Transcript: Episode 12 – Palaeogaming and Myanmar Amber

Travis Holland 0:07
Welcome to Fossils and Fiction, a podcast exploring cultural and scientific ideas about dinosaurs.

Hi, I’m Travis Holland. In this episode of Fossils and Fiction, I present interviews with two researchers about their recently published papers. Jake Atterby joins me to discuss the fascinating topic of paleogaming based on his recent co authored paper, which examines the representation of paleontology in video games. Dr. Emma Dunne talks about the emerging ethical considerations for paleontological research on specimens collected in conflict zones, based on her recent paper examining Myanmar Amber.

Jake Atterby 1:10
Jake Atterby, I’m a vertebrate paleontologist at the University of Birmingham, I’m not a doctor yet. I’m just a PhD student, a PhD researcher,

Travis Holland 1:18
This paper is really interesting as someone who’s a video game fan, myself and a fan of some of the games you’ve mentioned, in this paper, could you tell me what you were looking at what the background is at what you were trying to do?

Jake Atterby 1:31
This is something that comes up time and time again with doing science communication is young people especially will come up to you and tell you their favorite dinosaur is some strange mythical creature that you’ve never heard of from a video game. Or I remember one time someone asked me, Do you know how to tame the Parasaurolophus and I had no idea what they were talking about until I realized many months later, they were referring to a video game called ARK: Survival Evolved where you can basically tame this massive roster of prehistoric creatures. So with that in mind, when the lockdown started, we were trying to find a way to do outreach online. And we came up with a YouTube channel where me and some of my colleagues were making videos like let’s plays and reactions are basically just using video games as a stage to teach paleontology because paleontology crops up in hundreds and hundreds of video games, it’s actually unreal, just how many games there are. So the purpose of this paper is to basically categorize those games and try to distill what we found by playing a bunch of them to our fellow science communicators who have zero experience with video games, but are probably going to be talking to people at museums or other outreach events, with people who have do play video games. And in fact, video games might be their only source of paleontological education that they’re even getting.

Travis Holland 2:54
It’s always a good time when you can do research by playing video games, which is why I went into my profession rather than yours

Jake Atterby 2:59
This is something I never thought I would do. I work on fossil fish. And so it is really weird to have to tell my supervisor, I’m just gonna take a little time off real quick to finish this paper on video games. It’s not something we tend to do, I should say. The paper was really heavily inspired by a paper some of our friends wrote about a year before ours came out about volcanoes, volcanoes in video games, because lava and volcanoes are even more common in video games. And then dinosaurs and fossil collecting. And their paper really inspired us as well.

Travis Holland 3:29
Tell me a bit about the YouTube channel.

Jake Atterby 3:31
Yeah, so it’s called the Paleocast Gaming Network. It’s sort of a spin off of the Paleocast podcast, which my friend Dave Marshall runs. And, yeah, it’s been going for just over a year or so now, it has about two and a half thousand subscribers, which I’m immensely proud of. And we all take it in turns just to find various games and play them as a paleontologist, which, on one hand is really nice for the viewers because it gives some sense of human scientists who are completely untouchable, we like games as well. But it lets us do really weird things. So I’ve done virtual field trips in American Truck Simulator, which is a game about driving lorries around North America. But those games are so realistic, you can look out the window and see rock types that, you know, I’ve been to. And I’ve done field work, and I’ve found fossils in them. So yeah, during lockdown, I run virtual field trips in that game and the developers of that game, love them. And I even managed to do a live stream with the developers and sort of talk to them about some of the landforms and fossil localities that they’ve recreated without even realizing. And that’s kind of again, coming back to the paper. We’re really interested in this idea of 10 Gentle learning where people can learn things without really realizing that they’re doing it and that’s really interesting to us, and then trying to capitalize on with the YouTube channel.

