As a teenager, Charles Darwin dropped out of medical school because he was too squeamish to handle amputations. He ended up going to Cambridge instead, where he spent hours in the countryside collecting beetles. That’s to say I think Darwin was a nerd, and if he were alive today, he would definitely be trying to catch ’em all.
This is not an idle comparison, made in an attempt to shoehorn Pokémon Go into yet another headline. Please. Because without beetle collectors, the world might have never had Pokémon.
Pokémon’s creator, Satoshi Tajiri, also was an insect collector. His childhood friends called him Dr. Bug. He grew up outside of Tokyo, but as the city encroached on his hometown, the rice paddies, ponds, and forests where he once wandered disappeared. “Places to catch insects are rare because of urbanization,” he would tell Time. “Kids play inside their homes now, and a lot had forgotten about catching insects. So had I.”
So he created Pokémon: “a virtual world, bursting with fictional biodiversity,” as Jon Mooallem puts it in his book Wild Ones (Mooallem is also WIRED’s Mr. Know-It-All columnist). In the ’90s, Pokémon meant trading cards, a TV show, and Game Boys that my friends and I spent hours furiously tapping at home, at school, in the car. But with Pokémon Go, that virtual world has been overlaid on the real world. And in venturing outside to look for fictional biodiversity, people are finding real biodiversity.
I was trying to catch Pokemon and I caught a beetle !! pic.twitter.com/Jc0PZDtm67
— champagne mami (@ASHMONNEY) July 12, 2016
Insect collecting was the Pokémon craze of the Victorian era, and Darwin was an obsessive. One time, he recounts in his autobiography, he encountered a third rare beetle, after having already grabbed a beetle in each fist: “I could not bear to lose, so that I popped the one which I held in my right hand into my mouth. Alas! It ejected some intensely acrid fluid, which burnt my tongue so that I was forced to spit the beetle out, which was lost, as was the third one.” (Amateur move, like trying to catch Mewtwo with a regular Poké ball.)
Collecting beetles at Cambridge trained Darwin’s patience and his eye for detail, which he later put to use meticulously documenting the beaks of finches and the shells of tortoises in the Galapagos. With Pokémon, Tajiri tapped into that same impulse to collect and to catalogue. You don’t need me to tell you, but Pokémon got so popular that in 2002, British scientists found that children were more likely to recognize fictional Pokémon than oak trees or badgers. “Conservationists need to reestablish children’s links with nature if they are to win over the hearts and minds of the next generation,” the scientists wrote in their piece. “Is Ecomon the way ahead?” Almost certainly not. But then, there’s Pokémon Go.
Over the weekend, Morgan Jackson, a grad student at the University of Guleph, watched the Pokémon Go tweets pile up. Jackson grew up playing Pokémon—he played Red, his brother Blue—so he had spent a lot of time collecting fictional creatures. “Now I’m an entomologist and I do the same thing except it’s real,” he says. So he had an idea: #PokéBlitz, a twist on “bioblitz,” an event when scientists and volunteers go out to survey the wildlife in an area.
If you have your #PokemonGo Pokedex memorized but find a live species you don't recognize, I'm here to help you identify it! #PokeBlitz
— Morgan Jackson (@BioInFocus) July 11, 2016
Asia Murphy also created a #PokémonIRL template for people to tweet photos and facts about real wildlife. “I wasn’t expecting much,” she says. “I expected it to die off after a few hours.” It hasn’t. Ironically, both Jackson and Morgan told me they haven’t played Pokémon Go—Jackson because he’s in Canada and Morgan because the app hasn’t worked on her phone.
More ironic still is the fact that Pokémon Go—the descendent of a game designed to create the illusion of nature–doesn’t really work outside of the city. The game uses real world locations that users submitted in an earlier game called Ingress, and most of those users were urban. Pokémon show up in almost every large human settlement, but go out into rural areas, and you’re out of luck. The city took over nature. Tajiri created Pokémon. And Pokémon Go took over the city.
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