Going on a Tangent
What kind of fauna would need to exist on an island in order to support a large body predator, such as a Displacer Beast? This was the question that I spent an inordinate amount of time researching (only 2.5 hours, okay). Within that tangent, I refreshed my understanding of ecological succession, the process where a community’s species structure changes over time, and learned of island gigantism, the biological phenomenon where a species size becomes much larger when in an isolated island environment—all due to the session of Dungeons & Dragons that I had to design.
Unknowingly, I had had an experience with tangential learning, a mode of learning where someone self-educates on a subject exposed to them in a context they already enjoy. This is surprisingly commonplace and can be as minor as a reference to Homer’s Iliad that might inspire the audience to read the original. It differs from standard learning in two majors ways: the main subject of the piece is not the same as the audience’s main learning subject and that any learning that takes place is self-motivated.
The most well-known call for this type of learning strategy comes from Extra Credits’ video calling for this to be utilized in video games, and as a result most of the research studies into tangential learning are in that context. They have discovered that tangential learning is most effective when the subject matter is intrinsically integrated into the game’s mechanics, allowing players to experiment with the outside knowledge they’ve obtained. Some teachers have used this tangential learning strategy in their classrooms in tandem with project-based teaching, as the two strategies can work together well. However, understanding what tangential learning actually looks like is difficult, so I’ve compiled some examples of good ecology tangential learning that I’ve experienced.
This is likely the video game of the year and is the initial inspiration for this piece. If you haven’t heard of it, Animal Crossing is a life simulation video game series produced by Nintendo. New Horizons is the fifth and latest game in the series. In essence, you, the player, move to a tropical island where you can craft tools, furniture, and other items to customize your home. You share this island with cute animal neighbors and can even visit other friends’ islands. Where does the tangential learning take place?
Much of the desirable items in Animal Crossing and the expansion of your home cost a fictional currency called bells. The main means of obtaining bells is from fishing and catching bugs to sell. This is where tangential learning begins because one of the most iconic, and realistic even to professionals, parts of the Animal Crossing franchise is the Museum. Run by Blathers the Owl, the Museum is a location in the game where players can donate their caught fish, bugs, discovered fossils, and even works of art. In turn, whenever you donate something Blathers can tell you interesting tidbits about it! Though how informative these fun facts are varies as his disdain for bugs comes through pretty clearly.
The game contains a vast variety of fish and bugs that are also limited in availability by weather, season, and hemisphere, similar to the species’ ranges and migration habits in real life. The simple act of fishing or bug hunting exposes the player to multitudes of species. For example, I had no idea what an arowana was before this game (please don’t yell at me, Team Fish!) and now one sits in my virtual living room. The most recent update allows players to dive in the ocean and donate marine invertebrates and benthic (sea-floor dwelling) organisms! I’d write more about this, but I’ve been really busy just playing it.
This video game falls into a similar category as the previous entry, a life simulator, but focuses on farming and interpersonal relationships rather than general lifestyle. You play as someone who recently inherited a plot of land from your grandfather. When you arrive the place is a mess that requires tending before you can even farm. You’re able to forage food from the wilderness, farm seasonal crops, and even once again fish from the nearby ocean and streams.
The tangential learning comes in much the same way that it does in Animal Crossing. Crops and forage items have a seasonality. Wildlife changes with weather and season. The local museum can have artifacts and minerals donated to it similar to Animal Crossing. However, the clearest and most important tangential learning difference is that in Stardew Valley you have a choice to farm in harmony with the environment or to side with a corporation and exploit the environment. In the middle of this video game about a quaint little town and a small farm, you are asked the same question that people in real life are asked every day. The game has a clear message about caring for the environment, but does not state a specific way to do so. From here one might ask what is it they’re doing in their lives to live in harmony with the environment and learn about environmentalism.
This work is actually a manga, a comic or graphic novel from Japan. This series follows an adventuring party led primarily by a brother and sister. After an accident occurs when the party is ill-prepared and hungry, the sister is eaten by a dragon. The brother must descend into a dungeon to rescue her. This time the party will be thoroughly prepared as they eat meals prepped from the monsters in the dungeon!
While this is set in a fantasy world, author and artist Ryoko Kui has done her research to make the setting analogous to reality. Not only are the recipes in the story similar to actual recipes that you can cook, the entire ecosystem of her setting is based on real ecological principles. I hardly expected to be reading about how squid spermatophores work while having the characters grill Kraken or learning the anatomy of a slime monster based off of shellfish anatomy. Each chapter is a veritable banquet of tangential learning and an opportunity to try applicable skills, such as cooking or nutrition. (If someone knows a good equivalent to mandrake root or giant bat meat, please tell me.)
In conclusion, tangential learning appears to be an underutilized tool in science communication. Most of the examples of marine science or even climate communication are ones where that subject matter is the star of the show as we see in aquariums or scientific seminars. Sometimes, in my experience, this can overwhelm an audience that isn’t prepared for the full influx of information or is not as enthralled by our field. Perhaps we marine scientists can take a cue from other mediums and add tangential learning to our toolkit. This could manifest as scientifically accurate portrayals of ocean animals to integrating marine science concepts into other mediums. After all, we know how fascinating and wonderful our field can be and maybe that’s something others can discover for themselves.