Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Digital Games Improve Life for Captive Apes

Chimpanzees and orangutans in captivity can improve their quality of life through the use of digital touch-screen technology and interactive games.

The preliminary research by Australian National University PhD candidate Nicky Kim-McCormack was conducted at Seoul Zoo in South Korea, and also tracked the attitudes of visitors who watched and interacted with the animals using the digital programs.

Kim-McCormack said the intelligence of chimpanzees and orangutans mean they can often get bored in a captive environment. “This kind of enrichment program can give them a higher quality of life,” she said. “It allows them to be challenged in a new ways.”

The apes were given a free choice from a range of different digital activities, including some where they interacted with zoo visitors. For example, pictures drawn by visitors would show up on the chimp’s screen, and vice versa.

“The amazing thing we saw was that the chimps and orangutans realised that they were interacting with the visitors through the program,” Kim-McCormack said. “They got that concept. It was great to see both the animal and the visitors connecting in a special way.”

There were also benefits to the visitors, with surveys showing 85% of people who took part reported a positive change in attitude towards the species and conservation efforts to help them.

Kim-McCormack said that her research supported previous reports of benefits to the animals, yet zoos and sanctuaries remain reluctant to introduce the activities. “Some may be concerned that it’s not natural, but this may be a human bias that all animals should reflect their wild counterparts,” she said.

“We are trying to get results that show it does benefit the animals, and it’s something that zoos and sanctuaries should consider,” she said.

Kim-McCormack presented her preliminary results at the International Primatological Society & American Society of Primatologists 2016 conference.