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If Only Yosemite Were a Video Game

Those who experience nature through the windshield typically donate less toward conservation than those with no exposure to nature.

Edward Abbey, celebrated hardcore environmentalist and author, prophesied in the 1960s that population growth, the rise of motorized tourism (creating the reluctance of people to escape the comforts of their automobiles) and the ensuing roads and hotels would overrun the American wilderness.

It turns out he was both wrong and right.

U.S. national parks are threatened — but by a lack of attendance, not a surplus. This apparent disinterest in outdoor activities has occurred in tandem with greater interest in electronic entertainment. Has Mario trumped Thoreau? And what does that mean for conservation?

Beginning in 2006, Oliver Pergams and Patty Zaradic started conducting extensive research and published several papers on "videophilia," their term for "the new human tendency to focus on sedentary activities involving electronic media instead of nature-based activities."

The most profound of their findings is the powerful correlation between the rise of electronic media and decrease in national park attendance rates. U.S. national park attendance peaked in 1987 and since has declined more than 25 percent.

The researchers believe that four variables explain nearly all of the drop in national park visitation: The increase in gas prices leading to less vehicle travel, time spent on the Internet, time spent playing video games and time spent watching movies (in theaters and at home).

The team claims that the dramatic shift away from nature-based recreation has reached the point where "children living in the United States reportedly spend on average only 30 minutes of unstructured time outdoors each week." In fact, 67 percent of American households play video games and the video game industry made 11.7 billion dollars in 2008. The researchers are careful to stress that correlation is not causation but reiterate that "it still seems likely that people are increasingly choosing these electronic media over nature."

After Pergams and Zaradic first reported this link in 2006, they started to address some of the intriguing questions it raised.

First, they tested the effect of this phenomenon on childhood development. The negatives associated with videophilia include obesity, loneliness, depression and attentional problems. The researchers assert that, by contrast, "outdoor play and nature experience have proven beneficial for cognitive functioning, reduction in symptoms of ADD, increase in self-discipline and emotional well-being at all developmental stages."

Second, their latest research focused on how a generation raised on Xbox will support conservation efforts in the future.

Testing childhood exposure to nature against later donations to eco-conservation groups, the team found mixed results. Certain types of exposure inspired contributions to conservation nongovernmental organizations while others actually had a negative correlation. For example, national park visitation (sans backpacking) had an almost a one-to-one decrease in conservation contributions for an equivalent increase in national park visitation.

Those who were backpacking and hiking 11 to 12 years earlier were likely to fund conservation, but those in "less elite outdoor activities such as public land visitation" were less likely to contribute than those with no exposure. Conservationists should be worried as most of forms of nature recreation in public lands now revolve around the car (perhaps Abbey was onto something, although Britain's National Trust has found one way to get couch potatoes outdoors).

Pergams and Zaradic reference a survey that asked 849 Yellowstone National Park visitor groups what primary activities were their reasons for visiting the park. While 59 percent marked sightseeing/taking a scenic drive, only 4 percent chose backpacking/hiking. In fact, America's most visited national wilderness area is Blue Ridge Parkway, a highway designed as a leisurely sightseeing ride calling itself "America's favorite drive."

Pergams and Zaradic "hypothesize that people are more likely to invest in what they know from firsthand experience. Indeed it may be that high levels of public land recreation (including state parks and other federal lands like national forests and Bureau of Land Management tracts) might create a sense that access to the outdoors is what is important rather than preserving less accessible landscapes through conservation NGOs."

That said, the future of conservation looks grimmer as it depends on a generation that may only see nature as a background to shoot-'em-up video games they play in their living rooms or landscapes that shuffle past their windshields.