Why take bird photos?

I have always enjoyed moving in the nature and taking photographs, but I have never been a particularly passionate ”birder” – someone who would eagerly participate in bird observation, or learn details about bird species and their lives. Nevertheless, for some time now I have taken bird photos in an increasingly active manner. Why – what is the fascination in bird photography?

A fieldfare (räkättirastas).

I can only talk for myself, but in my case this is like combining location-based game play of Pokémon Go with my love of photography. While living still mostly under self-quaratine style conditions of pandemic, it is important to keep moving, and taking my camera and going out is as good reason as any to get fresh air and some exercise. And birds bring the important aleatory element into this: you never know what you are going to see – or not see.

A swan (laulujoutsen).

Mostly my short walks are in the close neighbourhood, and the birds I will see are thus the most common ones: the great tit, the sparrow, the magpie, a flock of fieldfares. But then the challenge is to get a new kind of photo of them – one with a nice disposition, interesting lights, great details or posture. And sometimes there will be more rare birds moving in the area, which brings additional excitement with it: how to get close to the shy jaybird, get good details on the dark dress of blackbird, or a woodpecker.

Blue tit (sinitiainen).

There is also a very nice lake for birdwatching rather near, Iidesjärvi, which means that it is possible to go there, and try getting some beautiful pictures of swans, goldeneyes, goosanders or many other waterfowl with a rather short trip. Which is important, since I typically need to get back soon, and make kids breakfast, dinner or such. And this is also why I call myself a Sunday Photographer: I mostly take photos in weekends, when there is a bit of extra time that weekdays do not currently allow.

Blackbird’s eye (mustarastas).

This Sunday was a day of achievement, when I got my first decent photos of goldcrest – the smallest bird in Europe! It is not that rare actually, but it is so shy and so skilled in hiding itself within foliage, that I was mainly able to locate it with the faint, high-pitched sounds it makes. And even while I knew the bird was there in the trees, front of me, it took a long time, c. 200 frames of missed photos and some quiet crawling from spot to spot to finally get an unobstructed view and a sharp photo of this tiny, elusive bird.

Goldcrest (hippiäinen).

Thus, taking photos of birds combines so many different interesting, challenging and purely luck-based elements into one activity, that is just perfect diversion – something rewarding, surprising, joyful that can even have addictive holding power: a hobby that is capable of taking your thoughts completely away from everything else.

Goldcrest (hippiäinen).

Pokémon GO and the Ludification of Culture, Mindtrek keynote

Mindtrek keynote slide
My Mindtrek keynote slides.
In Tuesday, 18 October 2016, I will be presenting an invited keynote titled “Pokémon GO and the Ludification of Culture” in the Academic Mindtrek conference in the Tampere Hall. Full program at: http://www.mindtrek.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/11/2016/10/Academic-Mindtrek-2016-Printable-program.pdf. Mindtrek is a hybrid event, and there are multiple tracks in the program, see: http://www.mindtrek.org/2016/program/

Edit: I published my Mindtrek keynote slides here: http://www.slideshare.net/fransmayra/pokmon-go-and-the-ludification-of-culture – and you can watch an unofficial Periscope recording here: https://twitter.com/pauliinamakela/status/788258441991036928

Note on Pokémon Go: fantasy of collecting and exploring “urban nature”

Pokémon Go (logo).
Pokémon Go (the game logo).

For those of us who started doing r&d on location-based mobile games decade or two ago, the exploding popularity of Pokémon Go has been exciting, but also perhaps a bit bewildering to follow. There have been many games that have exploited the collaborative, competitive, user-created or spatially based functionalities of augmented reality play in more innovative manner than Pokémon Go, but none of them have managed to grow their player base as fast and into the scale this Niantic’s game has done. Our own research in University of Tampere included work with The Songs of North prototype which our team designed and implemented in the Mogame research project in 2003-2004. Before that, there had been e.g. Botfighters (2001) by the Swedish company It’s Alive, which was neither not yet based on GPS technology, but rather on the use of cell triangulation and SMS messages. It has been interesting to follow how the motif of “city shamans”, teamed up into competing factions and using might and magic to struggle for control of urban areas has developed, varied and re-emerged, starting from our The Songs of North (2003), followed by the Shadow Cities (2010), and then by Ingress (2013), which adopted many of the basic key elements from Shadow Cities. Pokémon Go, in turn, is based on Ingress on its location-based game mechanics.

