Pokémon Go: A gateway drug to the outdoors?

If only there was some way we could reach young people and get them outdoors. We need a way to get kids moving for their health and well being. Something has to be done to create programs to increase children and families’ access to the natural world. If only there was some way for us to bridge the gap between indoor kids and people of color who may not use our parks. The person who could create such a thing would be a genius.

That something now exists, and it’s called Pokémon Go.

In the mid-1990s I played a fair amount of the original Pokémon on a Game Boy. When my husband told me to download the Pokémon Go I immediately saw the appeal of walking around to find different Pokémon and get pictures of them in my environment. This appealed to my love of birding, photography and simple games.

I had a blast trying to make it look like I was dancing with a Drowzee, riding my bike with Pikachu or show Pidgeys hanging out with my cockatiel. That night my husband and I walked my birding patch near my home. We passed at least two other couples clearly playing the game in our neighborhood and giggled that we found a game to share with other like-minded geeks.

The next morning a discussion began in a park ranger group I belong to, and a few rangers noticed that their visitor centers and park landmarks were part of the game either as PokeStops (destinations players can reach to find items to catch or heal their Pokémon) or PokeGyms, which allow players to fight their Pokémon for experience points and prestige. The potential to attract new visitors intrigued half the rangers, but the other half were horrified that games – let alone smartphones – are allowed in parks.

Sharon4And then the game exploded. Many of my friends were sharing pictures of their favorite Pokémon on cars, piles of food or in someone’s lap. Many of my naturalist friends were lamenting that people were only outside because of fake characters, not real nature and that society was doomed. The National Park Service started handing out rules and guidance for how to handle the Pokémon Go situation.

Even two weeks after its release people are still enjoying the game. I had a Minnesota Naturalists’ Association meeting at a city park office, and when I left in the evening there were about 60 people wandering the park searching for Pokémon. Sure, some were aimlessly wandering while staring at their phones, but others were marveling at the trees, the sounds, and the playground. I’ve had gaming friends post pictures of sunsets saying, “Wow, I never knew about this park and what a great sunset. Thanks, Pokémon Go.”

We had a BioBlitz at Coldwater Spring and there was a PokeGym in the parking lot. We set up a bird banding station, and our bander processed the birds near the gym. When everyone was wandering around trying to catch a Weeping Bell, the bander brought out a downy woodpecker. All the Pokémon hunters went up to catch pictures of the bird. Park rangers on the National Mall hosted a Catch The Mall event leading users to the best spots for the cartoon monsters. Other parks are offering guided to tours to take people to Pokestops while interpreting the habitat and avoiding masses of people trampling sensitive habitat.

The game has some “natural” history to it. For example, water type Pokémon like MagiKarp and Squirtle are found near lakes and rivers. And if you have a kid around trying to catch a blue turtle, you have an opportunity to point out an actual turtle.

I’m not saying everyone needs to like Pokémon Go. I’m not saying it’s the solution to all of life’s problems. But if you wanted a solution to “How do we get people out of the house and into nature?” this game is accomplishing it. Not all of us discover nature in the same way. And if a game with fake fish and birds gets people outside, I’m all for it. If you haven’t tried the game, give it a whirl. If you have a young person already playing it, ask them to show you how to find Pokémon. While you’re in the parks together, show them the actual wildlife – find commonality and find nature.

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