Pokemon Go Proves Biophilia Theory, Makes Park Rangers of Us All


While the popularity of Pokémon Go is now less blazing Rapidash and more Slowpoke, experts outside the gaming industry still hope to leverage the successful aspects of the game into their own fields. Take, for example, the team of scientists arguing that the game has great potential to boost environmental conservation efforts.

In a new paper published Wednesday in Conservation Letters, the scientists argue that, quite simply, Pokémon Go gets people to go outside. This, the researchers hope, could help revitalize an interest in the natural world, which they fear is in decline among the general public. They reason that the built-in human desire to be in and explore nature, in part, drives the game’s success. This affinity for nature is part of a larger theory called the “biophilia hypothesis.”

“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,” study author and Oxford University doctoral candidate Leejah Dorward said in a statement. “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 authors do note that there are certain things about the game they wish could be modified to better help conservation efforts. It’s not enough that a byproduct of the game is putting players in nature. They write that the game could be enhanced to better benefit conservation by making Pokémon biology and ecology more realistic, adding real species of animals to the game, allowing users to catalog real species while they play, and by placing more Pokémon in remote natural settings.

They also bring up a more realistic way of using the game to help conservation: By taking inspiration from the game and creating an augmented reality nature game of their own. Asking game developer Niantic to change its game for conservation’s sake, after all, is a lot to ask for — but creating a new game is definitely a possibility.

“Following the model of Pokémon Go, a game that encourages users to look for real species could provide a powerful tool for education and engagement,” the authors write. “AR could also be used in zoos and protected areas to provide visitors with information about species and their habitats.”

The authors do worry that people will end up being more interested in a fake Pokémon universe than actual nature and that searching for Pokémon could circumstantially cause people to actually hurt natural structures. But as environmental and animal conservation remains a constant priority, it’s obvious that shaking up the presentation of the cause is likely to do some good.

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