Launched in July this year, Pokémon Go has become a global phenomenon, reaching 500 million downloads within two months of release.
The augmented reality game, designed for mobile devices, allows users to capture, battle and train virtual creatures called Pokémon that appear on screen as if part of the real-world environment.
But can the game’s enormous success deliver any lessons to the fields of natural history and conservation?
A new paper by a group of researchers from the universities of Oxford and Cambridge explores whether Pokémon Go’s success in getting people out of their homes and interacting with virtual ‘animals’ could be replicated to redress what is often perceived as a decline in interest in the natural world among the general public.
Or, could the game’s popularity pose more problems than opportunities for conservation?
In the paper, the researchers explain that Pokémon Go has been shown to inspire high levels of behavioural change among its users.
People make significant adjustments to their daily routines and to the amount of time spent outside in order to increase their chances of encountering target ‘species’.
There is also evidence that users are discovering non-virtual wildlife while playing Pokémon Go, leading to the Twitter hashtag #Pokeblitz that helps people identify ‘real’ species found and photographed during play.
Pokémon Go, the researchers write, exposes users first hand to basic natural history concepts such as species’ habitat preferences and variations in abundance.
‘Grass Pokémon’, for example, tend to appear in parks, while water-related types are more likely to be found close to bodies of water.
There are also four regional species that are continent restricted: Tauros to the Americas, Mr Mime to Western Europe, Farfetch’d to Asia, and the marsupial-like Kangaskhan to Australasia.
This differentiation captures a fundamental aspect of natural history observation — that exploring new habitats and continents will lead to encounters with different species.
And hundreds of people congregated near New York’s Central Park one night over the summer to try to find a rare Vaporeon — something that will sound familiar to birdwatchers used to similar gatherings to see a rare species.
The authors write: ‘The spectacular success of Pokémon Go provides significant lessons for conservation.”
Importantly, it suggests that conservation is continuing to lag behind Pokémon in efforts to inspire interest in its portfolio of species.
There is clear potential to modify Pokémon Go itself to increase conservation content and impact above and beyond simply bringing gamers into closer physical proximity to non-human wildlife as a by-product of the game.
Pokémon Go could be adapted to enhance conservation benefits by:
a) making Pokémon biology and ecology more realistic;
b) adding real species to the Pokémon Go universe to introduce those species to a huge number of users, and creating opportunities to raise awareness about them;
c) deliberately placing Pokémon in more remote natural settings rather than urban areas to draw people to experience non-urban nature; or
d) adding a mechanism for users to catalogue real species, building on the popularity of the “Pokeblitz” concept.
However, the researchers caution that the success of Pokémon Go could also bring challenges.
For example, it may be that this type of augmented reality — featuring engaging, brightly cultured fictional creatures – could replace people’s desire to interact with real-world nature, or the focus on catching and battling Pokémon may encourage exploitation of wildlife.
There has also been controversy in the Netherlands, where Pokémon Go players have been blamed for damage caused to a protected dune system south of The Hague.
The paper is published in the journal Conservation Letters.
News source: University of Oxford.
Figure legend: This Knowridge.com image is credited to University of Oxford.