Wildlife education with Pokémon Go

Augmented reality games trigger new trends that go beyond pure entertainment
Samuel Mann, flickr.com, CC BY 2.0
Samuel Mann, flickr.com, CC BY 2.0

Pokémon Go player Melissa from San Diego was perhaps hoping to catch an Eevee, Jigglypuff or other Pokémon during a hike in Mission Trails Regional Park, but she found something much more interesting: an enormous black spider. She took a picture of the arachnid, and posted it to Twitter with the hashtag #PokeBlitz.

The #PokeBlitz hashtag was created by Morgan Jackson, a PhD candidate at the University of Guelph in Canada. “While out trying to catch Pokémon, people are likely to stumble across real wild animals and plants which they may not be familiar with”, Jackson explains. “PokeBlitz encourages them to take a photo and tweet it out, with the intention that someone in the natural history community will be able to help give them an ID and perhaps some information about the species.”

The spider Melissa discovered was identified by arachnologist Chris Hamilton, who tweeted back “It’s a mature male Aphonopelma steindachneri. He’s out wandering, looking for a lady”.

The name of the #PokeBlitz hashtag is inspired by “BioBlitzes”. These are events where a group of people focuses on one particular location for a short amount of time, and records all the species they can find in that area. They have been held across the world since at least 1996. The goal of BioBlitz events is not just to count species and generate scientific data, but also to encourage local communities to participate in citizen science events, and to generate awareness of local biodiversity.

Jackson immediately saw an opportunity for Pokémon Go players: “All of these goals and aims can be applied to casual video gamers playing Pokémon who get curious about the incidental biodiversity they come across.” And so the #PokeBlitz hashtag was born.

Besides encouraging people to explore their environments, Pokémon Go also subtly introduces people to taxonomy – the system that puts organisms into categories like “mammal” or “bird”. Pokémon taxonomy is different, but the concept is the same. A Pokémon might be a “fire type Pokémon”, for example, or a “rock type Pokémon”.  When you catch a Pokémon, the app shows a little summary about the creature you found, with its name, size, type, and a short description of its common features.

Sharing wildlife knowledge with Pokémon-style cards

What if you could learn about real animals in the same way? Asia Murphy, a PhD student at Pennsylvania State University, is encouraging people to do exactly this, by creating and sharing #PokemonIRL cards on social media: She provided a template, and invited anyone to create cards for real animals, in the same style as Pokémon descriptions.

“PokemonIRL is simple”, Murphy says, “You choose your favorite animal, get a picture of it, do some research, and imagine what kind of elemental type(s) it would be if it were a real Pokémon. Then you create the card using the materials provided in a dropbox folder.”

Both the #PokeBlitz and #PokemonIRL Twitter hashtags have caught on, and have been widely reported on. Media attention for the hashtags is how Melissa found out about #Pokeblitz in San Diego, and how on the other side of the world London Zoo’s social media team was inspired to make #PokemonIRL cards for some of their own animals.

But what will happen to the wildlife enthusiasm sparked by #PokeBlitz and #PokemonIRL once Pokémon Go has lost its novelty?

For a slight glimpse of a future where Pokémon Go is less popular, we need to look a few years in the past. Pokémon may have gotten new life this summer, but it has been around in various forms (games, TV shows) since the nineties.

Playable educational games

In 2010 biologist David Ng released the first playable version of a card game called Phylo. This game started as a crowdsourced initiative, inspired by a 2002 Science paper that compared Pokémon to real organisms. Ng’s lab at the University of British Columbia crowdsourced people to create artwork for the cards. In that sense, the early days of Phylo were very reminiscent of the current state of the #PokemonIRL tag.

However, Phylo has a game element beyond designing the cards. The Phylo cards, templates and game rules are all available under a creative commons license so that anyone can make their own sets. The American Museum of Natural History recently made a pterosaur deck, and the Genetics Society of America distributed 3000 copies of their own custom game this summer.

Ng says, “Anyone can adapt, tweak, add-on, or work from existing Phylo resources. Folks can also participate by just working through existing decks. It’s why the project has been slowly getting bigger.” And all of this happened before the recent resurgence of Pokémon with the Pokémon Go game.

I asked Murphy if she thought #PokemonIRL could turn into a playable game.

“I guess it could; I don’t plan on that, but if anyone has the motivation, then they can do anything they want with the cards.”

In other words, anyone who wants to could turn #PokemonIRL cards into a Phylo game, ensuring attention beyond Pokémon Go.

For people who prefer the outdoor element of Pokémon Go over the gaming aspect, there is always the opportunity to join a local bioblitz. The species recording events have received renewed attention thanks to #PokeBlitz.

Augmented reality games like Pokémon Go involve the real world in the gameplay. This can make popular games a great jumping-off point to make players aware of their own local environment, and ultimately, this attention for the world around them may outlive the game itself.