Pokémon Go could be a way to get people interested in wildlife conservation.

Photo: pim pic / Shutterstock.com

Could Pokémon Go be a useful tool for conservation? A team of researchers form the University of Oxford think that it might offer some interesting new ways to think about getting people to care about natural history.

Study author Leejiah Dorward, a doctoral candidate at Oxford University, says, “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.”

The idea behind the “augmented reality” game is that people go outdoors into the world and look for fake creatures. It exposes users to natural history concepts like habitat preferences and variations in abundance—for example, “grass Pokémon” tend to appear in parks and “water Pokémon” near bodies of water. There are even region-specific species that can only be found on particular continents.

“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,” the researchers write.

The researchers suggest that similar games could be developed for zoos and natural parks in order to give visitors a way to further interact with the region, by allowing them to point their phone at an area and see what kinds of plants and animals might occupy it.

However, the success of Pokémon Go could replace people’s desire to be in nature in favor of catching and battling fictitious creatures. It also could encourage exploitation of wildlife rather than conservation.

“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,” writes co-author Dr. Chris Sandbrook of the UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre. “Real nature could be seen as just a mundane backdrop for more exciting virtual wildlife.”

What Pokémon Go does do is to frame outdoor activities in a way that non-scientists can understand and relate to. For that reason alone, it could be seen as a great adjunct to natural history teaching. A lot has been said about the trend of “gamification” as a way to develop interest in everything from science and math to nature. Apps and games similar to Pokemon Go could be developed to encourage people to get outdoors and appreciate nature.