Can Pokemon Go help a young audience engage with wildlife conservation?

Can your hunt for a Zubat help you learn to love Horseshoe bats?

Pokemon Go is an augmented reality (AR) mobile gaming app that was released on the 6th of July 2016. It immediately proved a huge success: It currently has over 20 million active daily users and has been downloaded over 500 million times with the average Pokemon Go user currently using the app for 26 to 43 minutes a day. Incredibly, the app only took 13 hours to reach the top of the highest grossing app chart in the U.S (DMR, 2016) (Business of apps, 2016).

Pokemon Go was a genius concept: Not only did it entice young mobile gamers who are relatively new to pokemon but have been born into an era of apps and AR but it also gathered the older users, having grown up with pokemon products, who returned to the world with nostalgia and excitement.

(c) Pokemon Go, Niantic

(c) Pokemon Go, Niantic

Users aim to track down and capture all of the 150 pokemon currently available on the app with tools such a lures (an object that effectively ‘lures’ pokemon closer to the area where the object is dropped) and pokeballs (the oh so famous balls that allows users to effectively capture, or attempt to capture, a pokemon).

The game has proved immensely popular with gamers, and many studies have focused on how it has modified peoples gaming and mobility habits (for example: Althoff et al. 2016 and Serino et al. 2016), but now studies are also focusing on how the app, with its AR structure and (albeit fictitious) animal catching concept, can be positively integrated into conservation awareness efforts.

(c) Niantic, Pokemon Go (2016)

(c) Niantic, Pokemon Go (2016)

A new study from Oxford University suggests that Pokemon Go could indeed prove to be an important building block towards a more youth-engaging and interactive era of conservation awareness but also errs towards a series of possibly problematic dynamics with the natural world (Doward et al. 2016).

Firstly the positive:

Pokemon Go, which incites the tracking of Pokemon, effectively fictitious animals, reproduces many aspects on real life wildlife watching and natural history. Replicating the patience often required when working with the natural world, the ‘facts’ and ‘stats’ about the pokemon could also encourage users to engage similarly with real-world species with the same amount of energy and curiosity. And also, more obviously, it encourages users to venture out-side and to explore new areas. Many national and memorial parks have undergone a swell in younger visitors since the launch of Pokemon Go. Most people have seen the social media famed footage of hundreds of Pokemon Go players running after a rare pokemon in a Washington D. C park. It is also ‘entry level’, meaning that users would require no prior knowledge in animal taxonomy or conservation to engage with the content.

(c) Gap Year.com

People playing Pokemon Go in a public park (c) Gap Year.com 2016

 

The negative:

There have been concerns voiced regarding how the ‘capturing’ aspect of Pokemon Go could in fact, rather than encouraging genuine curiosity and fondness for real-world wildlife, encourage users to negatively exploit wildlife in mimicry of the app structure.

(c) Niantic, Pokemon Go 2016

(c) Niantic, Pokemon Go 2016

Nb. Of course there has also been incidents of users putting themselves in dangerous or illegal situations in the hunt for a particular pokemon (Serino, 2016) but here the study focuses only on the conservation potential of the app, not the more complex dynamics and uses of app usage.

Since the rapid growth of urban populations since the 1970’s there have been increasing concerns that children are becoming more and more disconnected from the natural world – the creation of an app that successfully reconnects the younger audience with the natural world could prove both important and essential to youth well-being.

Doward et al. (2016) do note: ‘Pokemon Go makes no explicit attempt to connect people to non-virtual wildlife or conservation issues, and spending time outside does not always translate into engagement with nature’ but that there has been evidence of the audience spending more time outdoors and in the presence of nature, which is undeniably the first step towards a re connection with the natural world. They also mention anecdotally how using the app has even allowed members of the research team to encounter wildlife in places where they have never been seen before (for example, Tawny owls and European hedgehogs), leading to a better understanding of species distribution.

(c) Kiddie Toy Reviews, Youtube, 2016

(c) Kiddie Toy Reviews, Youtube, 2016

Furthermore, some conservation units have picked up on Pokemon Go’s success and have incited its users to partake in some of their projects:

The well-reputed scientific journal Nature, in their campaign ‘Gotta Name them all’ (Nature, 2016) recently encouraged users to photograph and identify any wildlife they came across during their pokemon hunts.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has produced a blog comparing Pokemon to the real species that occur at National Wildlife Refuges. They have even calculated that if Pokemon Go users were identifying real-world animals rather than virtual ones, in merely 6 days they could collect the same amount of data as that collected in the last 400 years of Natural History efforts. Check out their blog from the link in the reference section (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, 2016).

