Discussing Unesco’s definition of “natural heritage”

Natural heritage is part of world heritage according to UNESCO. The most common definition of what natural heritage is has been given by this institution in 1972:

Natural heritage refers to natural features, geological and physiographical formations and delineated areas that constitute the habitat of threatened species of animals and plants and natural sites of value from the point of view of science, conservation or natural beauty. It includes private and publically protected natural areas, zoos, aquaria and botanical gardens, natural habitat, marine ecosystems, sanctuaries, reservoirs etc.

UNESCO Institute for Statistics, 2009 UNESCO Framework for Cultural Statistics and UNESCO, Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, 1972

Here are some examples of natural heritage sites registered on the world heritage list :

Puerto-Princesa Subterranean River National Park (Philippines) © UNESCO
“The Pantanal – a Flooded grasslands and savannas ecoregion of south-central South America.”, by Alicia Yo, picture of Pantanal Conservation Area

The whole list of natural heritage sites is updated here: https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/?&type=natural.

UNESCO’s definition has been created for “sites“: large areas that should be preserved, not individual elements. This definition is very broad, and not limited. It includes everything natural, organic and mineral, whether or not it has been modified by human presence (like botanical gardens). The criteria, however, are way more restrictive.

Here are the defining criteria used to qualify world natural heritage sites:

(vii) to contain superlative natural phenomena or areas of exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance;

(viii) to be outstanding examples representing major stages of earth’s history, including the record of life, significant on-going geological processes in the development of landforms, or significant geomorphic or physiographic features;

(ix) to be outstanding examples representing significant on-going ecological and biological processes in the evolution and development of terrestrial, fresh water, coastal and marine ecosystems and communities of plants and animals;

(x) to contain the most important and significant natural habitats for in-situ conservation of biological diversity, including those containing threatened species of outstanding universal value from the point of view of science or conservation.

The Criteria for Selection, UNESCO

This definition seems to focus on exceptional features firstly, which are not necessarily the most necessary in terms of nature preservation in general. The interest in aesthetics seems to be very anthropocentric as well.

UNESCO is obviously managed by humans, so it seems impossible to withdraw all anthropocentrism from this selection. However, we know what natural habitats are important for other living beings. As such, we could choose less anthropocentric criteria. We also know that some of our activity changes Earth’s geological features (see Hydraulic fracturing volume is associated with induced earthquake productivity in the Duvernay play), but the ground or water, in general, are not listed here.

Taking care of nature, exceptional or not, seems generally beneficial to humankind, but not necessarily in the short term, as illustrated by the preservation of predators like wolves (see for instance: Where can wolves live and how can we live with them?).

One of UNESCO’s missions is to choose which sites will be protected, so they need to classify, evaluate and hierarchize. There is a question of scale here: this global systematic approach might be the most appropriate for them, but it might not be the only interesting one, especially when we discuss video games that could change players’ individual behaviours.

Conservation and education about nature can indeed happen at a small scale and for natural elements that are neither big, rare or awe-inspiring. The self-propagating plants/weeds, pests and “invasive animal species” have for instance been in researchers’ interest recently for their interest in biodiversity (see for instance Sales bêtes ! Mauvaises herbes ! “Nuisibles” une notion en débat).

It is interesting to note that weeds are generally called “bad herbs”: “mauvaises herbes” in French. Although it is interesting to note that the term “adventice” is gaining popularity at the moment. There is no proper translation in English for “adventice”. It means roughly: plants that grow first on the ground, by themselves, and which are necessary for bigger and most “precious” plants to appear.

From the point of view of UNESCO, it would be meaningless to classify every natural element as natural heritage, as they don’t have the possibility to preserve them all. But for video games creators and scholars interested in the digital nature, shouldn’t it be the case? Or should we, also, prioritize? If so, should we follow the same criteria?

To know more about the definition of natural heritage and its use by institutions, I recommend these papers:

Literature review on nature and video games

I haven’t found many scholarly papers on video games and natural heritage, so my references are mostly from non-specific game studies, natural heritage, and environment education papers.

However, there are a few interesting papers and books that look at the intersection between nature and video games/digital media!

Here is my favorite list (so far), with some comments:

  • Chang, A. Y. 2012. « Back to the Virtual Farm: Gleaning the Agriculture-Management Game ». Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment. Vol. 19, n°2, p. 237‑252.

Great paper and a must-read! It is a critical analysis of agricultural representations in Farmville, considered capitalistic and dangerous for ecological awareness. This paper questions realism and authenticity in terms of simulation than can be compared to historical games. One criticism: very American-centric.

  • Smith, Bradon. 2017. « Resources, Scenarios, Agency: Environmental Computer Games ». Ecozon@. Vol. 8, p. 103‑120.

The paper defend that “god games” (Sim City, Civilization) support the American myth of second creation with wild abundant world to be colonized, and thus are anti-ecological. Minecraft has a similar issue (everything is a resource), but the game can still be subverted for environmental thinking. Environmental games that like Fate of the World are disempowering because they are top down and their challenges are too big in term of scale and complexity. World without Oil (an alternate reality game) is more successful. It is also American-centric.

It seems that positive impact on player’s environmental thinking is, in the case studied by the paper, done by an anxiety-provoking context, except for Minecraft, but the transfer to the real world behaviour is not clear.

Great blog post, from a talk. The author discusses the fact that gardens are colonialistic by essence (I don’t fully agree, but very good points there) and that video games function like gardens, and, as such, are colonialistic. This point has been defended by other scholars, but never using that angle (for what I know). Very inspiring, a must-read as well.

  • Ahn, Sun Joo (Grace), Jeremy N. Bailenson, et Dooyeon Park. 2014. « Short- and long-term effects of embodied experiences in immersive virtual environments on environmental locus of control and behavior ». Computers in Human Behavior. Vol. 39, p. 235‑245.

This paper is not about video games, but virtual reality. It is a pilot study, on using virtual reality for environmental education. It is compared to watching a video or reading about the same topic. The effect of the studied media on users is studied through an experience of napkin consumption: weird but clever. The use of “locus of control” notion was very inspiring to me.

  • Longan, Michael W. 2008. « Playing With Landscape, Social Process and Spatial Form in Video Games ». Aether: The Journal of Media Geography. Vol. 2, p. 23‑40.

This is a paper about the landscape from the point of view of geography and labor. It is particularly interesting because it raises the question of landscape production (by whom, when, how), for which video games could be the perfect medium, but they hide the labor of game developers.

  • Woolbright, Lauren. 2017. « Game Design as Climate Change Activism ». Ecozon@. Vol. 8, p. 88‑102.

Climate change activism (CCA) in games is questioned is this paper around two interesting indie games “The Flame in the Flood” and “Little Inferno”. I would have liked interviews of the developpers as it bothers me that their intentions were never questionned (probably the biais of being a poïetic scholar myself). The CCA in this game is indeed seen only through the eyes of the researcher-player. It includes interesting reflections on game design for CCA.

In addition, if you are interested in the topic, I suggest you to follow Alenda Chang (@gamegrower) on twitter, as she should be shortly releasing her book “Playing Nature” (December 2020)! She was one of the editors of Ecozon@ edition on Green Computer and Video Games, that I recommend very highly as well.

Please feel free to suggest your own recommendations!

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