Travis Holland 5:00
popular media is a really great way to go about that if you can insert, you know, bits of science or, or bits of other sort of educational knowledge in there. And people can pick it up just by absorbing it without even realizing that they are. But the trick and I think you described this quite well in the paper, is making sure that people understand what the difference between the real sciences and fiction. Exactly. That’s

Jake Atterby 5:23
the thing. So while you’re learning sort of subconsciously, a lot of people can’t really discern what’s real and what’s real information, and what’s weird tropes and you know, factoids that have just been passed on throughout this game developers because it’s not their job to make an educational game, they want to make something that’s entertaining and exciting and engaging. So it’s no wonder that these things fall through the cracks. So our job of this paper is to try and let fellow science communicators know about some of the issues that they may be sort of getting through these games. And we can counteract those, I guess, in how we teach, which games do you think did the job? Well see that? That is a really interesting question. I think the the thing we were trying to avoid was kind of just listing games as good or bad. I think a lot of people have already misinterpreted the paper as just being that we try to think of it as sort of individual tropes and what certain games do well and what certain games don’t do well in these in these tropes. So okay, for game that doesn’t really well, I think is Animal Crossing New Horizons. That game is

Travis Holland 6:24
Yeah, which was hugely popular books during the during the pandemic suspiciously

Jake Atterby 6:27
released that game in March of 2020. That game is fantastic time is, that game is awesome. So you can build your own museum, Blathers, the curator, when you give him a fossil, he will tell you information about the fossil. And it’s so you know, up to date and really interesting. And the fossils in the museum itself are displayed in a phylogeny in a big tree of life. And there’s even a space in the tree of life for you, your human character to stand in and see yourself where you’re related to all these animals, which is awesome. But then on the flip side of that game, make some really interesting sort of mistakes. For instance, you can sell the fossils that you don’t need anymore. If you’ve already got the fossil in the museum, you send it to the pawn shop for quite a lot of money. And that’s an issue that purlins ologists they are really struggling with, literally this week, amazingly time that are part of a T Rex skeleton is being sold in China for I think about $25 million. And I remember a few years ago, the standard T Rex skeleton sold for about 30 odd million dollars. And that’s really bad for paleontology, because I’m it promotes sort of fossil poaching this idea that, you know, you can just go out, just destroy the landscape until you find that extremely valuable T Rex skull fossils that have been sold into private collections, which mean they can’t be worked on. They sort of leave that public domain, and it just kind of sends the wrong message. That’s not what Paleontology is really about. We’re not trying to profit from these discoveries. Yeah.

Travis Holland 8:01
And it you went into some of the ethics there behind obviously, the selling the fossils. And you mentioned even even colonialism and the kind of history of Paleontology is tied up with colonialism in some ways as well. Yeah. Okay. So without categorizing the games as good or bad, stay away from that. What were some of the other things you have?

