Humpback whales are some of nature’s most majestic creatures. These immense marine mammals undertake epic annual migrations, feed cooperatively, form local cultures, and interact socially using songs transmitted over thousands of kilometers. What would it feel like to be a humpback whale experiencing today’s increasingly human-dominated world? “Song Searching” is a video game designed to give players the experience of being a humpback whale. To succeed in the game, players must successfully migrate through an environment filled with large ships emitting noise to arrive at their feeding and breeding grounds. Players will navigate the environment using both visual and audio cues, with stereo audio perception being a key guide to play.
Song Searching visual research
Ami Cai, a Pratt undergraduate Communications Design major, first developed the concept for “Song Searching” in her elective ecology course (taken with Professor Chris Jensen) and began the process of turning the concept into a game in the Collaboration Studio course (taken with Professor Basem Aly). Now a STEAMplant fellowship, Cai is collaborating with Aly, Jensen, and Social Science and Cultural Studies Professor Jennifer Telesca to develop a version of Song Searching that is grounded in both scientific and sociocultural realities. By engaging biological and social science literature that has explored the plight of humpback whales, this STEAMplant project enables the development of both a complete design plan for Song Searching and the release of a playable beta version of the game.
Since sound travels roughly four times faster in water than in air, and the farthest the vertebrate eye can see is only roughly 100 feet, whales have evolved to have amazing hearing rather than high-acuity eyesight. Humpback whales are one of the few species of baleen whales, a subcategory of whales that sing songs to communicate with one another. Commonly found only in males during migratory seasons, there are several theories of the purpose of the complexities of these songs, but various usages are assumed for social interactions, signaling danger, mating, or as a way finding tool to navigate to feeding and breeding grounds. The game explores the possibility that whales are using their song to navigate to these important social areas. In order for the player to reach its companions during critical migratory seasons, they need to complete the course before the end of the time limit, ranging from a few minutes to 20 minutes depending on the level.
To mimic what the whales are able to hear, the audio pans between the left and right speaker sets. The audio of songs from other whales will be the player’s wayfinding tool to navigate the terrain and make their way to feeding and breeding grounds, while other sounds forewarn of incoming obstacles and interfere with finding other whales. Common sources of noise pollution include commercial vessels, recreational boats, air guns, military sonars, underwater construction, and seismic surveys. The game play is in 3rd person in a survival/dodging style gameplay avoiding obstacles representing the various sources of noise pollution. There are a handful of different levels that parallel the history of industrialization and the globalization of large boats and other sources of deep-sea noise. As the player progresses from the past into the present, it becomes more and more difficult to navigate the waters due to the increase in noise pollution. There will be an increase in the number of obstacles but also an increase in the radius of sound around each obstacle.