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

Can gorillas use computers? Can they, and perhaps other non-human animals, reach a state of ‘Flow’? Could cognitive game-play positively impact their well-being in zoos? A multidisciplinary team of scientists have provided Bristol Zoo’s Western lowland gorillas with a unique form of game-play, using hidden technology to measure how the animals solve complex problems.

Projects funded by the Brigstow Institute share one thing in common: they help everyone and everything around us to Live Well. This might be humans, animals, or nature. Here, the concept of Living Well was applied to Bristol Zoo’s Western lowland gorillas.  

When living in captivity, all kinds of animals can thrive when engaging with cognitive challenges. Although the gorillas at Bristol Zoo had rich social lives, the team wanted to provide them with a stimulating and rewarding game that not only promoted play, but also gave them more choices and control in their environment.  

A core question of the project revolved around the human state of ‘Flow’. We have all experienced Flow at some point. It refers to the positive psychological state of pleasure and satisfaction we experience when we’re fully absorbed in a task. The team wondered: is Flow available to non-human animals? At the time of the project’s conception, this question had not yet been fully explored.  

While a comparison with human experience had inspired the team, they felt it was extremely important to create a game specifically for gorillas; not simply an adaptation of the games humans use. Working with the zookeepers, the team discovered that these gorillas responded well to tactile sensation, so that formed the basis of the final game design.  

What did the final game look like?  

The gorillas game lab system is a box with 12 modules, each containing a maze-like game element. To get an idea of what the elements look like, visit the Gorilla Game Lab’s official website here 

Each of the blocks can be rotated and have new bits put in, which (like a Rubiks cube) allows a vast range of different permutations from a limited number of simple elements. 

Watch a two-minute discussion from the research team here:  

As non-verbal animals, Flow needed to be measured by the gorillas’ behaviour. Constant monitoring was not possible for either the research team or the keepers, so Masters student Otto Brookes developed a system to automatically detect and identify the individual gorillas. Through this system, it became possible to gather data on which gorillas were engaging with the game, and for how long. 

Who are the team and what do they bring?

Gorilla Game Lab was led by: 

  • Dr. Stuart Gray (Computer Science and Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship) is a research associate at the University of Bristol’s Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship and the Department of Computer Science, where he explores tangible user interfaces in children through the use of ‘serious games’ and ‘cognitive training’. 
  • Dr. Peter Bennett (Computer Science and Creative technologist) is a researcher and designer of novel human-computer interaction, splitting his time between being a teaching fellow at the University of Bristol, and freelance work. 
  • Dr. Fay Clark (Bristol Zoological Societyis an animal welfare scientist at Bristol Zoo, well-known within the UK and US zoo communities for her work on large-brained mammals. She began her zoological career working on dolphin cognition, and for her doctoral research, Fay designed cognitively challenging ‘puzzles’ for chimpanzees and dolphins. 
  • Dr. Katy Burgess (Experimental Psychology) is a senior teaching associate at the University of Bristol with expertise in human and animal learning and reasoning. 
  • Dr. Kirsten Cater (Computer Science and Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship) is a Reader in Human Computer Interaction at the University of Bristol working with a diverse range of users to create novel and interactive technologies to enhance people’s experiences. 

What's next?

As the project developed, it gained interest from more students and academics. Three Masters students have developed their own projects to support Gorilla Game Lab, and a PhD project emerged from the research. Two new researchers have established a relationship with the Zoo off the back of this project, and continue researching gorilla behaviour as a result.  

Beyond the university, the project spoke to a variety of audiences. Academic publications Frontiers in Psychology and the journal from the Animal-Computer Interactions conference both featured articles on the team’s findings. Elsewhere, the New York Post and Reuters were intrigued by gorillas’ ability to cheat at games, not unlike humans.