Jake Atterby 8:21
I think the main trope that we find especially interesting is this idea of monster reification, which is a term that paleo artists so people that try to reconstruct what an excellent animal may have looked like based on its skeleton, it’s a term they use a lot. And it’s this idea where, instead of depicting an ancient animal as just an animal, you monster a fire you make it look like this big fearsome beast by making them larger and faster covered in spikes and spines and having them sort of act aggressively that sort of classic vision of you know, a T rex is supposed to be this amazing predator. Why is it sneaking up on its prey and then screaming and roaring in its face before it attacks it? No animal does that. And this idea of one certification isn’t just about misrepresenting what we know about these animals. It also pushes ancient animals in the public consciousness away from living animals into the realm of myths and monsters, and it really creates this division which is really challenging for science communicators who already struggled to, you know, educate some people that living birds are descended from dinosaurs other old tetrapods, including ourselves share a common ancestor with a lobe finned fish for instance. Yeah, this division is really common in video games and the weirdest thing with ancient animals and Monster replication is that it’s not just apply to the carnivores like it often is with living animals like we looked at again Skyrim for instance, and Elden ring. There are wolves in those games and bears that have been certainly miss proportioned and made to look more fearsome, but the herbivores in those games was completely fine. Secondly, accurate, docile creatures. But then, with dinosaurs like triceratops, and Stegosaurus and Kyla SARS, these herbivorous dinosaurs are also turned into these blood thirsty monsters that charge and roll around attacking you. And it’s really weird to think how most ancient animals in video games could easily be replaced by a dragon or a robot or a zombie. And it wouldn’t really change the tone. But if you were to replace them with a living animal, the tone would be so different. That’s a really weird one. And then, like you mentioned earlier with some of the sort of weird misrepresentation, ethics of the actual build itself is really common. So against selling fossils is extremely common in a lot of games with sort of resource collection, which is very strange, and just shows how, you know, just how common that trope is. And then, as well, strange, sort of hyper sexualization of female characters. And often, games that build themselves as paleontology simulators are essentially very, very based around a white male character in a Stetson and a big beard, which, for a field that is already really struggling with diversity, having that lack of representation is not helping at all. And it just sends the message that to be a paleontologist, you need to be a non disabled white guy, and not the wonderful diverse range of people that actually are in this field. And then, I think, another weird example, paleontology is going through quite a sort of ethical reexamination in the last few years with certain practices like illegal fossil poaching, for instance. And gaming has not caught up with this at all, in Jurassic World evolution, you can go out, you can send your teams out to real world fossil localities that are named and shown on a map, and you can send them off to find fossils, to get the DNA to train your dinosaurs in your, in your Jurassic Park. And you can literally in that game, send people to sites that are currently it is currently illegal to take fossils from those places. The game just doesn’t mention this. It’s really weird. And that could have been a really good opportunity for some form of fast communication for us. But but now it’s very, very strange once you start picking these schemes apart, but things you notice,

Travis Holland 12:29
that’s a really interesting observation. I could talk about Jurassic Park all day. But you know, there was quite a bit of the sort of ethics of fossil extraction and using the fossils in the novels. But of course, that didn’t really make it into any of the films and then these games are based on the film’s so it became a something that was sort of left in the dust, I think, in the adaptations, what are the implications? For the from the research, do you think, what do you hope to come out of it or reexamine within the field, I

Jake Atterby 13:03
would really like, I would like science communicators to treat this industry as something real. This, you know, the gaming industry is bigger than the movie industry. In the music industry combined, there are approximately 3 billion people in the world who play video games, with so many of them featuring paleontology, that is a massive captive audience that we should be aware of, we’re already trying to deal with this fact that not everyone has access to museums for all sorts of socio economic reasons. But they may be playing video games, with our fields represented in them, we should be aware of that. And we should be trying to, you know, reach across to them and teach them because clearly, they’re interested, it’s not just about sort of treating it seriously, as a medium, it would be my dream, to foster more collaboration with game developers and scientists and have us be able to, you know, can be consultants, but also create games that could be used in a classroom setting. There’s a wonderful game that we found called fossile corner, which is a game about reconstructing phylogenies, you get given like a box of fossils, and you have to try to figure out their relationships, you could so easily set up a little booth in a museum and have visitors play that game and they would learn and gain so much from it. It’s I think, something I would love to see in the near future is this increased collaboration between game developers and scientists that maybe we can come up with something because educational video games don’t exist anymore. To be completely honest. They used to be a big thing in the 90s and early 2000s. But a lot of them are very, very boring and not very engaging compared to actual entertaining, proper video games, which have just as much educational value potentially, if scientists and science communicators, vet them, and actually stack the right ones, which is hopefully what