(c) U.S Fish and Wildlife Service

(c) U.S Fish and Wildlife Service 2016

(c) U.S Fish and Wildlife Service

(c) U.S Fish and Wildlife Service 2016

National Park service rangers now organise tours of the National Mall called ‘Catch the Mall’ where visitors can enjoy a guided tour to the site whilst also catching Pokemon (Digital Gov, 2016). This concept if exported to other wildlife reserves could prove very popular with mobile users.

(c) National Park Service 2016

(c) National Park Service 2016

(c) National Park Service 2016

(c) National Park Service 2016

The integration of gamification into wildlife and conservation education could prove pivotal in engaging future generations in natural sciences. However then rears the following question: How to avoid trivializing the importance of wildlife conservation?

Overall, the AR concepts of Pokemon Go could potentially be a structure, if adopted by conservation awareness campaigns, that could vastly improve public awareness of current conservation issues as well as engage a younger audience. The question is how best to represent current conservation issues? Some have voiced concerns of how the bright colours and game-type  platform will detract from the less than glamorous realities that endangered species are facing. How to both engage a young audience but also present conservation issues and the plights of the natural world on one platform? Pokemon Go is inherently ‘fun’ but how do we tell children, that are only newly discovering the wonders of the natural world, that parts of it could be gone in the next 10 years if we don’t all play our part in conservation?

Pokemon Go is very fun and unsurprisingly, as a purely game based platform, does not have an inherent educational message in its foreground. However conservation’s move to mobile app does not mean trivializing the plight of our natural world.. Many educational games have been created that are both game-like in structure as well as educational. Subjects that have been approached include protecting natural spaces, deforestation of the Amazon rain-forest and the complexities of achieving World Peace (Games for Change, 2016), however have generally failed to engage large audiences like Pokemon Go has.

'Save The Park' Educational Game for Conservation (c) Games for Change

‘Save The Park’ Educational Game for Conservation (c) Games for Change

'Save The Park' Educational Game for Conservation (c) Games for Change

‘Save The Park’ Educational Game for Conservation (c) Games for Change

Wildlife Conservation efforts could learn from both of these structures: It needs, if it does in fact want or need such a product, to create a product that would both engage a wide audience with an attractive fun platform but also contain educational content like other ‘serious’ games. Apps using Augmented Reality like Pokemon Go have potentially provided new tools for engaging young audiences with wildlife and wildlife conservation. It has quickly been adopted, as seen above, by large natural world organisations, and the potential for innovation is there. It remains to see how these tools can be employed and bettered to perhaps inspire a new generation of budding wildlife conservationists.

References:

Althoff, T. White, R. W. and Horvitz, E. (2016) ‘Influence of Pokémon Go on Physical Activity: Study and Implications’ [online] Available:  https://arxiv.org/pdf/1610.02085.pdf  [accessed 21/11/16]

Business of Apps (2016) ‘Pokemon go user and revenue statistics’ [online] Available: http://www.businessofapps.com/pokemon-go-usage-revenue-statistics/ [accessed 21/11/16]

Digital Gov (2016) ‘Catch the Mall! With Pokemon and Public Services’ [online] Available: https://www.digitalgov.gov/2016/07/12/catch-the-mall-with-pokemon-and-public-services/  [accessed 21/11/16]

DMR (2016) ‘75 Incredible Pokemon Go Statistics. November 2016’ [online] Available: http://expandedramblings.com/index.php/pokemon-go-statistics/ [accessed 21/11/16]

Dorward, L.J, Mittermeier, J. C. Sandbrook, C. Spooner, F. (2016) ‘Pokemon Go: Benefits, Costs, and Lessons for the Conservation Movement’ Conservation Letters 0 (0) : 1 – 6. [online] Available: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/conl.12326/pdf [accessed 21/11/16]

Games for Change (2016)  [online] Available: http://www.gamesforchange.org/ [accessed 21/11/16]  

Nature (2016) ‘Gotta name them all: How Pokemon Go can transform taxonomy’ [online] Available: http://www.nature.com/news/gotta-name-them-all-how-pok%C3%A9mon-can-transform-taxonomy-1.20275 [accessed 21/11/16]  

Serino, M. Cordrey, K. McLaughlin, L. Milanaik, R. L. (2016) ‘Pokémon Go and augmented virtual reality games: a cautionary commentary for parents and pediatricians’ Current Opinion in Pediatrics 28 (5) :  673 – 677.

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (2016) ‘Open Spaces: the pokemon around us’ [online] Available:  https://www.fws.gov/news/blog/index.cfm/2016/7/14/The-Pokemon-Around-Us [accessed 21/11/16]

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Lillian Stanton

Lillian is a student currently studying biology and media communications. She is hoping to follow a post graduate degree in scientific journalism.

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