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, UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre, and University College London (UCL) 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?
Study author Leejiah Dorward, a doctoral candidate in Oxford University’s Department of Zoology, said: ‘When Pokémon Go first came out, one of the most striking things was its similarity with many of the concepts seen in natural history and conservation. The basic facts and information about Pokémon Go make it sound like an incredibly successful citizen science project, rather than a smartphone game.
‘We wanted to explore how the success of Pokémon Go might create opportunities or challenges for the conservation movement.’
Co-author John C Mittermeier, a doctoral candidate in Oxford’s School of Geography and the Environment, said: ‘There is a widespread belief that interest in natural history is waning and that people are less interested in spending time outside and exploring the natural world.
‘Pokémon Go is only one step removed from natural history activities like bird watching or insect collecting: Pokémon exist as “real” creatures that can be spotted and collected, and the game itself has been getting people outdoors. What’s going on here, and can we as conservationists take advantage of it?’
In the paper, the researchers explain that Pokémon Go has been shown to inspire high levels of behavioural change among its users, with people making 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.
‘Less directly, lessons from Pokémon Go could be applied to conservation through the development of new conservation-focused augmented reality (AR) games. Following the model of Pokémon Go, games that encourage users to look for real species could provide a powerful tool for education and engagement. AR could also be used in zoos and protected areas to provide visitors with information about species and their habitats.’
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 coloured 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.
Co-author Dr Chris Sandbrook, a senior lecturer at UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre, said: ‘Just getting people outside does not guarantee a conservation success from Pokémon Go. It might actually make things worse – for example, if interest in finding a rare Vaporeon replaces concern for real species threatened with extinction. Real nature could be seen as just a mundane backdrop for more exciting virtual wildlife.’
Leejiah Dorward added: ‘One of the positive things about Pokémon Go is that there’s a very low barrier for entry. As long as you have a smartphone, you can play – and the game itself does a lot of things for you. Finding ways to break down barriers to engagement with real-life nature is a priority for conservation. Pokémon are also relatable “characters”, whereas modern conservation tends to frame itself purely in scientific terms, which may be off-putting to many.
‘There is something called the biophilia hypothesis, which suggests that people have an in-built affinity with nature and a desire to explore the natural world. If that’s one of the reasons Pokémon Go has proved to be so popular – because it’s a natural history proxy – then that could be a huge boost to conservation. It’s possible that the desire to connect with nature is there and to get people to engage with conservation we just need to “sell” it correctly.’
Gaps in our information about biodiversity means we are at risk of focussing our conservation efforts in the wrong places.
New research from Newcastle University, UK, University College London (UCL) and the University of Queensland, Australia, highlights the uncertainty around our global biodiversity data because of the way we record species sightings.
The study explains how a lack of information about a species in a particular location doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not there and that recording when we don’t see something is as important as recording when we do.
Publishing their findings today in the academic journal Biology Letters, the team say we need to change the way we record sightings – or a lack of them – so we can better prioritise our conservation efforts in light of the Convention on Biological Diversity.
Dr Phil McGowan, one of the study’s authors and a Senior Lecturer in Biodiversity and Conservation at Newcastle University, said:
“Where there is no recent biodiversity data from an area then we might assume a species is no longer found there, but there could be a number of other possible reasons for this lack of data.
“It could be that its habitat is inaccessible – either geographically or due to human activity such as ongoing conflict – or perhaps it’s simply a case that no-one has been looking for it.
“Unless we know where people have looked for a particular species and not found it then we can’t be confident that it’s not there.”
To test the research, the team used the rigorously compiled database of European and Asian Galliformes – a group of birds which includes the pheasant, grouse and quail.
“Our long-standing love of the Galliformes goes back hundreds of years which means we have records that are likely to be much better than for other groups of animals or plants,” explains Dr McGowan.
“Not only have these birds been hunted for food, but their spectacular colours made them valuable as trophies and to stock the private aviaries of the wealthy. In the late 1800s and the turn of the last century, the Galliformes were prized specimens in museum and private collections and today they are still a favourite with bird watchers.”
Analysing 153,150 records dating from 1727 to 2008 and covering an area from the UK to Siberia and down to Indonesia, the team found that after 1980, there was no available data at 40% of the locations where Galliformes had previously been present.
The study suggests two possible scenarios.
Dr Elizabeth Boakes, the study’s lead author and a teaching fellow at University College London, said:
“We have no evidence of populations existing past 1980 in 40% of our locations. However, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.
“One scenario is that populations have been lost from these areas, probably due to hunting or habitat loss. The other scenario is that the species are still locally present but that nobody has been to look for them.
“Our study shows that which scenario you choose to believe makes a huge difference to measures used in conservation priority-setting such as species richness and geographic range. It’s important that we make the right call and that means a big shake up in the way we currently monitor biodiversity.
“We need to record what we don’t see as well as what we do see and we need to be recording across much wider areas.”