Can Pokémon GO Get Gamers to Care About Real Wildlife, Too?

Heading outside to catch ’em all? These scientists will help you identify the other creatures you might find—y’know, IRL.

Credit: Alice/Flickr

Since its launch last week, Pokémon GO, the augmented reality app where gamers search the physical world around them for digital beasts, has metamorphosed into a full-fledged cultural phenomenon.

In the first week, parent company Nintendo’s net worth had grown by $7.5 billion, downloads have soared past Tinder, and daily usage is approaching that of Twitter. In fact, if you were out in public this past weekend and you saw teenagers and twentysomethings (and, ahem, thirty- and fortysomethings) walking around with their smartphones pointed at bushes and brick walls, then you probably witnessed Pokémon tracking in action. Just look at the scene in Central Park, where you apparently can’t swing a dead Pikachu without hitting a Pokémon hunter.

Now, it would be really easy to rag on Pokémon GO based on principle. After all, there is something sad about people wandering outside looking for fictional Weedles and Zubats instead of praying mantises and great blue herons. Right? Maybe not . . .

Some scientists are embracing the game that is getting some 7.5 million people outdoors and interested in biodiversity—even if that diversity inhabits an imaginary ecosystem.

Late Sunday night, entomologist Morgan Jackson had an idea: If people were all of a sudden spending a lot of time outside, they’d probably be more likely to run into real-world wildlife, too. And maybe, just maybe, they’d stop Pokémon-ing long enough to wonder what those beasts in the flesh were. So Jackson offered his expertise on Twitter.

Turns out the bug scientist was onto something. By the next morning, someone had used the hashtag to ask a question about a “fat otter”—probably a muskrat—and the name game was on. Soon after, wildlife ecologist David Steen and birder Nicholas Lund started chiming in on the #PokeBlitz hashtag, and the rest was history. Look down the stream and you’ll see wildlife IDs ranging from wasps and skinks to crane flies and red-tailed hawks.

“Pokémon was such a big, formative experience for me growing up,” says Jackson, who is completing a Ph.D. at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada. As proof, he immediately followed up his remarks with a quick chant of Gotta catch ’em all. “Now I’m an entomologist,” Jackson says, “and that’s literally what I do for a living.”

The term #PokeBlitz is a riff on another hashtag, #BioBlitz, a term describing when a ton of scientists descend on an area—say, a national park—for 24 to 48 hours of nonstop observing, identifying, and in-the-flesh science-ing. Some of these events have even started opening up the fun to the public. Scientists accompany newbs on hikes and teach them about the plants and animals living in their local area. And that’s exactly what Jackson hopes to accomplish with #PokeBlitz.

Pokémon GO “is really inspiring a lot of curiosity,” he says. “Just getting people out there and looking at the ground, using their camera, and maybe happening to see something they haven’t seen before.”

This axolotl, also known as a Mexican walking fish, is a creature both strange and very real (and critically endangered).

Of course, Jackson isn’t the only scientist leveraging the moment. Instead of hopping on the Pokémon phenomenon (Pokémonenon?) to ID wild critters, Asia Murphy whipped up a quick graphic that categorized one of her study animals, the fossa, as though it were a fictional creature one might want to capture, train, and do battle with.

(Warning: Do not try to capture a real fossa. This cat- and doglike predator from Madagascar will cut you. Also, it’s vulnerable to extinction.)

“I’m a really visual person, and I’ve played Pokémon before, so I knew aboutPokédex entries,” says Murphy, an ecologist at Pennsylvania State University and creator of the #PokemonIRL hashtag.

But like the earlier versions of Pokémon, where players traded and did battle with the equivalent of baseball cards, #PokémonIRL, Murphy knew, would be more fun to play with friends than solo. So she designed a starter kit that allows other scientists to turn their study subjects into fictional fighting beasts.

And oh my, has the Internet risen to the challenge. Because let’s face it, many of the earth’s creatures already look like they came screaming out of a video game from the 1990s. Seriously, what are duck-billed platypuses and tapirs if not Pokémon?

Some players have taken the game a step further and figured out which Pokémon characters their study species would be.

Cheetahs, black-backed jackals, giant water bugs, Hawaiian bobtail squid…the list goes on and on. The melding of science and fantasy seems to be fitting here, considering that the guy who created Pokémon also loved catching bugs. (Hat-tip to Jon Mooallem and his excellent book, Wild Ones, for that fun fact.)

There’s a chance the game could even get science-curious gamers involved in two preexisting online platforms for documenting real wildlife—Project Noah and iNaturalist. The Pokémonification of planet earth is only beginning, and many other spinoff and piggyback apps are surely still to come, but like many fads, it might also burn out like a shooting Staryu.

Until then, Murphy, Morgan, and many other scientists on Twitter seem to be wringing out every ounce of science communication they can from the spectacle while it lasts. I encourage you to get out there and join them. Who knows what you might find!

This article was originally published on onEarth, which is no longer in publication. onEarth was founded in 1979 as the Amicus Journal, an independent magazine of thought and opinion on the environment. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. This article is available for online republication by news media outlets or nonprofits under these conditions: The writer(s) must be credited with a byline; you must note prominently that the article was originally published by and link to the original; the article cannot be edited (beyond simple things such grammar); you can’t resell the article in any form or grant republishing rights to other outlets; you can’t republish our material wholesale or automatically—you need to select articles individually; you can’t republish the photos or graphics on our site without specific permission; you should drop us a note to let us know when you’ve used one of our articles.

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