Is Pokemon Go a call to rewild our lives?

Photo by Luis Hernández and licensed under CC BY 2.0

Reflecting on my childhood and the discovery of nature deficit disorder, could Pokemon Go and augmented reality apps lead the charge on rewilding in the UK?

Pokémon Go is like virtual rewilding. When I used to walk to my local park I’d see pigeons and ducks, the odd robin. Now I find flame-tailed salamanders, venomous snakes banded vivid purple, vibrant yellow foxes, wildfire horses and bulb-backed toads. It perhaps tells us something about our inherent desire for adventure and the wild. I’ve experienced the disappointment of living in a Go-er impoverished area – you’re lucky if you find a pidgey or some low-powered ratatats. But the real-life equivalents stir yet less wonder and are sadly the few of UK species actually thriving in our heavily degraded natural spaces.

The creator of Pokémon, Satoshi Tajiri grew up exploring rural Machida, a western suburb of Tokyo. His adventures collecting insects in the rice paddies, rivers, forests and fields of his childhood home was inspiration for the game and anime series he later developed. His fascination with mini-beasts was something he wanted to share with a generation he saw growing up without access to nature due to rapid forest clearance and creeping urbanisation. I see Pokémon as a big reason I developed a curiosity for nature.

Here were creatures I could interact with, nurture and witness evolve into loftier adapted forms. And then you see a reef squid change colour for the first time, or watch each stage of a Lunar moth’s metamorphosis. Something clicks; these fictitious monsters are based on real species, more beguiling and numerous than you can even imagine. At least 150 and millions more to see. But not here.

Wildlife in the UK feels sparse in the what seems like the most natural of places. If this augmented reality world reflected the state of nature in the UK, we might be facing an apokelypse. In a post-apocalyptic Pokémon Go, intense agribusiness brings barren landscapes cropped by bleating mareep and marching miltanks. And you can forget catching them too – these Pokémon will never see the light of evolution – to be a Pokemon platter is their destiny. Trainers search far and wide but find pidgeys cooing on every pavement, ratatats scuttling between wheelie bins and the occasional screeching zubat to break the monotony.

Pokémon Go has also been widely touted for anecdotal evidence of its health benefits. In its honey-moon hype, millions of people were getting outside, walking miles from Pokestop to Pokestop, on the prowl for their next rare catch. Another largely unexplored effect could be its positive impact on mental health through engaging people with nature in urbanised areas. The National Trust have identified ‘nature deficit disorder’ as a growing concern for the wellbeing of children during their development.

Health and safety executives have recoiled at what they consider a deep-rooted cultural psyche for risk aversion. In nature terms, this meant I grew up in a generation where parents not only felt pressure to discourage risk-taking behaviour, but also instilled in me a fear of the dangers of climbing a tree, getting lost in the forest, swimming out of my depth. And to do otherwise might have seemed bad parenting. But these experiences are key to child development, fostering an opportunity to explore limits, apprehend consequences of risk and build confidence. I was not deprived of regular access to nature – my family frequented country parks, forests and the seaside. I played outside often. But the quality of my engagement with nature might have been hindered by this risk averse culture so that the outdoors did not equal: outgoing.

Pokémon, in its transportable Gameboy platform, offered me the chance to feature as a protagonist in an adventure, with wild creatures and a world ready and waiting to explore, with none of the perceived risks found in the real wilds or the insecurities at my own limitations in the corporeal world. I’m sure for many others, this form of escapism is critical.

Pokemon Go may have finally realised Tajiri’s dream – bringing people closer to nature than any other game before. There are limitations of course; the app spawns Pokemon only where there is a Go-er population, so if there aren’t many people playing in an area, fewer appear. It also requires access to mobile data, which means that in really wild, isolated places, you can’t play. But access to a true ‘wilderness’ in the UK is limited and at least it both encourages people to venture outside and makes uninspiring spaces a little more exuberant.

Pokemon Go could be seen as a call to rewild nature and our lives. Could we now build on the success of Pokemon Go and develop augmented reality apps that engage people with nature? To catch the support of the public is our real test, to rewild is our cause: Rewilding Go!

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