Can Pokemon Go create Nature Appreciation?

At least two apps are currently attempting to change the way in which mobile phone-users view the world. One is Pokémon Go, the wildly popular augmented reality game in which players ‘catch’ different ‘Pokémon’ (imaginary animal-like creatures with different powers) in real-life locations. The second is Prisma, the photo filter app, which transforms photos into “art using the styles of famous artists: Van Gogh, Picasso” and “other ornaments and patterns”, allowing artwork to be created out of images of the mundane.

Almost Extinct

Pokémon Go, especially, has such a devoted following that people have had car accidents while playing the game. Some areas have asked to become notified game locations while others, such as the Hiroshima Peace Park in Japan, have sombrely asked to be left out. The game essentially does two novel things: first, as an augmented reality escapade, it takes you out of your house, away from computer screens, and to real locations. Second, it rewards the player with Pokémon.

Does this sound similar to non-magical things we do in reality? Conservation biologists certainly think so, having pointed out the similarities of Pokémon Go with taxonomy and the search for species. As taxonomists go out looking for new taxa, or birdwatchers and herpetologists seek an endemic bird or a rare reptile, the very search in nature is a reality game. Second, many apps that try to filter, augment, or virtualise reality around us are attempting to control nature, and thus the world we live in. They are trying to be like cultural movements in art and society, such as Impressionism. In these massively popular urbane games then, we have a clue to how we can shape attitudes towards nature conservation.

Making the world more beautiful or romantic than it actually is is at the heart of filter apps. The success of Prisma is in its application to landscape and location photography (some of the filters are too arty to apply to faces, contorting or slashing them beyond recognition). Thus, the filters succeed in making a sunset look more dramatic or a field awash with a clear aquamarine “wave filter”. It is essentially a view of nature, but a view that seeks to make nature more controlled, bearable, or performative.

In Pokémon Go, the difficulty in catching the Pokémon is juxtaposed with each Pokémon having its own abilities. Pokémon evolve, they lay eggs, some are rare; unsurprisingly, the inspiration of the app is nature. Scientists who work for EDGE (Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered) species point out similarities between Pokémon and real, rare animals. For instance, Pikachu is like an Ili Pika, a furry mountain mammal, and the Charmander is like the Chinese Salamander, an amphibian. Conservationists and ecologists also associate species with characteristics and morphology — tigers roar and live alone; lions hunt in prides or groups; sarus cranes are big birds that mate for life and have a clarion call, unlike storks which are also big but soundless birds, and so on. This knowledge of characteristic traits informs behavioural ecology. Essentially, Pokémon Go is to the player what behavioural ecology is to the scientist. Wild animals, though, cannot be controlled as well as they are in these games. From the idea of controlling nature comes another question. As our new mobile apps try to change how we perceive the world, how do we simultaneously grapple with the reality of climate change, which is changing the very world we attempt to control?

In his new book on climate change, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, Amitav Ghosh emphasises the human impact on both culture and nature. We are experiencing the Anthropocene, which comes from the word “anthropo” (meaning human), which connotes the era we are living in. As Mr. Ghosh and others have pointed out, in the chemicals we have pumped into ecosystems, and our frenetic high-carbon activities, we have irrevocably altered both the natural as well as lived world. This leads us to the unfamiliarity of climate change within our familiar, consumerist worlds.

Many States in India are experiencing natural disasters that are linked to the Anthropocene or climate change. Assam and Bihar are experiencing terrible floods at the moment, with both man and beast struggling for survival. In Kaziranga National Park, people, rhinos, hog deer, and elephants have been flooded; many have died. Gurugram has been under water for more than a week in July, signifying bad town planning and altered drainage systems. Ironically, some States in India have also grappled with heatwaves and drought, and the coming of an above-average monsoon was meant to be succour.

In the mysterious and startling ways of climate change, we have the added dimensions of the Anthropocene which affect more than the climate. Human activity — such as bad decisions linked to the opening or shutting of water sluice gates, or building over water canals (reminiscent of the 2015 Chennai floods), or encroaching on rivers like Mumbai’s Mithi — has changed the way we receive water and rainfall. Nature, even when altered by us, keeps demonstrating how unknowable it is.

But can our predisposition towards app-based adventure, which derives from ecology, taxonomy, photography, and a certain feeling of command over nature, be used to appreciate nature more? Much has been written about video or digital games changing people for the better. In the quest to ‘do’ something, or ‘save’ someone, and in building communities of players, there is immense potential for positive behaviour among people.

It would be fitting if the behaviour of people towards nature and wildlife became more responsible as a result of these discussed games, which are essentially biomimicry in various forms. Even as we try to control nature, it shows itself to be unfamiliar and threatening in our maudlin lives. Nature has surprises, both beautiful and nasty, and wildlife act in ways that are both fascinating and grisly. Social movements and social good have often been informed by cultural interventions — street plays, board games with messages for children, colouring books, film, and so on. Apps are not an exception; many apps now identify plants, animals, and butterflies around us, though none have had the crazy popularity of augmented reality games.

Truly positive action would be to recognise that nature is an entity that can never be fully controlled, even as our games try to do so. Thus natural resource management needs to be open to ecology rather than engineering, and ultimately nature needs to be preserved. And the thrill of searching for Pokémon, or other creatures, should inform the importance of saving our real, threatened biodiversity. That would be a sport well played, and a legacy worth having.

This piece first appeared in op-ed in The Hindu.

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