals, not in a scientific way, but just out of personal interest and affinity, and I was blown away by the number of mammals alone that I never knew existed until we started seeing the photos. It actually heightened my sense of urgency around these habitats knowing that so much can live and potentially thrive there with just a little protection.

What initially drew you to WildCRU and this particular study?

Gautam: We are always looking for new data sets with great stories behind them. We’d already done a few projects with GPS data and also observed behaviour data, and so when I sat down casually with David Macdonald at a research conference — where I was mostly feeling like a fish out of water — we got to talking about his work in Southeast Asia and the incredible data set he and his team had put together over the previous 10 years. From that point I was determined to see what we could come up with and David and his team were equally keen to see their work featured in this way.

Unseen Empire species list

Our initial inspiration for Unseen Empire came from a game called “Cookie Clicker”, which falls into a class of games called Idle Clickers. It is a very basic concept of starting with a small set of resources to make cookies, and by doing not much else other than clicking a button, building those resources to eventually make billions of cookies. Very broadly, we thought about this in terms of needing resources to lay camera traps to receive images, and by successfully ID’ing the animals in those images, building those resources up in an effort to get more and more images. Now Unseen Empire is far from an idle clicker game, but inspirations can come from the least likely places.

Unseen Empire is based on a huge study that took place over 10 years; what kind of work was involved in bringing this game to life?

The first part is poring through the data to see: a) if it is interesting and b) if we can gamify it in some way. Of course the answer to a) was going to be yes, but b) is a bit harder.  If 99% of the photos that are coming in are of a bearded pig, how can we make that fun?  Alternatively, if there is a high percentage of photos of clouded leopards, how do we create a sense of scarcity and tension?

It’s always a challenge walk the line between a serious message, but still creating a sense of fun.

In principle, we try not to preach or have a point of view that we are trying to get across – i.e., nothing in the game will try and tell you that palm oil is bad. We try and tell authentic stories which are uncovered through fun game play and give people the resources they need to discover more or develop their own opinions. People have to decide for themselves whether they find the stories and learnings serious and something they want to get more involved with.

After we had created a lot of simple visualizations of the data to help answer those questions, we started going through all the possibilities of what the game concept could be, within the constraints of the budget we knew we had. 

Then we started an iterative process of just making games on paper or in Excel and testing those with small audiences and building from there until we had a fair idea of the direction we were going.  From there it’s a matter of coming up with a visual style and feel, building it and putting it all together, always testing with users at each new milestone. Probably the most overlooked and under-appreciated part of building a game though is figuring out how people are going to discover it and play it. That is an on-going process.

How are players encouraged to make the link between the game, Professor David Macdonald’s research and the creation of protected areas and earth-friendly economic policies in South-East Asia?

We used different game mechanics to bring in those links and stories. So rather than just tell you that the work helped to create a national park in Myanmar, we make that an achievement within the game.

We let you upgrade your technology within the game to help learn about the different tools researchers have at their disposal. We create small challenges that let the user know the types of challenges and opportunities organizations like WildCRU face during the research. And we always let the user dive a bit deeper into the data through simple data visualizations if they want.

It will take us some time to see if these approaches are working or having the desired effect, but it was a very conscious way of trying to create those links without being too overt.

The reaction has been pretty good. It is always tough with games, because you want everyone to love it and play until the end, but the reality is that if even 10% of the people that play it keep coming back, you’re doing very well. 

Then it is a matter of scaling that to enough people, so that the 10% is a meaningful number. But we’ve gotten very good feedback from adults and kids alike and the initial benchmarks would show that this can be very successful as a wildlife storytelling tool. So with that, we’re currently looking at expanding Unseen Empire to include camera trap studies within Africa and hopefully eventually we’ll be able to expand it to camera trap studies all over the world.

You can take a look here www.unseenempire.com or, download the app for free for android or Apple on your smart phone or tablet.

kate on conservation wildlife blog logo

Like this post? Read about Internet of Elephants’ other title ‘Wildeverse’.

*Disclaimer: this is a sponsored post.

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