Pokécology: people will never put down their phones, but games can get them focused on nature

Catch them all - and maybe spare a thought for the trees. Matthew Corley/Shutterstock.com

Anyone who has been outdoors in a populated area in the past month will be aware of the massive success of Pokémon GO, which has rocketed to the top of the gaming charts.

People have been avidly collecting Pokémon creatures in various media formats for two decades, so it was a logical move to use smartphone technology to turn the franchise into a “mobile augmented reality” (MAR) gaming app.

It has proved to be an economic as well as a social phenomenon, sending the market value of its owner Nintendo soaring to US$39.9 billion. But the game was not actually developed by Nintendo; it was created by Google spin-off Niantic, which also built Pokémon GO’s popular MAR predecessor, Ingress.

Similar to Pokémon GO, Ingress is a reality-embedded sci-fi game in which players interact with real-world objects that are overlaid (using smartphone cameras) by a veneer of simulated characteristics.

In a new paper published in the journal Restoration Ecology, we argue that MAR games such as these can be a force for good in ecology and conservation, rather than being a cause for concern, as [others have argued](contrary to what others have written.

The key is not to lament or rail against the popularity of gaming or augmented reality, but rather to embrace what makes them a success. They tap into people’s sense of fun and competitiveness, and they get people into the great outdoors – and this is all stuff that can encourage people to embrace nature.

The problem

The growth of our modern civilisation, spurred on by technological innovations, has been underpinned by the exploitation of the natural environment. Today, a large fraction of the Earth, once swathed in wilderness, is now monopolised by humans. Populations of plants and animals have declined, leading to local losses and global extinctions, as a result of habitat destruction, harvesting, invasive species, and pollution.

Yet although the direct causes of wildlife loss are clear enough, what’s less obvious is why many people seemingly don’t care. The environmental writer George Monbiot has ascribed society’s ongoing destruction of the environment to the fact that not enough people value nature and wilderness any more.

This “eco-detachment” has been described as a symptom of our modernised, urbanised world, in which new technology both dominates peoples’ interests and simultaneously increases society’s ability to damage the environment.

But what if augmented reality – from MAR apps on smartphones to HoloLenses – could be harnessed in a positive and proactive way, to reconnect the wider public to nature and so unlock their inherent biophilia?

What if a smartphone game was created that focused not on features of the cityscape, but rather on “gamifying” nature, wildlife, and human interactions with the natural environment?

Such a game would lead its players to actively choose to experience nature. They would connect to it, and protect it (as an in-game reward), and thus understand its value.

Ingress enthusiasts. Hey, at least they’re outdoors, right? R4ph4ell-pl/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Getting more of society to connect with nature has long been an elusive dream of environmentalists. More than a decade ago, a group of leading conservation biologists famously found children were far more expert at recognising Pokémon characters than they were at identifying common wildlife groups. The problem isn’t with spotting “species” per se – it’s that they were mainly exposed to the electronic ones and not the real ones.

This issue of where people invest their attention is crucial. Ingress now has more than 7 million active players, and has been downloaded by 12 million people since its release in 2012. The fact that the game requires you to get out and about means it encourages players to locate, recognise, and identify with an array of cultural icons they might otherwise ignore.


So here’s the challenge: to create a new version of Ingress (let’s call it “Egress”), that is educational and positive, as well as popular. It might also use augmented reality to visualise environmental changes, either good (restoration) or bad (damage), in people’s local landscapes. To be a hit, it would need to both capture an audience and to foster a community. And it could even generate data for citizen science projects.

There are lots of possibilities for how an app such as this could work. Perhaps it might involve using smartphones to photograph, locate, and automatically “tag” species within a landscape; or to identify rare plants or insects; or detect signs of animal activity (diggings, droppings, and so on). The crucial point is that although its focus would be on ecology and nature, it needs to also incorporate a fun gaming element – sort of like a high-tech version of those old birdwatching handbooks, but one that offers more kudos for spotting rarer species.

A recent editorial in Nature highlighted some of the potential uses of Pokémon GO, Ingress and others, suggesting that MAR games might even be used to discover and describe new species.

Who doesn’t want a new animal or plant to be named after them? Such citizen science activities would strengthen links between research, conservation, and the community.