Emma Dunne 15:08
My name is Emma Dunne, and I’m currently at Friedrich Alexander University in Germany, it’s in Ehrlagen. So this paper has a rather long backstory, when you look at the paper, it actually looks very succinct and very detailed on one particular topic. It looks nicely packaged off. But there’s a long history and lead into this paper. And myself and Nussaibah the other researcher who worked with me on this paper, had been looking at this through a data driven lens, we like to call it mostly because we were very tired of people seeing problems in paleontology, particularly ethical and legal issues, and saying, oh, there’s not enough evidence or there’s not enough data. And one of the things we looked at much more broadly was, how is paleontological data distributed across the world. And we unsurprisingly found very strong evidence that data that’s to do with Paleontology is concentrated in knowledge centers, such as North America or Western Europe. And that led us then to look into data from other countries. And one thing that kept popping up in the data was Myanmar. And actually popped up in a really interesting way, because Nussaibah and I were working on the database from back to front, we were meeting each other in the middle. So she started the early years, and 2000s and then work backwards. And I worked from 1990 upwards. And she kept saying, Have you seen these patterns with Myanmar? And I was like, No, there’s no Myanmar data in, in what I’m looking at. And eventually, she was like, Wait, this is a really modern recent thing. And I said it must be. So we decided to pluck out Myanmar data and have a look at it ourselves. And it was rather striking how closely the data matched with what anecdotes are going on around the problem with Myanmar amber, and how it was very ethically dubious and lawfully dubious as well. And then we started to match up our data with what was happening in Myanmar and how the material was being dealt with. And that’s how the paper came about.

Travis Holland 17:23
Why do you think that research on Myanmar Amber is problematic? What’s happening there?

Emma Dunne 17:29
So there’s different facets. And the first one is a very easy one for people to grasp, I guess is that Myanmar is currently in the news, there’s a current coup happening in the country, there is a lot of conflict happening, particularly in the north of the country where a lot of that amber is taken from. But that’s an easy one to think about. Because if a country is currently undergoing a lot of political upheaval and conflict, removing specimens from that to do science on it without any connection with local researchers, is rather unethical and unfair. And I think that’s an easy one for everybody to grasp. But people are continuing to do it in paleontology. The other aspect of it is the legal aspect. Now, Myanmar tries to protect its cultural and natural heritage. And they have laws and international treaties that help to retain amber specimens in the country. So fossils, you need to have permission from the national authorities to extract and take them out of the country. And then gemstones that’s seen as a commercial business, but you also need to have permits to take out gemstones and trade them outside the country. But Amber fossils fossils in amber even, and fall into this little gray zone that people try to exploit where it’s not a fossil, but it’s not a gemstone, it’s neither and both at the same time, depending on where you want to take it and how you wanted to get out of the country. And that is one of the major legal issues. And a lot of researchers will brush it off saying, Oh, I’m not a legal expert. I’m not an international law graduate, like I can possibly deal with this kind of stuff. And I think it’s very much unknown to the general public that fossils are under legal, or invalid under legislation in most countries, even in Germany and the UK and America, Australia. And they’re important parts of natural heritage. And that is, I think, the general gist of it. But the other thing, that’s just something that we should be thinking about as researchers is working with people who are actually in the country that know and understand the customs and the language, even just general stuff. But also are amazing researchers in their own right. And we ignore them in favor of concentrating that power in our knowledge centers of North America and Western Europe and China in this case.

Travis Holland 19:47
Yeah. So we’re starting to see this kind of science colonialism thing playing out inter country and there’s been, you know, there’s been quite a few papers that have made headlines this year in this regard. So I think it’s a trend kind of that you’re that you’re starting to address. Do you think paleontology in general is addressing the issue?

Emma Dunne 20:06
I say it to Nussaibah a lot that Paleontology is late to the party, but at least they’ve showed up. So they’re working much more slowly than what maybe people will consider allied disciplines like archaeology and ecology. And they seem to be much better at grappling with it than Paleontology is. I think paleontology still has a lot of deep history in how it has been built on this extractive process and has this link to the geosciences which are truly extractive. So we have a lot to learn and a lot to acknowledge. But the leaps and bounds that have been made in the recent years, like even in just in just in the last decade alone, is incredible. And it is built on the back of it might seem that there’s loads of papers coming out now, but it’s built on the back of these researchers have been working quite isolated. And like shouting at walls, basically, for a long time. And now that they’re just we reach this critical mass where the conversation is finally being had in the right spaces. But these conversations have been happening for years, decades. And it’s been part of local communities calling for their natural heritage back. And this is just the finally become academic enough for paleontologists who are researchers to engage with.

