Pokémon Go was downloaded 500 million times within two months of its release in July this year, becoming a global phenomenon almost overnight.
Virtual creatures called Pokémon feature in this augmented reality game that was designed for mobile devices. Users must capture, battle and train Pokémon that appear on the screen as if part of the real world environment.
It is a common perception that there is a decline in interest in the natural world among the general public.
A new study by Oxford University‘s Department of Zoology explores whether the game’s success in getting people out of their homes and interacting with virtual animals could be replicated to redress this problem. The team conducting the study want to know if Pokémon Go’s huge success can deliver any lessons to the fields of conservation and natural history, or if the game’s popularity poses more problems than opportunities for conservation.
Study author Leejiah Dorward is a doctoral candidate in Oxford University’s Department of Zoology. He finds that one of the most striking things about Pokémon Go is its similarity with many of the concepts seen in conservation and natural history. Dorward adds that the basic facts and information in the game make it seem more like an incredibly successful citizen science project than a smartphone game.
Dorward’s team wanted to determine if the success of Pokémon Go would create opportunities or challenges for the conservation movement.
John C Mittermeier, a doctoral candidate in Oxford’s School of Geography and the Environment is co-author of the paper. He notes that there is a widespread belief that interest in natural history is fading and that people are not as interested in exploring the natural world and spending time outside as before. He adds that Pokémon exist as “real” creatures that can be spotted and collected, and the game itself has resulted in more people going outdoors. As such, the game is only one step removed from natural history activities like insect collecting or bird watching.
Mittermeier also asks if conservationists can take advantage of whatever it is in the game that is getting people outdoors.
Researchers mention in the paper that Pokémon Go inspires people to make substantial adjustments to the amount of time spent outside and to their daily routines. This is done to increase their chances of encountering target ‘species’. These adjustments represents significant levels of behavioral change among the game’s users.
Evidence also shows that users are discovering ‘real’ wildlife while playing Pokémon Go. This has led to the Twitter hashtag #Pokeblitz, which helps people identify species found and photographed during play.
The researchers write that Pokémon Go exposes users to basic natural history concepts such as species’ habitat preferences and variations.
For example: ‘Grass Pokémon’ normally appears in parks, while water related types are often found close to bodies of water. Four regional, continent restricted species also appear in the game: the marsupial-like Kangaskhan to Australasia, Tauros to the Americas, Farfetch’d to Asia, and Mr Mime to Western Europe.
This diversity of Pokémons is built on a fundamental aspect of natural history observation – exploring new continents and habitats will lead to encounters with different species.
Hundreds of people recently flocked to New York’s Central Park one night over the summer to try to find a rare Dragonite. This will sound familiar to birdwatchers that experience similar gatherings to see a rare species.
The authors conclude that Pokémon Go’s spectacular success provides important lessons for conservation. They also suggest that conservation lags far behind Pokémon in efforts to inspire interest in its collection of species.
The researchers feel that Pokémon Go itself could be modified by increasing conservation impact and content. This would take the focus of the game beyond simply bringing users into close physical vicinity to virtual wildlife as a by-product of the game.
The team list the following proposed changes to Pokémon Go to enhance conservation benefits:
- Add a tool for users to catalogue real species, building on the popularity of the Pokeblitz hashtag.
- Make Pokémon ecology and biology more realistic.
- Place Pokémon in more remote natural settings rather than urban areas. This will draw people to experience non-urban nature.
- Add real species to the Pokémon Go universe. The species will be introduced to a huge number of users, and create opportunities to raise awareness about them.
The development of new conservation focused augmented reality (AR) games could capitalize on lessons learnt from Pokémon Go that can be applied to conservation.
Pokémon Go’s model of encouraging users to look for real species might provide a powerful tool for engagement and education. Visitors to zoos and protected areas can be provided with information about species and their habitats via AR.
The researchers do however caution that the success of Pokémon Go could bring challenges to conservation. This type of augmented reality featuring engaging, brightly colored fictional creatures could possibly replace people’s desire to interact with real-world nature. As Pokémon Go focuses on catching and battling animals, this may encourage exploitation of wildlife. Pokémon Go players have also been blamed for damage caused to a protected dune system south of The Hague in the Netherlands.
Dr Chris Sandbrook, a senior lecturer at UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre and co-author notes that enticing people to go outside does not guarantee a conservation success from Pokémon Go. If interest in finding a rare Dragonite for example replaces concern for real species threatened with extinction, things may in fact be worse, as real nature could be seen as just an ordinary backdrop for more exciting virtual wildlife.
Leejiah Dorward notes that a priority for conservation is to find ways to break down barriers to engagement with real-life nature. A very low barrier for entry is one of the positive things about Pokémon Go. All you need to play is a smartphone and the game itself does many things for you. Whereas modern conservation tends to frame itself primarily in scientific terms, which may put many off, Pokémon are relatable “characters”.
The biophilia hypothesis suggests that people have a built-in affinity with nature and a desire to explore the natural world. If that is one of the reasons why Pokémon Go as a natural history proxy is so popular, it could be a huge boost to conservation. It’s possible that the desire to connect with nature is inherent in people, and to get them to engage with conservation is just a case of “selling” it correctly.
Full study has been published in the journal Conservation Letters.