What Ingress and Pokémon GO have shown is that it is possible to get millions of tech-savvy people out of their living rooms and basements and actively engaging with the wider world. While it’s impossible to guarantee that any project will go viral, this recent experience with MAR shows that people really can be persuaded, in large numbers, to get outside and explore.

That’s surely the first and most necessary step towards getting people to reconnect with, and care about, nature in the digital age.

The Conversation

Barry W. Brook receives funding from the Australian Research Council.

Jessie C. Buettel does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Pokémon Go has revealed a new battleground for virtual privacy


People have been lingering outside Boon Sheridan’s house all through the night. The designer lives in an old church in Massachusetts that has been designated a “gym” in the new smartphone game Pokémon Go. Because the game requires players to visit places in the real world, Sheridan now has to put up with people regularly stopping outside his building to play.

It has got to the point where he has started wondering if there is anything the law can do in situations like this. He wrote on Twitter: “Do I even have rights when it comes to a virtual location imposed on me? Businesses have expectations, but this is my home.” This problem of virtual activities impinging on physical spaces in only likely to grow with the increasing popularity of the augmented reality used in games such as Pokémon Go to overlay digital landscapes on real ones. But there may be a way to deal with this before it becomes a serious legal problem for more people.

Pokémon Go encourages players to interact with their actual environment by using realistic maps of their surroundings as part of the game. Certain landmarks, monuments and public buildings are tagged as “stops”, where players can collect items, and some public spaces including churches, parks and businesses are tagged as “gyms”, where users can battle each other.

It is the tagging element that has prompted a few interesting legal questions about the role of augmented reality. The game’s developer, Niantic, is using a combination of data from Google Maps and user-generated tags collected from an earlier game called Ingress. This data is used to identify real-life spots as either a stop or a gym. But what happens when the data mistakenly identifies a house as a public space, as happened to Sheridan?

As it turns out, Niantic offers people the chance to highlight problems with a location. And in the grand scheme of things, whether a person’s house is mis-tagged in a game does not seem like something worthy of new laws, particularly when the developer offers to correct any errors. But Pokémon Go is just the beginning. The game has proven the potential of augmented reality to appeal to a very large audience, so we can expect many other applications of the technology to come our way.

The wild success of location-based gaming may bring about a horde of imitators, so expect a new generation of augmented reality gaming to hit the app stores soon. And the technology’s potential also goes beyond gaming so we can expect more mainstream applications of geo-tagging and location-based interaction, especially with the growth of wearable technology such as fitness trackers. You can imagine that soon we will have a world in which ever house, every car, even every person could come with an added virtual tag full of data. The potential for innovation in this area is staggering.

But what if your house is tagged in a global database without your permission and you value your privacy so do not want any passersby to know that you live there? Or what if a commercially-sensitive database identifies your business with incorrect data and you cannot reach the developer or they refuse to amend it? People looking for businesses in your area may miss you and go to a competitor that is correctly listed. Even more worrying, what if your house was previously occupied by a sex offender and is tagged in an outdated database with that information?

The problems would go far beyond what is happening with Sheridan’s house. These cases could have real negative effects on people’s lives, privacy, or business prospects.

The potential for trouble will be worse with the launch of apps that allow users to tag public or private buildings themselves. Why will abusers and trolls bother spray-painting a house, when they can geo-tag it maliciously? Paint washes away, but data may be more difficult to erase.

My proposal is to extend data protection legislation to virtual spaces. At the moment, data protection is strictly personal as it relates to any information about a specific person, known as a data subject. The data subject has a variety of rights, such as having the right to access their data and rectify and erase anything that is inaccurate or excessive.

Protecting objects

Under my proposal, the data subject’s rights would remain as they are, but the law would contain a new definition, that of the data object. This relates to data about a specific location. The rights of data objects would be considerably more limited than those of a data subject. But classifying them like this would take advantage of the data-protection mechanisms that already exist for when someone is intrinsically linked to a location.

In other words, just tagging a location on an augmented reality database wouldn’t violate the data protection. But mis-tagging a location as a public space in a way that could impinge on people’s enjoyment of that location could trigger action by the regulator to have the tag amended, removed or even erased. This would be especially useful for private spaces such as Sheridan’s house. If the app developer fails to make a change to the data, the property owner could make a request to the data protection authority, who would then force developers to change the data – or face fines.