Travis Holland 21:32
So jumping back to the actual research findings a little bit, you mentioned that there was a kind of more recent development there. And some of the graphs in your paper show that really research in Myanmar has ticked up markedly from from 2015. Could you tell us about what what you think you’ve found there? And those trends?

Emma Dunne 21:55
Yeah, so we looked at data from 1990, up to 2021. And we plotted how many papers are being published each year, and we did a statistical analysis on this trend. And we found a statistical breakpoint at 2014 2015. And that indicated to us that it was increasing with a very low intensity up until about 2014. And from 2014 onwards, this increase was absolutely crazy. So when we have a look at this increase in light of what else is going around in both scientific publishing in both political and economic spheres as well, that this increase is connected to quite a few different things? So not only around this time, do we see the opening of a massive gem tradehall in Myanmar, we also see, in China, the amber mines are becoming depleted. And they were relying on Amber being traded with other countries, particularly Myanmar. And that trade started to increase across the border. And then very quickly afterwards, in 2016 18, and 2019, we see these very high profile papers, scientific papers, about these incredible specimens preserved in Myanmar amber, and they include a baby snake and a dinosaur tail, and other really cool things like that. And that then starts to propel the idea of Myanmar amber as this incredible resource in paleontology, and then wrapped up together in both the problems and the amazing science. You see this starting to increase in this then affecting future years

Travis Holland 23:37
in the post-2014 data, China was a huge contributor to those that growth in papers, I think, has there been much engagement or response on from Chinese researchers in to your findings?

Emma Dunne 23:51
Yeah, we had a wonderful journalist, Rodrigo Perez Ortega take on our paper as a news piece. And he got in touch with some Chinese researchers. We had reluctance from some Chinese researchers to work with us. So we didn’t necessarily push them out. But we did, we did reach out. And we met some sort of opposition, but more of a blank stare rather than anything. But Rodrigo was able to reach out to a few. And their understanding of the matter is very different to what we see in our data. We also very much recognize that we have a, quote unquote, Western understanding of what’s going on because both Nussaibah and I are based in in Europe, despite the fact that the Savers version and the we have like slightly different experiences, then you know, somebody who lives in a very colonizing country, let’s say, but we still apply that kind of thinking about bias to our data, even though we are trying to just look at the data. But the understanding from Chinese researchers is that this is for the good of science and that this is something that should be done to save this Amber and to use these resources, and that trade across the border is fine, it’s totally aboveboard because the Chinese authorities have it under control. And that’s completely understandable. And I think that this continues the dialogue and discussion that allows us to apply this kind of knowledge to other situations. So I don’t necessarily see it as a bad thing that not everybody’s on the same page. It just continues to propel the conversation. And I think that’s important.

Travis Holland 25:27
I guess the problem you’ve noted there is, is twofold. Right? Not engaging with local researchers. And then potentially, you I don’t think you’ve focused on this very much in your paper. But it certainly there was another paper that discussed this about the way that the amber extraction might be potentially funding the conflict a bit as well, you know, and that that’s also problematic and something paleontologists need to think about.

Emma Dunne 25:54
Yeah, it was something that we did very much consider looking into. But we realized that we don’t have that knowledge. And then we very quickly realized that does anybody have that knowledge. And I think the paper that you are referring to is actually written by paleontologists. And they might have some personal biases in that and a personal reason for having written that paper. And even researchers who were in Myanmar. So we reached out to an investigative journalist who works on the Jade trade in Myanmar. And he had never actually heard about Amber being a problem for science. And he had been very much focused on Jade. And when we told him about this, he started to explain his understanding of the Jade trade and how the money makes its way through all of the different networks. And even he is a researcher who worked in this area for I think it was six years, and he’s written a book about it, he was even still struggling to follow the money. And that Jade trade is a much bigger trade than amber and much greater contributor to the activities of the military. But even still, that was a tricky one to figure out and untangle. So I can’t imagine that my Myanmar amber is any easier. But I think paleontologists like to think that it’s, it’s not a problem, but it most certainly has to be somewhere intertwined.

