Pokemon Naturalist: In defense of gaming in Environmental Education

I have spent the last few years molding myself into the environmental educator I am today. Everything from attending class in the mountains to using a penguin as a tool for exploration. But what hasn't been told on this site is that I'm more than just a "crunchy mountain hippie with a big beard." Yes, I love to be outside. But I'm also a gamer.

For years I divided all of my friends into two circles; Nature friends (those who I would take environmental classes and hike mountains with) and nerd friends (those who would game and help build my first computer). My nature friends always referred to me as "the one obsessed with technology" while my nerd friends often just called me "tree."

Not only were my friend groups separate, but my hobbies were too. I couldn't game on mountain peaks, and kayaking with my desktop would just be ridiculous. Even though I was living a double life I was happy. Being a "casual" in both gaming and exploration was enough.

That all changed on September 9th, 2015 when I first watched this:

Now both my nature friends and nerd friends have a problem with this game. Yes, people are busy on their screens. Yes, the gameplay sucks. Yes, people might run into things because they are not paying attention. Yes, there is barely any gameplay (did I mention that the gameplay sucks?).

But to explain why this is an essential tool for Environmental Educators we need to go back. Before I climbed any mountains. Before I had even left the state of Pennsylvania...

My older sister, Abby, teaching me everything I needed to know.

My older sister, Abby, teaching me everything I needed to know.

Christmas, 1998.

I was just about to turn seven. My parents had bought my sister and I Game Boys with our first game: Pokemon. My sister got Red and I Yellow. Now I loved going over to friends houses and watching them play video games, but I hated to play myself. Having them play was like watching TV (which was my all time favorite activity). Playing myself was too hard...I didn't want to do anything myself! I wasn't good enough.

So as my sister and I were playing our games during a particularly long road trip (40 minutes) she leaned over and asked "Wouldn't this be cool in real life?" No, was my first thought. I didn't know what to do (reading was hard so I skipped over all the words). The graphics were so bad that I didn't know what anything was supposed to be, and I was confused why this large mouse thing was following me everywhere. But, like a good little brother, I instead responded with "Yeah, that would be cool" and promptly never picked up the game again.

Christmas, 2000.

I was just about to turn nine. Again, my parents gave my sister and I matching Pokemon games for the Game Boy Color. My sister got Gold and I Silver. While I still preferred TV, I thought I would give gaming one more try. This time I actually read the words and soon found myself with this little guy.

The in game description for this guy said he was timid and shot flames out of his back when scared. It reminded me of myself; I really was timid about a lot of things and usually ran to my mom for the smallest reasons.

Soon he had evolved all the way up to a Typhlosion. He looked...confident. Strong. And as long as we were together nothing got in our way! For the first time I was loving making my own path.

So when my sister leaned over on another particularly long road trip (50 minutes) and asked "Wouldn't this be cool in real life?" I responded "Yeah! Volcano (Typhlosion's nickname) would be awesome in real life. He is so cool." (She then leaned over and told me Volcano was actually a girl, and that was when I learned what gender signs mean).

Picture fantastically created by  arkeis-pokemon on Deviantart

Picture fantastically created by arkeis-pokemon on Deviantart

Over the next few years when I was outside I imagined myself and Volcano going on adventures. Even with her by my side I was still nervous about the smallest things, but I got better. With each passing year I became more confident in myself outside. Sleeping outside became easier because I had already explored entire forests in my games. Hiking wasn't that bad in real life because you didn't have to be concerned with random trainer battles.

The more I played games the more I stopped just watching TV. I became confident with myself in the outdoors because I had already done everything (minus big dragons of course). Even though I played many different games, Pokemon was the one that lead me on the path towards being an outdoorist.

February 13, 2014

In my last semester of college, I was starting to blossom as an environmental educator. I had interned last summer at camp teaching students on trails and was just about to complete my proposal of a natural landscape playground for a local nature center. Doing my usual surf around the web, I stumbled upon the second day of Twitch Plays Pokemon.

All of my nerd friends know greatly about this historic event but for those of you who don't, Mike on the Idea Channel explains it best.

Twitch Plays Pokemon is emulated versions of Pokemon games...played via chat on the video steaming site, Twitch. You type left, Red the Pokemon Trainer goes left. You type right, he goes right. Except its not played solo. Its played by however many people want to simultaneously.

If you are having a hard time imagining this, picture an old arcade machine. When you walk up to it, you may only press one button. Then you go to the back of the line and the next person decides which button to press. Except this is not played with two, four, or five people. At it's peak TPP reached 100,000. That's 100,000 people trying to play the same game, at the same time.

Over those glorious sixteen days to complete the first game the entire nerd world was obsessed with this game. Not only were people playing, but entire story lines came about. An old fossil became a god. Bird Jesus got his name after saving tons of Pokemon from certain death (of being released). A underpowered moth became known as "dragon slayer."

The final team of TPP. Picture fantastically created by  GlintSM on Deviantart.

The final team of TPP. Picture fantastically created by GlintSM on Deviantart.

Of course to my non-nerd friends this seems ridiculous (don't even get me started on anarchy and the false prophet). But this showed me one very important thing. Even after 18 years, there was a large fan base for Pokemon. Yes, they might not play any of the current games but as a larger internet community Pokemon Generation 1 is a shared culture. While there are millions of games out there, Pokemon is common enough to bring people together.

Fall 2016

So jump forward another year, and Pokemon Go is officially announced. We had been hearing rumors about it for months but with the announcement I was overjoyed. Finally, what my sister had asked, what I had wanted, was finally coming to life.

But of course that was just the announcement, and the release date I soon found out was when I was in the most remote town in the lower 49 (with of course no cell phone reception). So I waited patiently in the wilderness until I could play the game the world had wanted for twenty years.

After a month and a half of release (when I left Stehekin), people were starting to find problems with the game. The gameplay sucked (not much of a game) and people were constantly looking at their screens. Which is why Pokemon Go itself should not be used as a lesson in the outdoors. It is just a tool.

Picture fantastically created by  trisketched on Deviantart.

Picture fantastically created by trisketched on Deviantart.

As an educator this is the hook we have been wanting to get our students outside who would rather be inside gaming. It took me a decade of playing inside to finally be confident outside. Pokemon Go (with the help of a teacher) could expedite that process.

Once we have the students outside, we then can start to shift their attention away from just the game. By asking questions like "That pidgey you just caught, what would it eat? What other types of birds would it see?" By using the imagination of our students we can start to connect something they love immensely, their fantasy realm, with the real world. Its not perfect, but it can be one more tool to make sure every student not only gets outside, but loves every moment of it.

To speed this along, I'll be starting a blog series called Pokemon Naturalist. In this series I'll share what organisms I find (Pokemon and otherwise) to stitch together a snapshot of an ecosystem.

I would love to hear about your own journeys discovering the intersection between fantasy and reality. Please don't hesitate to write at ben.kusserow@gmail.com (I'll even post your story with your permission!).

Train on.


Cover picture fantastically created by Nieris on Deviantart