My son and husband have just returned from a pleasant walk around the neighborhood during which they managed to snag a Charmander, Spearow, and Scyther. They will now take these creatures home to care for them, train them, and watch them develop. This is, of course, not wildlife biology, but the game Pokemon Go, and it could be the start of something revolutionary for ecological research.
For those of you not familiar with the Pokemon mania that is sweeping through the population of Millennials and their progeny, this newly-released augmented reality game transforms Pokemon from something played on a screen to a real-life search for virtual creatures that can only be found by walking around outside. To play, you actually have to go out in your yard to find grass-type Pokemon and go to the park with a pond to find water ones.
Many elements of Pokemon Go embody the things that I love about my job as an entomologist: going outside, looking for creatures, collecting them, bringing them back to learn about them, and sharing my discoveries. Unlike the average Pokemon hunter, I don’t make the insects I bring back to the lab do battle with each other; however some of my colleagues who study ant behavior do.
The similarity of Pokemon to entomology is no coincidence, the game designer, Satoshi Tajiri, was an avid insect collector as a child, and the whole idea of battling creatures was inspired by the Japanese pastime of beetle battling.
Even as I am struck by the similarities between of Pokemon and my profession, I am enthralled by the idea of developing a similar game that takes Pokemon Go’s photographic creature-hunting approach to “collect” real organisms as part of a massive citizen-science based ecology project.
In my imagined game of ‘Ecology Go’ (please help me think up a catchier name) users would be sent to “scan” various birds, beasts, and bugs by photographing them with their phones. Once scanned the user could get a cutely-drawn virtual “copy” of said creature to care for in a little electronic world on the user’s phone. Such creatures would need virtual food or shelter which could be obtained by photographing real-life trees, flowers, and other host plants. Of course, in addition to being fun, this game would be stealthily educational, teaching people how identify the living things that surround them, but don’t mention that part to the kids.
Meanwhile, the information from the photographs could be used by scientists interested in ecology and biogeography (the science of what organisms live where) to answer questions about how well pollinators are doing, where birds are migrating, when pests are spreading, and how all these things are impacted by land use and climate changes.
In a highly unscientific survey of user acceptance, I have run this game idea by an actual 10-year old, who said that my game idea sounded “fun to play” and who offered helpful suggestions such as “make it so you can build things for your virtual creatures” and “include slimes and dragons.” Several 30-year olds have mentioned that they would want to play too, but as all of them were biologists, take the interest level of that demographic with a grain of salt.
Although I know that image-recognition software isn’t yet up to snuff for a ‘Ecology Go’ game to exist, such a game is not so far-fetched. Apps, like Birdsnap, are working to improve upon machine recognition of birds from photographs, and citizen science apps such as, the Lost Ladybug Project and eBird, already help scientists track the numbers of rare ladybugs and birds. While we wait for machine learning to catch up with human visual acuity, anyone who takes a screen shot of an interesting (real) creature while playing Pokemon Go can put it on Twitter with the hashtag #pokeblitz for scientists to identify. Perhaps, the closest thing on the internet today to “Ecology Go” is Project Noah an app which gives users missions to photograph different types of plants and animals around them.
However, none of these apps and projects have the game mechanics that would give them widespread appeal to those who are not already biologically inclined. Pokemon Go is fun because it turns your yard and neighborhood into a daily scavenger hunt. Like the way my research provides me various incentives to collect a ton more insects that I would do on my own, Pokemon Go provides incentives for users to keep Pokemon-hunting for longer than the average person would casually search for wildlife. An actual game-based ecology app would have the potential to connect its players more deeply to the natural world, and at the same time, give scientists the information they need to understand that world more clearly.