Travis Holland 27:22
You mentioned that there might be some learnings for other conflict areas or, you know, it should have wider application beyond just this particular country and this particular situation, are there any areas in particular that you think it can apply? Or is it just a broader sort of set of findings that you think hopefully will be useful?

Emma Dunne 27:46
It’s very much a broader set of findings. And but there are already places that we can start to apply sections of this knowledge. So thinking of any country that has any internal conflict going on, you can think of countries in the Middle East, in parts of Africa, in even internal conflict in states in the US that you don’t have to see a massive result of the problem to start making changes. And if you see conflicts between, say, local populations, and scientists are the authorities, that is that really the most ethical place to conduct your research. And I know there’s the same conversation happening in Australia.

Travis Holland 28:34
I was just going to say, you know, instead of settler colonial societies like Australia, I think there’s a long way to go on having conversations, you know, with traditional land holders, particularly in sort of extractive science,

Emma Dunne 28:47
For sure, but I absolutely agree that the whole conversation is intertwined. It doesn’t have to reach a point where we’re funding genocide, to have that conversation. And one of the reasons for this genocide and humanitarian crisis happening in Myanmar, is because of the displacement of the original local communities there, and these minority communities. So it’s all intertwined in a very similar conversation. There’s no need for to get so far before we start thinking about it. And I think that in conversations with others who work in different areas of, you know, trying to encourage ethical and lawful research in paleontology, that this is, hopefully the most extreme example we’ll see. And that would be even way too many steps too far. But if that’s as bad as it can get, then I think there’s a lot of good places that paleontology will go to in the future.

Travis Holland 29:47
You mentioned in the paper, that SVP has addressed it by putting out some some guidelines. Do you think there’s a consensus sort of building in the field are we still seeing splits

Emma Dunne 29:58
A consensus in In terms of we need to do something about it. Yes, I consensus and what we should do about it, not so much. And the thing that we come up with come up against most often is that the conversation is there, people are hungry for change. And there’s that appetite happening, and increasingly so like week by week even. And that’s so great. And the energy is definitely there. It’s the structures that we’re coming up against constantly. And it’s the mostly the publishing houses who obviously sit on a lot of money, and we pay to sit on this, like piles of cash. But they won’t employ legal experts to check this kind of thing, or provide consulting services to help with understanding the lawful side of working on paleontology or paleontology does not exist in a vacuum, it comes from land from the earth, people are involved in it, of course, it’s going to have these different facets to it, where you talk about legal side of things, ethical side of things, and the publishing houses are the ones that then perpetuate this kind of stuff, which is the reason we have this day to even to look into Myanmar amber. And if they would only get on board with the community, that would be wonderful. But when if they ever really, let’s be honest, that’s a rather spicy opinion. But the other thing is, is changing the kind of structure that we see within institutions and learn societies and those kinds of institutions that sit on a very traditional structure and are very unwilling to change because it’s what serve has served them for many years, decades, centuries, whatever. And it’s, it’s frustrating to work up against and it’s obviously not just those of us who are looking to mirror Amber. It’s so many different parts of paleontology. Like recently, I was part of a study looking and Brazilian and Mexican fossils. And the amount of work that those researchers do, who started propel this kind of research in the first place. To fight against the structures that be is immense, and they are only making tiny strides step by step and if their energy was allowed to be placed, where is needed, the amount of things that we would change.

Travis Holland 32:41
Thank you to both Jake and Emma for joining me on Fossils and Fiction. You can find details for both of their papers in the show notes. Thank you for listening to the Fossils and Fiction podcast produced by me Travis Holland with the support of Charles Sturt University. The podcast theme music is Sonora by Quincas Moreia via the YouTube Audio Library. Find more content on our social media channels, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, and Tiktok. Show notes are available on the website you can subscribe to the podcast on all major podcasting platforms.

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