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Is 'Pokémon Go' Good For Science?

Yes, scientists love 'Pokémon Go,' too.

It's been less than a week since Nintendo's Pokémon Go first launched, but the new game has already resulted in some serious collateral damage: sunshine and exercise.

This past weekend, a massive contingent of seemingly indoor-dwelling people bravely ventured outside and explored their natural surroundings—that is, until their phone batteries died. And as millions of users scoured the earth for made-up creatures, many players stumbled across entirely real ones, too.

At first blush, Pokémon Go appears an unlikely intersection between young people and nature, and the app's unintended consequences have some scientists debating its merits as a jumping-off point for future biologists. If kids can get excited over Magikarp and Zubats, is the logical evolution of their enthusiasm a love for wildlife?

"I think the biggest lesson is how many people are truly interested in biodiversity, even if the biodiversity they are first introduced to is fictional," Morgan Jackson, an insect taxonomist and PhD candidate at the University of Guelph, told me over email.

"It's easy to write Pokémon off as a simple game or waste of time when there are so many 'real' plants and animals out there waiting to be recognized. But there are a lot of barriers to learning about nature, and there's no tutorial mode to help people get started like there is in Pokémon."

Jackson is one of the many scientists who recently voiced their approval of Pokémon Go on Twitter. He admitted the earlier Gameboy version was a formative experience for him as a child, and several other biologists I spoke to echoed his sentiment, telling me that Pokémon even played a role in shaping their career paths.

For players who come across actual critters during their crusade to catch 'em all, Jackson created the hashtag #PokeBlitz, which scientists are now using to help people identify photos of wildlife. The concept is similar to a "bioblitz" event, where citizen scientists gather to find and categorize as many species as possible in a designated location.

In a way, Pokémon's appeal among biologists is understandable. After all, most of the game's characters are exaggerations of real-life animals and scientific theories. Evolution is an analog of metamorphosis. Pikachu? Probably inspired by a very cute mammal called the "pika." Eevee is definitely some sort of vulpine. And the signature moves of Charmander, for example, reflect the ancient misbelief perpetuated by Aristotle that salamanders are impervious to fire.

"Virtually every biologist can describe their job in relation to Pokémon," Joe Ballenger, an entomologist and molecular biologist, said in an email.

"More importantly, Pokémon puts young people into the shoes of biologists in a way that is unrivaled in terms of accuracy. For example, it exposes kids to the everyday frustrations of fieldwork. Again, it's not exactly perfect, but it's accurate enough for every biologist to say—in a way that people can really relate to—'Yeah, I do that. Here's how I do it.'"

But whether a mobile app can realistically bridge a gap that many efforts have failed to connect has also been met with a degree of skepticism. Environmentalists have long criticized technology for sapping children's curiosity about the natural world. According to a poll conducted in 2011 by The Nature Conservancy, only 10 percent of kids experience some form of nature on a daily basis. A separate survey found that children now spend less time outside than prison inmates.

"If a tree falls in the forest, does anyone hear the notification tone from his or her mobile device?" one commentator facetiously asked.

Yet, some research supports the notion that interactive technology can actually aid science education, and in certain cases, enable children to develop an affinity for outdoor spaces.

"If we encourage children and parents to connect more regularly with their local nature and view technology as an enabler instead of a barrier, there's potential for them to become more familiar with the shared natural spaces around them, and more willing to let their children explore and play more freely," educator Bronwyn Cumbo once told Phys.org.

As of now, little data exist to infer that Pokémon Go is having a large impact on science outreach in the short-term. But that doesn't mean the game won't have long-term effects on future generations of natural explorers. At the very least, it's getting a whole lot of people off their couches and out the door.

Currently, the mobile app is about to surpass Twitter's number of daily active users, and nearly 60 percent of those who downloaded the game in the US are using it daily.

"Pokémon Go isn't a distraction from reality, or even augmented reality," Jackson said. "But rather a bridge that connects fiction with fact and helps people discover that they are always connected with biodiversity."