What can Pokemon Go teach us?

Pokemon Go launched in July this year has become a global phenomenon reaching 500 million downloads within the first two moths 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 research paper by a group of researchers at 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?

“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” said study author Leejiah Dorward, a doctoral candidate in Oxford University’s Department of Zoology.

‘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.” Said Co-author John C Mittermeier

Pokemon Go’s success could bring some challengers 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.’