There are limits to this proposal. Such a regime would only apply to companies based in the same country as the data protection regulator. So, for example, European countries wouldn’t be able to force Niantic to make changes to Pokémon Go’s tags, because the company is based in the US. There would also need to be strict restrictions on exactly what counts a data object and what is worth amending or deleting, otherwise the system could be abused.

But one thing is already certain: Pokémon Go is just the beginning of a new world of location-based data applications, and we need to find better ways to protect our digital rights in that space.

The Conversation

Andres Guadamuz does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Pokémon Go: the app that leads you places other apps don’t

The launch of augmented reality game Pokémon Go has been a resounding success for Nintendo and app developer Niantic. Reports suggest it to be the most popular mobile game in US history, with the number of daily active users at times surpassing Twitter, Facebook, and Tinder. But one of its most interesting features is not within the game onscreen at all.

Based on the 20-year-old Nintendo franchise, the aim of the game is to walk around real-world locations in order to capture “in the wild” Pokémon generated in the game. Using a smartphone’s camera, the augmented reality app allows players to find the Pokémon superimposed onto real spaces, with the aim to catch all the Pokémon in predefined geographical locations. Additional bonuses come through checking in at “Pokéstops” – smaller geographical landmarks that the game defines as significant. A visit to a café, pub, or bakery for example could see you rewarded with a number of items to make it easier to “catch them all”.

Playing Pokémon Go myself I have been fascinated by the element of urban exploration the game encourages, particularly around those familiar places now marked as Pokéstops. Wendy Joy Darby, in her book Landscape and Identity, argues that “place is indubitably bound up in personal experience”. I’ve lived in Norwich all my life, for example, and I’d like to think my personal experience means I know the city quite well. Yet even I have found myself surprised at some of the locations the app has identified as culturally or socially significant in some way.

Walking around and viewing Norwich through the game’s augmented reality, I’ve found myself discovering the city anew. I’ve stopped at things I’ve seen before but never really considered: paving slabs decorated with cakes, sculptures I’ve often walked past but never really looked at. And some things I’d never laid eyes on, such as plaques celebrating remarkable people or interesting architecture that I’d encountered only by being led on detours by my quest for Pokémon.

The significance of these places is determined by developer Niantic. Once part of Google, Niantic previously developed Ingress, another augmented reality geolocation game that required players to travel to specific real-world locations to capture “portals”.

Initially these locations were chosen by Niantic based on historical or cultural significance, yet as the game evolved more locations were included based on geo-tagged locations from Google or from suggestions from players. The same technology is in Pokémon Go, and some businesses have gone with the trend and paid to attract Pokémon to their businesses in order to cash in on a Pokémon-activated commercial windfall.

Whatever in-game rewards these Pokéstops offer, they also offer up the opportunity to view my city with the eyes of a tourist once more, allowing me to see places I know well but from a fresh perspective.

Writing in 1977, humanistic geographer Yi-Fu Tuan argued that “what begins as undifferentiated space becomes place as we get to know it better and endow it with value”. What seems to be happening now is that Pokémon Go is becoming a tool with which its users can instantaneously assign value to places. Transforming mere space into a definite place, the game imbues familiar and everyday places with an exotic aura. A mundane cityscape now has potential to house rare Pokémon, and so becomes a site of pilgrimage for dedicated players.

On launching, the app reminds players to remain alert and stay aware of their surroundings at all times. While ostensibly a reminder to keep safety in mind and not walk out in front of traffic or otherwise get injured while playing, it reads also as a reminder to take a moment to appreciate, not just the augmented reality of the game, but the places in the real world behind it with new eyes.

The Pokéstop passed on a daily commute could hold the key to capturing an elusive Charizard, but perhaps it can also become a place we get to know better in the real world.

The Conversation

Tom Phillips does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Why Pokemon Go became an instant phenomenon

Pokemon Go puts virtual characters in the real world – which is just part of its appeal. Dalton White/YouTube, CC BY

In the last week, Pokemon Go, an augmented reality game for mobile phones, has taken off. Daily traffic for the game exceeded Twitter and Facebook use. What is driving this intense interest and involvement? One way to understand is to take a closer look at the game’s design.

