Rather than ignore the Pokémon Go craze luring the city, the Vancouver Aquarium decided to join in on the fun by throwing a Pokémania party Saturday.
There was already a casual Pokémon meet-up planned for Stanley Park, but it was cancelled at the last minute because 3,000 people on Facebook said they were going. The huge numbers meant the city would have asked organizers for permits yet, still, players — or in Pokémon lingo, trainers — still headed to the park in the hundreds to catch the cartoon pocket monsters.
Trainers held their smartphones like old-timey explorers with compasses while they walked up the short driveway through the park woods to the aquarium, refilling on Pokéballs at the old, and thankfully empty, polar bear habitat and five other nearby stops. To the untrained eye, a group of about 50 people stood, rooted, around the fountain in the courtyard of the aquarium, fixated on their screens. But in the game’s augmented reality, the fountain is actually a “gym” where trainers use their collected Pokémon animals to battle for dominance (p.s. Go Team Mystic!).
Instead of feeling befuddled by being part of an invisible world — which includes many landmarks, businesses and, inexplicably, electrical boxes across the city — the aquarium decided to level up its marketing prowess and capitalize.
“One of the big things that we are always on the lookout for at the Vancouver Aquarium is how can we reach more people,” said Derek Jang, the aquarium’s acting assistant manager of interpretive delivery, a title that basically means he uses storytelling as a way of connecting visitors to animals and the aquarium’s displays.
“The sad truth is that nowadays here in Vancouver and maybe in almost every part of the world, talk of biodiversity, ocean conservation, going out and exploring species on this planet is not something that comes up all the time.”
The aquarium has a young workforce, added Jang, who is one of them at the age of 28. When Niantic, Inc. unleashed Pokémon Go in Canada July 17, aquarium staff saw the unique opportunity to overlay the game’s virtual animals on real aquarium animals to spark an interest in exploration, especially as Pokémon Go has its players acting, essentially, like real-life biologists.
“Vancouver Aquarium staff and volunteers have gone a little Pokémon crazy in the last week, along with the rest of the world,” Jang said. “It was just yesterday I was kind of trash-talking my boss. ‘My Vaporeon is going to beat your Ponyta!’ And we had a little moment of pause where, wow, this is really a conversation that’s happening.
You know, here we are, in our careers, and all of a sudden we’re back in high school again with our Pokémon cards and our Pokémon video games.”
“For us, Pokémon Go really does seem to be grounded in a sort of love of animals and biodiversity,” Jang added, referring to the game’s intelligence that links character types to natural habitat. For example, there were lots of sightings of “Krabby” the crab and “Magikarp” the mostly useless fish in the Pokémon world inside the aquarium.
In addition to offering discounted admission and discounts at the café upon showing a Pokémon profile, the aquarium also provided a phone charging station for the day — a must because the game gobbles batteries as it utilizes phone GPS, camera and graphics processor.
Outside of technological challenges, Pokémon Go can be frustrating for trainers just as it is for real-life biologists as some creatures are rare to the point of possible extinction while others evade capture. There isn’t much in the way of an instruction manual for Pokémon Go, rather the game is focused on learning as trainers explore. As an side: the creator of Nintendo’s Pokémon series, Satoshi Tajiri, collected bugs and insects as a child with a dream of being an entomologist.
“You’re in the game, this is the world, figure it out,” said Jang. “Which you know any biologist who’s ever studied in the field to look at species can relate to immensely. You call your buddies, what have other people experienced? What are other people saying? I wish nature had an instruction guide.”