Most action games come with one simplistic goal: kill things and don’t get killed. You see a threat, you get a weapon, and you go to work removing that threat. You very rarely get a justifiable explanation for doing so — beyond the promise of a reward or the enemies being ugly and mean. But this year we got a Game of the Year contender that dug a little deeper. Not only did it give us a plausible motivation and a well-reasoned explanation as to why we were killing things, but it secretly taught everyone who bought the game, including me, real world ecology and wildlife conservation.
Monster Hunter: World tells the tale of a newly discovered continent and the researchers who study and understand it. It’s a beautiful and hostile “New World,” full of creatures big, small, and really. really big. Yet the story mostly revolves around its most interesting inhabitants: the Elder Dragons. The enormous class of beasts isn’t new to World, but now we know they migrate to this other continent every 10 years. You, the player, embody a hunter who studies the ecosystems in this unknown area and in order to unravel the mystery of the Elder Dragons’ migration.
The setup has its own problems (notably calling this untouched land the “New World”). But it’s not exactly the go-here-and-kill-the-thing kind of instructions you get in most action games, right?
It’s a massive undertaking! You perform missions to study and retrieve an area’s plants, follow streams and aquatic life, collect bugs, capture grazing animals, and mine ores. Then you bring it all back to your fellow researchers so they can better understand what you’re dealing with. That way you know how best not to disturb its natural order. Oh, sure. You can kill things, but capturing works fine, too.
The combat mostly springs from the ecological interest in studying creatures up close. Later, you even have to battle invasive species popping up in areas where they don’t belong. They threaten the balance of those ecosystems and need to be stopped. With the help of the Research Commission’s notes, you must protect these areas and run off, capture, or kill each invading species before it takes hold. Not to mention some monsters are just naturally hostile; you need to protect yourself, as well.
You might be reading this and scratching your head. I get it! Monster Hunter is traditionally a series about killing giant monsters and wearing their butts as skirts. You might think the research stuff is just window dressing to give you a story. But after playing through the games’ main campaign, plus an extra 50 odd hours, I reached out to an expert. Now I’m convinced that, even if it’s not your Game of the Year, this big dumb action series is secretly one of the year’s smartest nominees by a mile.
Scott Yanos is an Agricultural Specialist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture with a degree in Environmental Biology. But don’t let that intimidate you; he’s also an avid video game player and super fan of the Overwatch League’s Philadelphia Fusion. When World released, it was a perfect marriage of his two passions.
Like the Research Commission, Scott spends his days monitoring, reporting on, examining, and coordinating the protection of species within ecosystems both big and small. That includes us insufferable humans. His priority, like the hunters, is to keep invasive species out. According to him, the ecologists and setup of the various scientific teams in the game are more fact than fiction.
“Ecology really does focus on the macro-view of things; they rely on the data from wildlife biologists and botanists to get a complete picture of ecosystems,” Yanos said. “They’re concerned with the biodiversity, the biomass of a habitat, the populations of the organisms within that habitat, and the competition and interactions of all the organisms. They’re also concerned with nonliving components of a habitat as much as they are with the living, such as nitrogen cycling or how water flows through an ecosystem to sustain it.”
Like the Research Commission in Monster Hunter: World, Yanos’ team exists to counter invasive species and minimize our influence on the ecosystems around us. Different entities monitor different things, like “making sure that invasive species (pests and diseases) don’t make it into the United States” and more general “habitat monitoring.”
In Monster Hunter: World, the main conflict comes from Elder Dragons — which Monster Hunter lore literally classify as living cataclysms — invading a continent they’re not native to. They upset the overall balance of its many ecosystems by driving other creatures out. That sends the weaker creatures into ecosystems where they don’t belong, causing them to dominate local food chains. In our reality, this kind of threat is more common than you might think.
“Unfortunately, there are many real world examples of foreign species having devastating effects,” Yanos continued. “For just animal focused examples, the brown tree snake has utterly destroyed native bird populations in many Pacific islands like Hawaii and Guam who have never needed to deal with such a predator.”
Surprisingly, common cats are another problem. Explosions of feral felines has been “devastating to songbird populations” in various countries. It doesn’t stop with land animals, either. Yanos explained that “Lionfish, a popular salt water fish in aquariums, has ravaged a lot of fish populations in the Caribbean and around Florida because of its voracious appetite and its adaptability, where it has spread up to the shores of the Carolinas.” And more snakes, in this case boa constrictors, are tearing through the Florida Everglades, where they’ve become the new apex predator of the region.
About plants he added, “The large numbers of shrinking bee colonies in America is a concern for our agriculture, because of how dependent we are on their pollination.” That’s doubly scary since we still don’t know what’s causing the insects to disappear.
“Another one is bats in the wake of white nose syndrome,” Yanos added “a fungus introduced from Europe by cave divers that killed off hibernating bat populations and raised the pest populations, thus forcing farmers to rely more on pesticides than ever before.”
Yanos went on to emphasize that the majority of these problems are not caused by monsters or species migrations like in the game. Although who can say with Elder Dragons? Sadly, the problems are produced by humans instead.
“Usually, invasive species don’t get there on their own,” he explained. “Migratory species don’t disrupt the checks and balances of the ecosystems they visit on their migratory paths. Invasive species are introduced or caused because of human activity, either with a disruption to habitat, or the species hitchhiked on the many means that we transport people and goods around the world — especially the agricultural products from other countries.”
Once a problem with invasive species arises, Yanos says it’s harder to deal with than just swinging a sword at it. He explained that “Removing any invasive species is a complicated and delicate process.” You can’t just annihilate the problem, because “it rarely targets just the species you want to remove, and usually does more harm than good.”
When asked if killing the invasive species was as necessary as in Monster Hunter, he clarified, “Removing the invasive species is the priority; it doesn’t have to be removed alive. The only safeguarding is for the native species.”
And just like the Research Commission, we have dedicated teams of “hunters” to handle these threats. An APHIS response team usually works with local universities and state governments “to quarantine an area and keep invasive species there in one place” while figuring out what to do next. That usually involves a lot of research into how to prevent the species from taking root in the new ecosystem.
As apex predators, and ostensibly the most intelligent lifeforms on the planet, it’s easy to forget about the effects we have on the Earth. According to Yanos, Monster Hunter: World’s direct and immediate approach is what we should strive for.
“Despite all of our technology, we have yet grown independent of natural processes, and it’s imperative that we maintain them for our survival,” he said. “Although some might think we are above ecosystems, or somehow not a part of an ecosystem, we are and our actions have affected that. From climate change to impacts on agriculture, maintaining ecosystems helps us as much as it does the natural world because of how much we depend on each other.”
This was very eye-opening for me. It turns out my dumb monster killing game didn’t just have recognizable science. It’s a more accurate depiction of ecological studies and practices than I could have guessed.
Monster Hunter: World‘s real life comparisons may not be a perfect. They certainly didn’t stop me from murderously parading through the game with my Charge Blade swinging all over the place. The game did, however, give me a clearer view of how I should treat the real world, and a respect for the people who protect it and us on a daily basis.