Gorilla Game Lab: Designing digital/tangible cognitive games for zoo-housed gorillas

  • Gray, Stuart (Principal Investigator)
  • Bennett, Peter D (Co-Investigator)
  • Clark, Fay (Co-Investigator)
  • Burgess, Katy V (Co-Investigator)
  • Cater, Kirsten F (Co-Investigator)

Project Details


Our project will apply innovative game technology to animal welfare science. We will develop an interactive cognitive challenge (‘game’) for Western lowland gorillas (Gorilla gorilla gorilla) housed at Bristol Zoo, building on cutting-edge human-animal interaction technologies and participatory design methods.

Our research questions are:
1. Can cognitive game-play enhance the well-being of zoo-housed gorillas?
2. Can higher forms of engagement such a ‘flow state’ be observed in zoo-housed gorillas?
3. How does the gaming technology affect zoo visitor perception of gorilla intelligence and well-being?

Captive animals can thrive with the addition of cognitive challenges in their environment (Meehan & Mench, 2007) but unfortunately, research in zoos has been impeded by a lack of access to technology (Clark, 2017). Currently, the gorillas at Bristol Zoo have many opportunities to lead a rich social life, but their physical cognitive skills could be challenged to a higher degree.

We hope to develop a game for the gorilla social group which is stimulating, rewarding, promotes play, and gives gorillas more choices and control in their environment. The ultimate aim of the game will be to induce something akin to the human state of 'Flow' (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990), a positive psychological state of pleasure and satisfaction reported when fully absorbed in a task. To our knowledge, no-one has scientifically measured Flow in non-human animals and this alone would be a major advance in cognitive science.

Living well with Technology. Currently, zoos take a low-tech approach to environmental enrichment. Established in 1835, Bristol Zoo is the fifth oldest in the world and a major Bristol institution. Despite its grand age, Bristol Zoo is a world-leader in exotic animal care, and in a strong position to innovate and develop technologies that push boundaries.

Living well with Difference. For the seven Bristol gorillas we need to accommodate individual differences in age (6 months to 37 years), social position, cognitive ability and motivation. These differences will be an exciting challenge for us. We also hope to embrace this Brigstow theme by using our findings to highlight the cognitive and behavioural differences (and similarities) between gorillas and humans, through education opportunities for the zoo’s 500,000 visitors per year.

Living well with Uncertainty. Captive animals often live in highly predictable, unchanging environments. We have a rare opportunity to work closely with animal keepers to incorporate technology into the gorilla’s environment in ways that increase uncertainty; in other words provide more variation and options for gorillas to be challenged and succeed using their evolved cognitive skills.

Plain old Living Well. The role of zoos has significantly changed over the past 50 years to focus less on entertainment and more on conservation and research. There has been little ‘high-tech’ research in zoos to date; we want to show that this type of research is possible and may be a new forte for the zoos of the future. In line with Brigstow’s previous focus on human living, we aim to evaluate whether zoo visitors have a higher perception of captive gorilla well-being and intelligence when animal technology is present.
Alternative titleGorilla Game Lab
Effective start/end date3/01/1831/07/18


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