|16 November 2016|

UK

Augmented reality (AR) hit the headlines around the world this year thanks to the global phenomenon of Pokémon Go – and now conservationists are examining how they can harness the opportunities presented by AR technology.

Researchers  from the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre, and University College London (UCL) have produced a paper exploring ‘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’.

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.”

The researchers highlight the lifestyle changes inspired by Pokémon Go, with users making significant changes to their daily schedules to spend more time outdoors hunting for target ‘species’. They say there is ‘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 authors continued: “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 making Pokémon biology and ecology more realistic; 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;  deliberately placing Pokémon in more remote natural settings rather than urban areas to draw people to experience non-urban nature; or 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.”

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.”

The paper is published in the journal Conservation Letters.