Pokémon Go is officially a thing.
In the last week, this game has outpaced even Google Maps in number of downloads. It has more daily active users than Twitter. Its user retention rate is astronomical. It is either a herald of the end of western capitalism or a huge boom for small businesses. People are going outside, exploring their neighborhoods, finding dead bodies, walking off cliffs, experiencing nature, getting robbed, making new friends, and getting shot at.
It is the best of tech. It is the worst of tech. Or maybe, it’s just tech, and people can interact with technology in as many ways as there are Pokémon to be found.
But of course, the big question emerging within the sphere of environmental educators is “how can we capitalize on Pokémon Go to engage with the public on environmental issues?”
After spending more time with the app, and focusing on specific features that can facilitate environmental education, I have five suggestions.
1. Don’t. Radical, right? Here’s the thing: Pokémon Go encourages active, creative, exploratory play. It gets users outside and acts as a facilitator of explicit permission to enter public places. And yes, that can be a huge deal. Many people feel that public parks are not “for them”, but games like Pokémon Go, with it’s huge (and, frankly, shamelessly enthusiastic) user base, helps break down those social barriers and provides inertia for people who otherwise might not have made that journey.
Rather than trying to force a ham-handed connection between your environmental education initiative and Pokémon Go, just keep doing good work and resist the urge to discourage players from playing in your territory. Exploratory play leads to more exploratory play, and reinforcing that kind of play, whether it be through a smartphone or turning over rocks, helps lay the foundations that make a good naturalist.
2. Put up a sign. Most public places, especially parks, are going to have a few PokéStops. These stops let players collect the resources they need to hunt Pokémon. Putting a physical sign at the location of the virtual Stop means players have to spend less time looking down at their phone to make sure they’re close to the stop. If convenient hanging some information packets at the Stop, especially maps (hey, why not put those PokéStops on the next time you print a park map?) will help welcome players into your park.
3. Drop a lure. Hey, you’ve already got people coming to you PokéStop. Why not drop a lure to attract all the Pokémon as well? Better yet, drop a lure and station a ranger, touch tank, hands-on experience, or demonstration at the PokéStop. Here’s the thing about Pokémon Go: despite the sheer volume of cynical think pieces, most of the game is not walking around staring at a screen. Most of the game is hanging around, socializing, waiting for a Pokémon to pop up. So attract players to a Stop, and use it to introduce them to your environmental education program.
4. Host a Poké-walk. One of the many features of Pokémon Go is hatching eggs. Eggs contain rare Pokémon and can only be hatched by walking, either in 2 km, 5 km, or 10 km, increments. Take advantage of this by adding nature hikes to you program that players can use to hatch their eggs (front-country, good data signal access, clear lines for GPS). An interpretive trail would be perfect. And then take players on a hike. Since egg hatching is relative passive in the game, there’s plenty of space to talk about the actual nature around you.
5. Blend your BioBlitz. BioBlitzes are events where citizen scientists catalog the biodiversity of an area using smartphone apps like iNaturalist. Hosting a blended BioBlitz, where participants can hunt for real organisms and Pokémon is a perfect opportunity to get the whole family out and exploring. Drop some lures on every PokéStop, set up your education stations, get your hikes scheduled, and find clever ways to reward participants for finding the most of any one thing (real or virtual), the most biodiversity (real and virtual), an any specific targets you want to catalog.
There are probably dozens of other ways environmental educators can capitalize on Pokémon Go. If you’ve come up with any particularly engaging methods, please share them in the comments below. There’s no need to be heavy-handed in your approach, the real power of Pokémon Go is that the game encourages active, creative, exploratory play, which reinforces behaviors that produce good naturalists. I’d love to see parks try clever techniques to integrate Pokémon Go into their programming, but that’s just icing on the cake. The biggest benefit is that the game encourages people, particularly young people, to explore.