If you’re reading this, there’s a very good chance that you’re interested in the ocean. And you should be — it’s a fascinating place. In this day and age, it can be easy to feel as though most of life’s mysteries have been solved, but there’s nothing further from the truth. The ocean is a perfect example of that. But exploring the ocean isn’t the easiest thing to do for the average person. Oh, sure, you can strap on a mask and even a SCUBA tank and snoop around, but that will only get you so far. Unless you’re a scientist with access to a submarine and a whole host of other equipment, you’ll always be chained to simply reading about the ocean or watching it. Well, until now, that is. Beyond Blue, released on June 11, is a lot more than a video game. It’s an educational tool that is expertly crafted with input from some of the brightest, most experienced minds in the marine science world. It has an important message, too: we are responsible for the health of our planet.
At the heart of that message is the idea that with education comes understanding, and with understanding comes empathy. Empathy for the animals we share the planet with. Empathy for the places they — and we — call home. Years in the making, Beyond Blue is set in the near future. Through the eyes of Mirai, a deep-sea explorer and scientist, the player becomes part of a research team that has a series of objectives. As you might imagine, encompassing the entirety of the ocean in a game was an ambitious undertaking, but the team at E-Line Media, the creators of Beyond Blue, was up to the task.
The designers who worked on the game took a deep dive into learning everything they could about the ocean. To do that, they enlisted some of the best teachers in the world: Dr. Sylvia Earle, Dr. David Gruber, and Dr. Samantha Joye, all of whom have incredibly impressive resumes.
Earle is a world-renowned marine biologist and a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence who was the first female chief scientist of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In 1998, she was the first person to be named “Hero for the Planet” by Time magazine. Gruber, a self-described Jack-of-all-trades marine biologist who holds a Ph.D. in Biological Oceanography, a M.E.M. in Coastal Environmental Management, and just for good measure, an M.S. in Journalism, discovered a fluorescent turtle, the first biofluorescent reptile ever recorded. Joye, not to be outdone, has made fundamental contributions in ocean biogeochemistry and microbial ecology and is widely lauded as one of the world’s leading experts on ocean ecology. In fact, she was one of the science advisors for part of BBC‘s Blue Planet II, and is so full of general ocean-related knowledge it would take several lifetimes for her to explain it all. All that is to say that the designers of Beyond Blue take their work seriously.
“My job was to work with the team with E-Line for several years,” Dr. Gruber told me in a wide-ranging conversation about what went into making the game. “We had 20 or 30 phone calls every few weeks. It was just teaching the game designers different facets of marine biology. I was so impressed with how much these guys learned about marine biology. By the end, they were like mini-Ph.Ds. In my last few conversations with them, I felt like they were essentially ready to graduate a Ph.D. program in marine biology.”
According to studies, the global average time spent playing video games is an astonishing three billion hours per week. E-Line is dedicated to making that time spent both fun and meaningful — and when it comes to empathy, all that time spent is one of the most important things. “Once you spend so much time trying to get to know any animal,” Dr. Gruber continued, “you get to understand it more and care about it more.”
The reality, for many of us, is that it’s very nearly impossible to get to know any animals in the deep-sea. Beyond Blue, however, makes that possible, at least in a way that’s about as close as possible to actually interacting with them in real life.
One of the most impressive parts of the game is just how real it looks. Thanks to the input from Earle, Gruber, and Joye, each and every creature, chunk of reef, and waving piece of kelp has been carefully designed to capture what they’re like in reality. With the expertise of the advisors, the design team modified things until they were as close to perfect as a screen allows.
“They wanted this game to be grounded in science,” Dr. Joye said from her home in Georgia. “They wanted it to be realistic; they wanted a clear message to be presented. My role was to guide the scientific message… When the opportunity came to advise E-Line on a game, I jumped on it.”
It’s not just the visual aspects of the game that the designers devoted time to, either. It’s the challenges that come along with the search for truth and just how difficult the life of a scientist can be. “Oh yeah, absolutely,” Dr. Joye answered when I asked whether the game holds up to what it’s really like exploring the vastness of the ocean. “They nailed it in terms of the personal challenges of working away from your family, sometimes in isolation, being on a mission for weeks or months on end; being committed to chasing down the answer to a complicated problem and sometimes failing and having to figure out what you did wrong, then having to move in a new direction to find the answer. You hear the old cliché that science is the search for truth, and I think what they convey in this game is that it’s a process. They do a really good job of conveying that.”
For Dr. Sylvia Earle, working on a video game was an exciting opportunity. Her view is that education is the way to understanding, and understanding is foundational in protecting the places that everything on earth — including us, of course — relies on for survival. “We need to take advantage of what we have today that wasn’t available even ten years ago,” she said.
Keeping the earth in sync is largely a balancing act and without our destructive interventions, that act generally stays on the highwire. But as we charge forward into the future, our society continues to depend on products and industries that threaten to send that act plummeting to the ground below. Earle has spent most of her career in pursuit of both continuing her own education and educating others about the immense importance of protecting the environment. And in speaking with her, it’s clear that her passion has never wavered. If anything, the fire is burning brighter now than ever before.
“There’s so much that needs to be explored and discovered,” Earle told me. “We’re just beginning to understand the magnitude of the problems… We need to take action to protect the diversity of life. Our existence relies on a living system. It’s part of what makes that system work. All the pieces matter.”
Dr. Earle, much like Dr. Joye and Dr. Gruber, is infatuated with the ocean and everything in it. It is a place of endless fascination for them, and in a pure, innocent way, they look at their contributions to Beyond Blue as a way of sharing that joy with others.
“Diving into the ocean can change everything,” Dr. Earle explained. “If people really understand what’s down there, the reality of what’s there is so much more amazing than anything we’ve ever been able to imagine. When I go on a dive, I say, ‘Eat your heart out, Luke Skywalker!’ What you can imagine is fantastic, but what’s real is even more fantastic.”
Earle is in her eighties now, but still, after all these years and all of the things she’s experienced, she talks about the ocean with a sense of childlike wonder. She wants nothing more than to share that wonder with other people, and Beyond Blue is a vehicle to do just that. And hopefully, that will lead to a whole new crop of people who are just as passionate as she is. “To engage people in the experience vicariously,” she said after a long, thoughtful pause when I asked what she wants people to get out of the game. “To say, ‘Come with me. Let me take you where I go. You could be an explorer. You can use your imagination in creative ways to understand that this is the real ocean and that it’s in trouble. What can we do to solve the problems? How can we be a part of the solution by using our creative minds to see how we can fix it?'”
There are many methods of teaching a student something, but most of them won’t stick unless that student is interested in learning. The makers of Beyond Blue narrowed their focus onto those who are interested in something endlessly fascinating and endlessly important: the ocean. They did it in a fun way that is educational, and visually stunning. Sure, it’s a video game. But it might be a video game that helps save the world. With any luck, Beyond Blue will be a raving success — because as Dr. Earle said, “Saving the world is a team sport.”