Brothers Jon and Ryan Edmonds play the augmented-reality smartphone game Pokemon Go in downtown Texarkana, Ark., on July 9. (Joshua Boucher/Texarkana Gazette via AP)

For the past week, children and adults all over the world have been swept up in the Pokémon Go craze, roaming around their cities in search of fictional animals to add to their digital collections. Now scientists are wondering if there’s something they can learn from the game’s popularity. Some experts are hoping that biologists can look to the Pokémon Go game design for ideas on how to better engage with the public and get children (or even adults) as excited about real animals as they are about Pikachus and Charmanders.

Pokémon Go was released on July 6, 20 years after the first Pokémon game initially hit stores in the 1990s. It includes many of the same basic elements from the original game: the goal of tracking down and capturing as many Pokémon “species” as possible, and then battling other Pokémon owners.

The difference in Pokémon Go — and the part that has likely contributed so much to its startling popularity — is its mixed reality component. Pokémon Go actually overlays Pokémon onto spaces in the real world. And to capture them, users must wander around in real life (smartphones in hand, of course) looking for them.

In this way, the game gives users the experience of a real-life wildlife hunt — just with imaginary characters as the targets. And on that front, some biologists see an opportunity for public engagement. They’re wondering if it is possible to design educational games that could get people equally as excited about the real wildlife in their own back yards.

“Essentially, if people are going outside to look for synthetic species, then there’s obviously a huge opportunity for them to connect with real species,” said Alexander Lees, a postdoctoral research fellow and conservation expert at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

To some scientists, the Pokémon craze actually fits right in with the idea that people have an intrinsic fascination with the natural world. According to Lees, humans have an “innate desire” to hunt down and classify the animals around them. Pokémon is just an artificial form of what humans have been doing in the real world for millennia.

“Even as adults, we have this sort of preprogrammed hunting instinct,” he noted, which can take the form of bird-watching, wildlife photography or other wildlife-spotting hobbies. So in some ways, it’s not surprising that a game that involves running around and catching little animals — even imaginary ones — would become popular.  

The problem is that its popularity seems to have surpassed that of the real, natural world. Back during the original Pokémon craze, which lasted from the mid-1990s into the 2000s, research suggested that children were better at identifying Pokémon than real animals.

A 2002 paper published in Science surveyed 109 schoolchildren in the U.K., ages 4 through 11, on how well they could identify flashcards of British wildlife versus flashcards of various Pokémon. The children overall were able to identify about 80 percent of the Pokémon and less than 50 percent of the common wildlife they were shown.  

“And that actually got reinforced with age,” noted Tim Coulson, one of the paper’s authors, in a recent interview with The Washington Post. “So they were learning more about Pokémon as they got older than they were about wildlife.”

The authors noted in the paper that while “young children clearly have tremendous capacity for learning about creatures … it appears that conservationists are doing less well than the creators of Pokémon at inspiring interest in their subjects.” Their conclusions in the paper included a joke about designing a game called “Ecomon” to capture children’s attention — but the joke may have contained the beginnings of a real idea.  

“Our point was wouldn’t it be great if we were actually able to do this with real animals?” Coulson said. “It might help the next generation address the biodiversity crisis a little bit more if they were actually knowledgeable about the wildlife in the country.”

There are plenty of apps already in existence that help people identify the wildlife they spot — but it may be that the game, or challenge, component in Pokémon is one of the missing elements preventing them from becoming popular. And there’s also the idea that being part of the game gives players the enjoyment that comes with access to a kind of secret club, according to Joey Lee, a research assistant professor at Columbia University who specializes in the design and study of educational games.

“The game taps into many intrinsic motivators as well,”  Lee said by email. “People naturally enjoy being part of a team and collecting things and being able to show off their Pokémon collection on social media. And it’s also enjoyable to share humorous stories with each other about funny or memorable occurrences that happen while out in the world collecting Pokémon or funny interactions with diverse people who are also out trying to obtain the Pokémon as well.”

On that front, Lee agrees that biologists could look to the Pokémon game design for ideas on how to better engage with the public on issues related to real plants and animals. One way of doing so might be to capitalize on the mixed reality element that has made Pokémon Go so much fun for users.

“Augmented reality, virtual reality and mixed reality have a lot of potential for education,” Lee said. “There are already a bunch of educational games in this space, but we are just scratching the surface and I expect there to be an explosion of new games soon.”  

Virtual reality has a great deal of potential when it comes to capturing the interest of game-players and educating them at the same time, using methods such as “zooming in to the microscopic level or seeing things in nature that people otherwise can’t visualize or interact with normally — blood cells, synapses in the brain, systems of the human body, additional information like an animal’s food sources, etc.,” Lee said.

He added, “New educational games similar to Pokémon Go can be designed to get people to learn in new ways, with lots of just-in-time information that can be provided to enhance the experience. It’s also very motivating to learn when there is a game experience with a compelling backstory and narrative or social elements that can support collaboration, peer learning, and sharing knowledge with each other.”

Of course, the nostalgia factor in Pokémon Go — the fact that for many 20- and even 30-something players, it builds on a beloved childhood pasttime from several decades back — is an element of the game’s popularity that probably couldn’t be captured by too many educational games. But the basic principles around the game’s design could be a starting place for scientists hoping to find better ways to engage the public.

In fact, Pokémon Go has already contributed in a small way to public engagement with nature. While running around outside looking for Pokémon, many people have also run into some real-life animals along the way. The hashtag #pokeblitz recently emerged on Twitter as a way for biologists to connect with Pokémon Go players who’d run into real wildlife they needed help identifying.  

So it may not be all bad that, for the time being, many people are more excited about Squirtles than, well, turtles. But in an ideal world — according to conservationists, anyway — it wouldn’t be long before people are getting outside and learning about real wildlife with the same enthusiasm.