News - July 25, 2016

‘Pokémon Go could connect youth more to nature’

Scientists think that games like Pokémon Go can introduce nature to young people. Nature preservationists have been looking for a long time to get in touch with them.

Photo: A big amount of Pokémon Go players gathered on the Oudegracht in Utrecht | Steven Ramaker

Youngsters everywhere are heading outside to hunt for Pokémon with their smartphones because of the game Pokémon Go. Matthijs Schouten noticed this too, the professor Ecology and nature conservation at the Wageningen University tells: 'A girlfriend of mine lives in Waterland, very nice place. And her son, who is fifteen years old and never came out of the house, is now looking for Pokémon outside all the time.' Schouten thinks these games and software who use augmented reality is a very promising way to get young people interested in nature.

But this is no ordinary thing. Less and less people experience the great outdoors during their youth according to Arjen Buijs, senior researcher at Alterra Wageningen UR. Back in 2005 American writer Richard Louv raised the alarm on something he calls the ‘nature-deficit disorder’ in his book Last child in the woods. This lack of childhood experience in nature means that youngster are less likely to develop interests in nature at a later stage in life, says Buijs. Which means there will be also less financial support for the preservation of nature from young people.

But when we feel that people don't know about us or know how to support us, we want to break down the barriers that stops them from coming to us.
Matthijs Schouten, professor Ecology and nature conservation at Wageningen University

Nature presevationists are therefore worried about the social consesus, says Schouten, who is also a senior strategist at the state department of Forest preservation. ‘The government preserves nature for all Dutch. But when we feel that people don't know about us or know how to support us, we want to break down the barriers that stops them from coming to us.’ Nature preservation organisations such as Natuurmonumenten and the World Wildlife Funds (WWF) are also dealing with a decline in memberships for over a decade.

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Virtual media, as Schouten calls them, should involve nature for the young.‘ The environment has to play a role in these games,’ Schouten says. Gamers should be allowed to advance in the game when they find a specific type of flower for example. It is not enough to use nature as a stage for a game. Schouten already has some experience in the field with this. A cooperation with the Technical University Eindhoven (TUe) and Fontys College resulted in a game about nature. Schouten is exploring the possibilities of augmented reality together with the Saxion College.

Schouten sees that his colleagues are sceptic on the possibilities of virtual media. The young are spending many hours in their own reality, time they cannot spend experiencing the outdoors. They also think that the media displays an unrealistic image of nature, a constant stream of breathtaking sceneries, unlikely to be seen during an ordinary walk in the woods. Colleagues refer to movies such as the Dutch movie De nieuwe wildernis came out, which was a documentary on wildlife in the Oostvaardersplassen. Many people were disappointed when they visited the area. They didn't have the same experience as they had when they watched the movie.

Virtual media should involve nature for the young, the environment has to play a role in these games.
Matthijs Schouten, professor Ecology and nature conservation at Wageningen University

Buijs also sees the possibilities. Games like Pokémon Go could give young people a first look at nature, but they will experience it in the background of the game. To some this will be a mere step up to enjoy nature for what it is, nature. ‘For photography, hiking and environmental study.’ He thinks there are less education possibilities for augmented reality, for example showing the names of trees on the screen of a mobile device. ‘But that's only interesting for people who are already motivated to explore nature. We are not going to reach new audiences with this.’

There is however another link between Pokémon and nature. The creator of the virtual critters, Satoshi Tajiri, was inspired by the many bugs he caught during his childhood to come up with all kinds of Pokémon.