First, for those who haven’t played or watched, a brief overview of how the game works. To play Pokemon Go, you download an app onto your phone, which allows you to search for and “see” virtual creatures called Pokemon that are scattered throughout the real world. You need to be physically close to a Pokemon’s location to see it on your mobile screen. Pokemon Go uses augmented reality technology – the game overlays the creature image on top of video from your phone’s camera, so it looks as if the creature is floating in the real world. When you find a Pokemon, you try to catch it by swiping an on-screen ball at it. The simplest aim of the game is to “catch ’em all.”

Pokemon can appear almost anywhere! scoobie1993/flickr, CC BY-NC

To do this, you’ll have to wander outside your own real-world neighborhood, because different types of creatures are scattered throughout your town and all around the world. You can easily share snapshots of creatures you’ve collected and where you found them on social media sites like Facebook, if you want. As you get better at the game, you discover that you can train the creatures in “gyms,” which are virtual spaces accessible by visiting real world public locations (for example, the White House is a gym). When you’ve reached level 5 in the game, you get a chance to join one of three teams: Team Mystic, Team Valor or Team Instinct. These teams compete to maintain control over the gyms where Pokemon go and train. You and your friends can choose the same team, and work together if you like. You’ll also have teammates from around your community (and the world) who join in.

Several aspects of the game’s design help to make the experience so compelling. A look at gaming research shows several of the game’s elements can explain why playing Pokemon Go has been such a massive worldwide hit for players of all ages.

Simple gameplay

Catch one by flicking the Poke Ball catcher up toward the Pokemon. scoobie1993/flickr, CC BY-NC

Playing Pokemon Go is simple and accessible. It’s easy to grasp what to do – just “catch ’em all” by walking around. In contrast to many “hard core” games such as League of Legends that can require hours or even years of skills training and background, Pokemon Go’s design draws upon the principles of folk games such as scavenger hunts. Folk games have simple rules and typically make use of everyday equipment, so that the game can spread readily from person to person. They often involve physical interaction between players – think of duck-duck-goose or red rover.

These sorts of games are designed to maximize fun for a wide age range, and are typically extremely quick to grasp. Pokemon Go’s designers made it very simple for everyone to learn how to play and have fun quickly.

Getting moving

The game requires players to be on the go. nepascene/flickr, CC BY-NC

Pokemon Go also leverages the power of physical movement to create fun. Simply moving about in the world raises one’s arousal level and energy, and can improve mood. Exercise is frequently recommended as part of a regimen to reduce depression.

Pokemon and points of interest exist throughout the real world. erocsid/flickr, CC BY

Pokemon Go’s design gives players powerful motivation to get out of the house and move around. Not only are the creatures distributed over a wide geographic area, but also, players can collect Pokemon eggs that can be hatched only after a certain amount of movement. Players have reported radically increasing the amount of exercise that they get as they start playing the game.

Connecting with others

The most powerful wellspring of fun in the game’s design is how it cultivates social engagement. There are several astute design choices that make for increased collaborative fun and interaction. For one thing, everyone who shows up to collect a creature at a location can catch a copy of that creature if they want. So players have motivation to communicate with one another and share locations of creatures, engaging in deeply collaborative rather than competitive play. Not all gamers like fierce competition, so the collaborative aspects of the game broaden its appeal.

For those who do love competition, the three-team structure allows for friendly rivalry and challenge. The ease of joining a team keeps it from being exclusionary, preserving the game’s inclusive style. Because there are only three teams worldwide, there’s a lot of friendly banter online about which team is the best, adding to the fun.

Friends can play it together, and strangers can meet each other too. nepascene/flickr, CC BY-NC

Also, collecting Pokemon is a distinctive-looking thing to do with a phone. Players can tell when a stranger is collecting Pokemon at a place they happen to be, and can join in and collect for themselves. This has sparked many conversations among strangers. Finally, making it easy to take snapshots of collected creatures and share them on social media has meant that players recruit other players into the game at astonishing rates. Building collaboration and connection into the game in these ways creates a broadly accessible flavor of play, so that many people are willing to engage and share.

Pokemon Go’s rapid success demonstrates the potential for well-designed augmented reality games to connect people to one another and their physical environment. That forms a stark contrast to the typical stereotype of video games as socially isolating and encouraging inactivity. It bodes well for the future of augmented reality gaming.

The Conversation

Katherine Isbister receives funding from the National Science Foundation, Yahoo Research, Alcatel/Lucent Bell Labs, Microsoft Research, and the Rockefeller Cultural Innovation Fund.