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.
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 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?