Some of the comments of pioneering location-based or augmented reality game developers I have read have sounded even a bit irritated that a rather simple and clearly derivative game makes such a breakthrough, supposedly solely on the basis of association with a popular IP (intellectual property). What we witness here is related to the nature of innovation processes, though. Again and again, it is necessarily not the first implementations that become the great success stories; rather, it is the “second penguin” jumping in later, who can learn from the experiences from the pioneers, and implement something that is perhaps not as ambitious, but that is designed and suitable for large-scale, mainstream adoption. The detailed analyses of Pokémon Go will no doubt start appearing soon in game studies conferences and journals, and it is interesting to see how the key elements of its popularity will be described and interpreted. Simplicity is no doubt one such element, but there is more.

The holding power of Pokémon Go is perhaps relatively easy to explain in terms of certain key player motivation theories, plus counting in certain love or nostalgia with the revived transmedial Pokémon phenomena itself – plus certainly some novelty effect from augmented reality, location-based mobile game play, which is still new experience for many people. In player motivations, there are classic achievement motivations, pleasures of accumulating advancement, repetition and variably rewarded effort (a well-known addictive mechanic), that Pokémon games tap into; there is a long series of these games, starting from the 1996 releases of Red and Green games for Game Boy in Japan, continuing through what is now considered seven generations of video games, and also a popular trading card game, plus manga, anime, films, and other related Pokémon branded products. It is often quoted how Satoshi Tajiri, the producer and main creator of the original concept, based Pokémon on his childhood hobby of insect collecting. What is perhaps not so often noted is that Satoshi has also spoken about how exploration into urban wastelands was one of the key inspirations for Pokémon games, and how urban developments according to him had driven away all these fascinating life-forms – Pokémon games were thus designed from the start to mimic exploration into “urban nature” and stimulate the joy of discovery of both common and rare creatures of all kinds, and of learning about their individual characteristics and even potentials for (insect-like) metamorphosis.

Even if the range of Pokémon creatures is large and understanding their characteristics provides plenty of room for learning and improvement, the basic game in Pokémon Go game is so simple that it can be immediately comprehended: move around, catch Pokémon, collect them, power them up, evolve them into new species, and join teams for tournament style battles for the domination of certain key spots (marked as “Gyms” in the game). Thus, Pokémon Go shows key virtues of classic “casual” games: easy to learn, difficult to complete or totally master, leading to near-infinite replay value, or even addictive potential. What remains to be seen, however, is how many of the millions of players will continue to play the game when the novelty effect wears off. The location-based games in the past have remained in the margins, and one of the key reasons is that the extra effort of going out (sometimes also when it is raining, dark, or the surroundings are otherwise not so inviting or even safe) has meant that only the most dedicated parts of “core gamers” audiences have stuck with these games in the past.

In addition to analysing what features Pokémon Go has as a game, it is also interesting to see what features it does not have. Joining teams (blue, red, or yellow) is part of the game, but coordinating or communicating with team members is not part of the game. This is something that happens naturally between people who play in same locations and meet each other, when there is a critical mass of them, and social media also plays an important role for assisting players in this kind of contemporary “pervasive game”. Thus, playing alone in isolated locations, or disconnected from popular media services would inevitably have an effect on the Pokémon Go player experiences. This is a game that is designed for populated, urban areas and there is also heavy reliance on the location data and sites recorded for the earlier Niantic game, Ingress.

The “perfect storm” of Pokémon Go is, in my quick analysis so far thus mainly a combination of two things: the successful simplification of earlier, tested location-based game design features so that they are clear and straightforward enough for mainstream adoption, and secondly, of the critical mass provided by fans of the second-best selling digital game franchise in the world (only Mario games have sold more). There is also the additional boost from its associated, widely familiar “transmedial storyworld” that millions of people who have not played Pokémon video games will also recognize. The threshold for stepping into the shoes of a Pokémon hunter and trainer is low, and pleasures of real-world exploration, rare creature hunting, collecting, points and levels accumulation, competition and collaboration mean that Pokémon Go provides highly accessible and enjoyable combination of real world and gaming fantasy.