Investigation Extinction educational video game

Kenneth Angielczyk, Field Museum of Natural History
Author Profile
Initial Publication Date: January 23, 2020 | Reviewed: December 10, 2020


Investigation Extinction is an educational game about paleontology. The game introduces students to the basics of paleo-science by having them explore a series of dig sites with a team of virtual collaborators. To play the game, students choose to embody a specialist in one of several disciplines of paleontology or geology, and will work with a team of other scientists to excavate fossils and rock samples from various sites in Tanzania. As the fossils and rocks are collected and categorized, the game will lead students through the process of using their observations to make inferences about the paleoenvironment and to determine whether there is evidence for a mass extinction. Through this game students will gain:
1. Knowledge of different scientific professions
2. Knowledge of what constitutes a mass extinction
3. Knowledge of how scientists
a. study the distribution of fossils in the geological record to determine how faunas and floras change over time
b. How the distribution of fossils can be used to identify extinction events
c. study the geological record to understand how environments change over time
d. use paleontological and geological data to hypothesize why some animals and plants survive extinction events while others do not
There are Mac and PC versions of the game provided (the latter in the form of an installer). The PC version will also run on linux systems with Wine (

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Investigation extinction is most appropriate for lower division undergraduate courses, for example a non-major class on historical geology or paleontology, or an introductory geology course intended for majors.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Students should have basic familiarity with the geological time scale, major types of sedimentary rocks (e.g., limestone, sandstone, mudstone, conglomerate), different types of fossils (e.g., vertebrate, invertebrate, and plant fossils; trace fossils vs. body fossils), and the concept of mass extinctions. Some familiarity with major groups of Permo-Triassic vertebrates is helpful, but not required.

How the activity is situated in the course

Investigation Extinction is intended for use as a lab exercise. It might also work for an in-class exercise, but the longer time typically available in a lab will result in a richer experience. The game will give students an opportunity to experience some aspects of how paleontologists and geologists use the geological record and fossil record to study the history of Earth and life. There is also the opportunity to use many of the ideas and concepts touched on in the game as a jumping off point for further inquiry (e.g., a more detailed examination of of some of the animals and plants "collected" during the course of the game). Alternatively, this game could be assigned as a homework assignment to be used as pre-work for a class or lab that covers the game content (e.g. mass extinction; analysis of geological record).


Content/concepts goals for this activity

The overarching learning goal of the game is to give students a sense of how data collected through fieldwork is used by paleontologists and geologists to reconstruct past environments and to study important biotic events like mass extinctions. More specific topics include the relationship between specific depositional environments and types of sedimentary rocks, constructing stratigraphic ranges of fossil taxa through collecting at different stratigraphic horizons, recognizing mass extinctions using stratigraphic range data, using multiple types of data to examine the interplay between environmental change and faunal turnover, and the transition between tetrapod communities dominated by ancient mammal relatives (non-mammalian synapsids) to those with more numerous and abundant archosaurs (relatives of crocodiles, dinosaurs, and birds) across the Permo-Triassic boundary. These concepts are treated in a fairly basic way in Investigation Extinction because the game is intended to be accessible to those with limited content knowledge. However, game play can be used as a jumping off point to more detailed examinations of these topics through further in-class discussion, additional exercises or activities focusing on one or more of the topics, the use of specimens from teaching collections, etc.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

In this game, students will demonstrate higher order thinking skills of understanding and applying.

Other skills goals for this activity


Description and Teaching Materials

1. Pre-game understanding of mass extinctions and that environments change over time.
2. Students play game in-lab or as homework assignment.
3. Class discussion/small group discussion of main themes in game
a. using stratigraphic data to identify mass extinctions
b. using paleontological and geological data to understand the relationship between environmental change and changes in animal populations
c. Understanding that scientific advances are made from interdisciplinary efforts

The main teaching materials needed are the game files themselves. Additional handouts, etc. are not necessary because the game introduces students to its mechanics, and guides them through the learning experience.

Teaching Notes and Tips

Play-through time: Typically it takes about 40-45 minutes to play through the game. Note that when players have completed the main narrative arc of the game, they can visit additional field localities to collect more fossils and geological data to more completely fill out the information available for each time period, and the overall patterns of faunal change.

Team members: Be sure that students realize that there are multiple tabs available with scientists with different specialties. The game reuqires that a team has at least one member who can collect each of the three main types of specimens: vertebrate fossils (paleontologists; represented by a dinosaur skull); plant fossils (paleobotanists, paleoecologists; represented by a leaf); rock samples (geologists, geochemists; represented by a rock hammer), and will not let players proceed if their team doesn't include this combination.

Tutorial: The game is set up so tha players automatically play through a tutorial sequence as their first digt The tutorial provides the beginning of the narrative arc of the game, instructs players on game mechanics, and gives a sense of how the game should flow.

Tutorial: Text can be advanced by clicking or pressing space (this is also the case in other parts of the game).

Tutorial: Much of the text in the tutorial refers to the Permian, but players are actually collecting Triassic fossils and this is reflected by where they need to put them in the strat column, how they are identified in the field notebook, etc. This is intentional; it is part of the game's narrative arc.

Digging: Make sure to have your team member standing next to (not on) the square they want to excavate. The purple "dig" button will appear when the player's avatar is correctly positioned. After clicking the dig button, click on the desired square(s) to excavate it. Flags indicate blocks that have a specimen to recover. However, the kind of specimen will only be revealed to a specialist who can "see" it and recover it.

Fossil record screen: Players will need to scroll to the appropriate time period to place their fossil in context. Then click on the fossil icon and drag it into the open space in the center of the screen. If they are unsure of the time period to which their fossil belongs, they can check their field notebook y clicking on the notebook icon.

Locality map tutorial and elsewhere: Terms like "early-late Permian" are used instead of e.g Wuchiapingian to maintain accessibility for players with limited background knowledge.

Species that occur in multiple time intervals will automatically be shown in all of their time intervals in the "fossil collection" screens after they have been found once. This was done to improve the pace of the game and help students generate a useful stratigraphic range chart more quickly.

Explanations of the floras, faunas, and environments may include references to fossils that a player has not found in a particular stratigraphic level (yet). This is because there is a single set of explanations built into the game. If the player does additional collecting, they should find the additional fossils and/or rock types. Likewise, if a group of players are playing separate instances of the game, together they will likely find most of the relevant material.

General: After the student has played through a "round" of the game, they are free to return to any of their fossil localities to collect additional specimens. All localities will be available through the map screen, and they can use this to collect additional specimens that will help to fill out the stratigraphic distribution pattern and the data paleoenvironmental reconstructions. However, this is optional. Note that the game does not have a save function, so students will not be able to return to game that they have begun if they close the program.


Formative assessment of student understanding can be gathered from classroom observation and discussions with individuals or small groups. Successful completion of the game serves as the summative assessment for the activity.

References and Resources

Investigation Extinction (Zip Archive 461.6MB Mar24 20)