Park Ranger Paul Ollig was strolling through the National Mall on his day off when he noticed several visitors were enthralled with something other than the monuments — they were focused on little cartoon animals on their phones.
The wildly popular Pokemon Go mobile app had launched days before, and visitors were trolling the mall, using their smartphones to capture critters from the ‘90s franchise that appeared on their screens.
“We were having hundreds, if not thousands, come into the National Mall to play this game,” said Ollig, who heads interpretation and education for the National Mall and Memorial Parks. “… I realized ‘Wow, I need to pay attention to this.’”
The National Mall quickly began offering ranger-led Pokemon Go tours, and so far, as many 200 people have taken part. Several national parks across the country as well as other Interior Department agencies, like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Geological Survey, are also getting in on the fun, seizing on the game’s popularity to shine a spotlight on federal lands and the wonders of the natural world.
Ollig, who says he’s on level 17 of Pokemon Go, said the game’s popularity presents a unique opportunity.
“All of these people have fallen in love with a game,” he told FedScoop. “It’s our job as an agency to help them fall in love with the places they’re playing in.”
Pokemon Go is an augmented reality game that uses the player’s smartphone, camera and GPS to overlay fictional characters like Pikachu, which looks like a smiley-faced yellow rodent, or the turtle-like Squirtle over the user’s real-life surroundings. Users can capture critters with “Pokeballs,” collect items for the game at “Pokestops” and even bring their Pokemon into battle at “Pokegyms.”
To tap into the Poke-frenzy, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the overarching Department of the Interior published online guides that ponder what real-life animals may have inspired the Pokemon critters. Could the squat, lime green spicebrush swallowtail caterpillar be the inspiration for Caterpie? Perhaps the red fox was the model for bushy-tailed Eevee. And Ponyta, Interior suggests, bears a striking resemblance to the wild horses that occupy public lands on Assateague Island in Virginia and Maryland.
At the same time, when USGS realized the rock garden walking tour at its national headquarters in suburban D.C. was the site of two gyms and eight Pokestops, it published a new Pokemon walking tour that shows where these sites are and describes the significance of the rocks at each stop.
The enthusiasm for Pokemon Go has also made its way to the leadership for the Park Service. Park Service Director Jon Jarvis took to Facebook soon after the game launched to welcome Pokemon enthusiasts to national parks. The video soon became the most viewed Facebook post in the agency’s history, a NPS spokeswoman said.
“Getting people — particularly young people and those in urban areas — to go outside is a priority for the agency, so this presents an opportunity,” Gavin Shire, public affairs chief for the Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the national wildlife refuge system, said in an email to FedScoop. “Our challenge is to get them engaged and to look up from their electronic devices once they have made it to a refuge.”
He added, “It’s a lot of fun, and now people are suggesting comparisons to us.”
Even smaller national parks, like the Friendship Hill National Historic Site in Pennsylvania, have felt the effects of the game’s popularity. Park Ranger Tom Markwardt, a public information officer for the site, said staff only needed to look out the window to see how many people were wandering the grounds with their noses in their phones to understand the impact of the game.
While Markwardt isn’t an enthusiast of Pokemon Go himself, he said it’s raised awareness about the park among locals who play. Parks, he said, are a safer place to play compared to busy urban streets, but it’s incumbent upon parks to make the most of the opportunity the game offers.
“If that’s what’s bringing them to the park, that’s great,” he said. “Our job is then to expand on what Pokemon has done and encourage them to learn a little more about the park.”
Markwardt and the National Mall’s Ollig said the game also helps achieve one of the objectives of the Park Service’s centennial this year, to get the park’s future stewards — young people — into its gates.
“We recognized this as an opportunity, an opportunity to engage with an audience that we at the nation Park Service have traditionally struggled to connect with,” Ollig said. “And here they were, coming to our park in droves.”
While the Park Service has embraced the game, it has urged players to stay alert as they play and be respectful of the surroundings — solemn places like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial may not be the best place to collect the pocket monsters, the agency said. But Ollig said he thinks it’s “absolutely appropriate to help people who are playing this game to do it in a way that’s consistent in the places they’re playing in.”
Ollig said he was leading one of the first Pokemon-hunting tours on the National Mall, when his group passed through the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial.
“As we approached the memorial, I said, ‘Hey, we’re about to go through the Mountain of Despair and go see the statue of MLK … let’s everybody take your phones and put them in your pockets for a few minutes,’” he recalled.
The transition, he said, was seamless. Everyone put away their devices, and the group was able to have “this amazing discussion on Dr. King and the relevance of the civil rights movement means to today,” he said. And once they left, players again reached for their phones.
“We had this incredibly powerful moment where people were able to connect with that monument in a way they never had before because what drew them there was Pokemon,” he said.
Contact the reporter on this story via email Whitney.Wyckoff@fedscoop.com, or follow her on Twitter @whitneywyckoff. Sign up for all the federal IT news you need in your inbox every morning at 6:00 here: fdscp.com/sign-me-on.