Toronto Zoo will fight road kill with video game

Why did the spotted turtle cross the road? Because there was no ecologically-designed, safe passageway available for it to get to the other side.

Road ecology is no joking matter for Dave Ireland, curator of conservation programs at the Toronto Zoo. Ontario’s highways intersect the wildlife habitats of many woodland creatures such as the spotted turtle or the white-tailed deer, and more than 15,000 large animals are struck by motor vehicles each year in the province.

Ireland wants to educate school children on the issue and he’s constructed a room at the zoo to do just that. Soon, a video game kiosk created by students at George Brown College will be a main feature in that room.

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“The program really needs to touch base with people who are at the stage in life where computer interaction is important,” he says. “The game will be part of a truly Canadian building that sits here hanging over the Rouge Valley, and the inside is dedicated to species at risk and what people can do to help them.”

The kiosk will live alongside a spotted-turtle and a red-spotted newt, both animals that too often end up as road kill. The room also has models of underpasses, bridges, and other structures that can be used to help animals safely cross the road.

“The animals are sitting right beside the video game and will help students understand the connection between the live animal they’re looking at, the road that brought them to the zoo, and how they can help,” Ireland says.

The touch-screen-enabled video game is being developed by students and faculty at George Brown. Targeting children ages three to 12, the game seeks to educate with the help of photo-realistic graphics and straightforward game play that involves identifying animals and matching them with the appropriate road crossing design.

The game will be titled “The Toronto Zoo Eco-Road Challenge,” says Jean-Paul Amore, program coordinator for game design at George Brown.

“For example, children with match a deer with the scenery of its eco-system, and then we identify a bridge as the correct passageway for that deer,” he says. “Then the next stage is to associate the image of a bridge as the safe passageway.”

George Brown received $10,000 funding from the Colleges Ontario Network for Industry Innovation (CONII) towards the project. The network consists of 10 colleges across the province and is led by Seneca College. Funded by the Ontario government, the group’s mission is to promote technological innovation at Ontario businesses with the help of their post-secondary students and faculty.

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The educational video game project was selected for funding at George Brown because it will help the Zoo become more innovative and competitive, says Katharine Janzen, chair of CONII’s steering committee. It will also provide some real-world training for the students involved.

“It’s pretty creative and it does have potential,” she says. “Plus, we had the faculty and students who were interested in the type of work needed to make it fly.”

A touch-screen video game kiosk will help the zoo boost its image with today’s youth, Ireland says.

“They come in with their iPods on and their cell phones glued to their ears,” he says. “We need to use a medium they understand.”

A committee dubbed “Zoo Tech 2.0” has been looking for ways to revamp the facility and get it up to date with current technology. The zoo of a decade ago no longer has the same impact on a new generation that’s been brought up engaging information and entertainment through technology. It is seeking other partnerships to help connect with a tech-savvy audience.

At George Brown, seven students are involved in developing the video game. The team has a diverse skill set, Amore says.

“One student excels in 3D modelling and animation,” he says. “Another one completed her undergraduate in photography and is creating the photorealistic images for the game.”

Not only will the students be given published credits for their work on the game, but they are being paid for their time. The project is being used as a pilot project for the design of future courses.

After some awareness is raised by the Toronto Zoo, it may speak with Ontario’s Minister of Transportation about addressing the ecological effects of what most people just think of as “road kill.” The construction of more ecologically safe passageways designed for wildlife could save the lives of thousands of animals.

And that’s no laughing matter.

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