Scientists’ New Research Tool: Pokémon Go

As the mobile game becomes a global phenomenon, biologists are helping people identify the real-life creatures they encounter while monster hunting.
(Image: YouTube)
Jul 12, 2016· 4 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

“Gotta catch ’em all!” Pokémon fans have embraced that tagline ever since the colorful little Japanese monsters exploded onto the cultural scene more than two decades ago. Now players of the hugely popular Pokémon Go mobile game, which launched last week and has become a global phenomenon in a matter of days, are catching more than just virtual monsters; they’re also encountering real-life animals in their own backyards.

Pokémon Go is what’s known as an “augmented reality” game. Instead of just sitting in one place to play the game, the app sends people out into their neighborhoods to find Pokémon that have been “hidden” in real locations such as parks and streets. The game uses your mobile phone’s camera, which displays an image of the real world as you walk through it but adds cartoon Pokémon on top of what you would normally see with your own eyes.

As people look for Pokémon, they’re often finding creatures nearby, including birds, snakes, and bugs. While the game displays the names of the 150 Pokémon characters that inhabit it, people don’t always know what species they’re encountering as they walk through their neighborhoods.

Enter biologists and other scientists around the world, who have turned to Twitter to help people learn about the wildlife they’re seeing. They’re encouraging players to take photos while monster hunting and share them on Twitter under the hashtag #PokeBlitz—a play on “BioBlitz,” a term that describes an intense effort by biologists and volunteers to describe or count all the species in a given habitat.

The hashtag was created this past Sunday by Morgan Jackson, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, and cohost of the Breaking Bio podcast, who first heard about the plans for the game a few months ago and recognized its potential for science communication. “It immediately dawned on me that this was going to be a huge opportunity,” he said. “If you go out to explore, you’re going to find something even if it’s not what you set out to look for.”

Jackson and other biologists are rapidly identifying not just the species that people have photographed and shared on social media—ranging from snowy egrets to milkweed aphid eggs—but also their behavior. He’s even helped to identify an invasive snail species. “People are really keen to get that extra level of information,” Jackson said.

Beyond the initial #PokeBlitz outreach, Jackson said he sees opportunities for real science that could emerge from the game. “Just imagine that many people out there with GPS-enabled cameras, whether they’re looking for real things or fake things,” he said. “That’s going to have a lot of potential for serendipitous citizen science, even if it’s not directed as such at the time the photos are taken.”

Lucy Fortson, project manager for the Citizen Science Alliance, a collaboration of scientists and volunteers on dozens of research projects, said the potential for science collection through these photos exists. For example, a program of theirs called Chicago Wildlife Watch allows people to tag animals whose photos have been captured by camera traps in the Windy City. “You could imagine everyone in Chicago contributing their photos to Chicago Wildlife Watch and then cross-referencing them to the stationary cameras,” she said.

There are hurdles, however. Fortson said citizen science projects need to follow certain protocols to produce quality data. For one thing, observations should always take place at the same time of day. For another, it’s just as important to document when nothing is observed. Those protocols may not work within a game such as Pokémon Go, she said. “People will be excited if they see something and report it, but they won’t report it if they don’t see something.”

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Still, the gamification of species observations is being embraced by existing apps such as iNaturalist and Project Budburst, which encourage citizen scientists from all walks of life to record species that they observe in the wild. “We’re actually working now on a new feature that will be very similar to Pokémon Go where we challenge people with treasure hunts to go find a particular species near them,” said iNaturalist codirector Scott Loarie. “So where now people searching for species is pretty undirected, this new interface will say go here, and look for this, and here’s how you’d recognize it.”

Loarie said photos taken by people for these types of programs often lead to important discoveries. Just a few days ago, iNaturalist announced that a contributor in Vietnam rediscovered a snail species that hadn’t been seen in more than 100 years, and last year a 10-year-old girl photographed a bird called the social flycatcher in California, the first time that species had been seen in the state.

Fortson wondered what would happen if people identified new species through Pokémon Go. “Would they want them named after Pokémon characters?” she asked. (A bee species discovered this year has been named after a character called Charizard.)

Jackson said it would be great if Pokémon Go could integrate with projects such as iNaturalist. That’s not in the works yet, as app developer Niantic wasn’t even aware that people were using Pokémon Go to observe wildlife when TakePart contacted it on Monday. “This is the first we’ve heard of this,” said spokesperson Chris Kramer. “The team is heads-down on the game right now, but we’re seeing all sorts of amazing social elements while people play.” He added that the team hopes “people will remember not to get too close to critters in the wild.” (Indeed, several people have been injured playing the game.)

Although the potential for citizen science is just starting to be tapped, experts said the week-old game already has value. “I think the fact that this game is getting kids—and a whole bunch of other groups of people—outside is a huge step toward interesting people in the Earth’s biodiversity and science in general,” said wildlife researcher Asia Murphy, another participant in the #PokeBlitz hashtag. “They’re going to be running into real snakes while looking for Ekans and maybe seeing deer while they’re trying to catch Stantler. You can’t be interested in what you haven’t experienced.”

Meanwhile, people continue to discover the game and the wildlife that coexists with it in the real world. When you consider that the game is poised to become more popular than Twitter itself, Pokémon Go’s full impact may have yet to be captured.