What wildlife conservationists can learn from Pokemon Go

The popularity of the game has taught Cassie Freund about how to get more people excited about nature.
Pokemon Go has gamers around the world leaving their consoles behind to hit the streets. (Toru Yamanka/AFP/Getty Images)
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What do the game Pokemon Go and wildlife conservation have in common? Plenty, if you ask Cassie Freund.

Cassie Freund is a tropical forest ecologist and a PhD student at Wake Forest University in North Carolina (Dean Shore )

Freund is a tropical forest ecologist and a PhD student at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. She recently wrote a piece for Massive Science on what ecologists can learn from the game after stumbling across a paper in the Conservation Letters.

The 2016 paper looked at the links between Pokemon Go and how it teaches players basic ecological concepts. For example, different Pokemons have different habitat preference; there's also variation in each species' abundance, just like in nature. It's no wonder then that the authors went on to note that the game's worldwide popularity might also be useful in wildlife conservation, if modified to suit that purpose.

"It was one of the most accessed articles in the journal in 2017," Freund recalled. "I liked it not because of the Pokemon aspect, but because of the general idea that conservationists, including myself, need to learn from technology and these virtual reality tools that are available to us to get people excited about the natural world."  

Our planet's biodiversity is what really enables us to be on this planet. So in that way, conservation really should be in equal demand as something like an iPhone.- Cassie  Freund

In Pokemon Go, players try to catch imaginary creatures by exploring their surroundings. "The virtual world [the game] has created is really cool, but at the same time, we have equally captivating and unique organisms in the real world that desperately need our attention if we're going to prevent them from going extinct," Freund said.

A Pokemon Go player is trying to catch a squirtle pokemon (Pixabay)

So, she thought of a way to tweak the game to get more people interested in conservation. Instead of the imaginary world of Pokemon Go, the new game would be built around real animals and ecosystems. Players can choose from a list of expeditions, and go on virtual journeys in the coral reef or walk alongside polar bears in the high arctic, for example. (Internet of Elephants is one company that's already doing something similar to this, Freund pointed out). Through these experiences, she hopes that people will be more motivated to protect wildlife and change their behaviour to be more conservation-friendly. 

"A lot of people see biodiversity and conservation as very niche market and think it's only for tree huggers," Freund said. "But our planet's biodiversity is what really enables us to be on this planet. So in that way, conservation really should be in equal demand as something like an iPhone. Everyone should want it and we all need it."

But that's not the case, and Freund believes the reason lies in the way conservationists market their work. 'The rhinos are going extinct because people are killing them for horns!' 'The ocean is this toxic soup of plastic!' Freund pointed out that conservationists like to rally support for their cause by defaulting to these doomsday-style language. And that's not the best way to motivate people.

"I've never seen a tech company try to market their products like that. It's all about how can we make your life better, so I think conservationists need to take some of that attitude and work that into our own efforts."