Is Pokémon GO a blessing or a curse for wildlife conservation?
Written by Carla Archibald & Megan Evans
Some would say that the reality we live in today is no different to the reality Pokémon have created. We’ve got rare and beautiful creatures that occupy many different biomes, all with adaptations that make them weird and wonderful. You can even capture your moment with wildlife through photos and video – which some may think is less novel than Pokéballs, but its suits others just fine. Many biologists are wondering if the excitement around the recent release of Pokémon Go could translate to increased interest in wildlife and nature as users are spending more time outside engaging with their surroundings. Others are also somewhat passive-aggressively questioning why Pokémon is attracting interest but not wildlife (Click here for twitter feed).
When Pokémon was first released on hand-held gaming devices, biologists were also questioning whether its popularity would translate into the real world. This got international recognition in a prominent Science paper, which found that school children identified Pokémon better than real animals (Balmford, Clegg, Coulson, & Taylor, 2002). The virtual reality platform of the Pokémon Go app submerges the user in urban and natural environments – a key difference between all past Pokémon releases. Pokémon Go prompts users to explore urban and natural areas on the hunt for Pokémon, incentivising time outside and increasing the frequency users are exposed to nature.
Directly experiencing nature is just one way that can foster people’s interest in wildlife and nature, so you might not need to (or even it might not be desirable to) get the masses outside in the bush to foster a societal conservation ethic and pro-environmental behaviour (Steg & Vlek, 2009; Wheaton et al., 2015). Integrating technology into tourism and outdoor activities has been shown to have little influence on overall conservation action. Although, these types of innovations have been shown to be effective at promoting pro-environmental behavior through social media and online support of environmental issues. This study also found that visitors’ connectedness to nature was higher during the tour, but returned to pre-visit levels three months later (Wheaton et al., 2015). To put it simply, you don’t need to visit Antarctica to value it and it would be really bad for the environment if we all did (See video here)!
Science communication initiatives such as those online and on twitter (noteworthy example @Pokemon_IRL and #PokeBlitz) could encourage users to engage with wildlife through initiatives such as creating a Pokédex for real animals or assisting with wildlife identification through twitter (Thaler, 2016).
People have also tried to make the “ecomon” suggested above (PHYLO is a Pokémon-style game based on real life species) – although they experienced low adoption and usage.
There are undoubtedly many potential positive conservation outcomes of Pokémon Go, but we also need to consider the risks that could be posed to wildlife conservation if similar widespread adoption occurs. Ecotourism is an essential factor for conservation funding in which many threatened species rely, but simultaneously suffer direct ecological impacts from the increased human presence. Encouraging the masses into natural areas may not only threaten species with tourism value but also local wildlife through habitat damage caused by high traffic and possible spread of disease such as chytrid fungus (Johnson & Speare, 2005; Boyle & Samson, 1985). Fostering a widespread interest in ticking species could encourage wildlife-poaching, trophy hunting or tampering with wildlife to get photos.
Whether or not Pokémon Go will inspire a new generation to take interest in biodiversity remains to be seen. Suggestions from biologists that people need to directly experience nature to value it may not be entirely true, and efforts could be misplaced – certainly partly true, but other things motivate people to engage in pro-environmental behaviour and to support environmental protection policies http://www.nature.com/nclimate/journal/v5/n7/full/nclimate2669.html. Research exploring the drivers and nuances of large-scale adoption is necessary for conservation if wide spread protection is to be ensured.
Boyle, A., Samson, F. (1985). Effects of Nonconsumptive Recreation on Wildlife: A Review. Wildlife Society Bulletin (1973-2006), Vol. 13, No. 2 (Summer, 1985), pp. 110-116, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3781422?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents
Balmford, A., Clegg, L., Coulson, T., & Taylor, J. (2002). Why conservationists should heed Pokémon. Science (New York, N.Y.), 295(5564), 2367. http://doi.org/10.1126/science.295.5564.2367b
Johnson, M. L., & Speare, R. (2005). Possible modes of dissemination of the amphibian chytrid Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis in the environment. Diseases of Aquatic Organisms, 65(3), 181–186. http://doi.org/10.3354/dao065181
Steg, L., & Vlek, C. (2009). Encouraging pro-environmental behaviour: An integrative review and research agenda. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 29(3), 309–317. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.jenvp.2008.10.004
Thaler, A. (2016). Pokémon in real life: biologists catch them all! Retrieved from http://neurodojo.blogspot.com.es/2016/07/pokemon-in-real-life-biologists-catch.html
Wheaton, M., Ardoin, N. M., Hunt, C., Schuh, J. S., Kresse, M., Menke, C., & Durham, W. (2015). Using web and mobile technology to motivate pro-environmental action after a nature-based tour. Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 9582(January 2016), 1–23. http://doi.org/10.1080/09669582.2015.1081600
Header picture from the PokemonGo trailer