It’s a cute little game. Animated characters. Treasure hunts. Some friendly competition.
It hardly seems like something that can shape and shift our collective reality.
But that’s what Pokémon Go is doing.
What Is It?
Technically, it’s just an augmented reality (AR) game that people play, mostly on their smartphones. Part of the game’s attraction is childhood nostalgia. It is, after all, based on a series of video games and TV shows dating back to the 1990s.
The idea is for players to find, capture, battle, and train virtual creatures known as Pokémon (or, translated from the original Japanese, “pocket monsters”). By harnessing the GPS feature on mobile devices, the game presents creatures on screens as if they were in the same real-world location as the players themselves.
“If the timing is right, wild Pokémon leap out at you, giving you a chance to catch them with a Pokéball,” describes Stephanie Lee. “When you capture a Pokémon, it gets added to your Pokédex, a sort of Pokémon database, where you can personalize them later.”
In this way, players become hunters and then trainers of their pocket monsters. They can take their collections to a local “gym” in order to battle their Pokémon against other players.
Why Should We Care?
Pokémon Go has become an instant icon for a number of reasons.
One reason is that it’s the first AR game to become a genuine blockbuster, having been downloaded over a 100 million times so far. In fact, it reached 50 million downloads in just 19 days, breaking the records of other hit games such as Angry Birds and Candy Crush.
More than that, though, it’s proof that AR technology can result in a huge, mainstream hit. In the emerging m-verse, Pokémon Go is the first major galaxy. As such, it’s going to create a tremendous gravitational pull, leading to a lot more investment in and fascination with all-things-AR.
As millions of people become accustomed to the AR format, its influence will spread beyond gaming. AR apps are, in fact, already filtering into various realms, such as education, healthcare delivery, marketing, sales, product repair, customer service and more. Now that Pokémon Go has become a phenomenon, we’ll likely see an overall uptick in the usage of such apps over the long-term.
The Cultural Impact
But, compared to its technical and commercial influence, Pokémon Go’s cultural impact is more important. On the positive side of the ledger, the game is an excellent way for people to become lost in a narrative that they control. Such freedom within a loose narration will be the hallmark of a growing number of games and art forms in the 21st century.
Pokémon Go is also transforming the physical and social nature of game play. Many digital games connect people in virtual ways: via avatars, text, images, voice, etc. Pokémon Go flips this dynamic on its head, serving as a way for people to meet in real time and space. Adam Rusch writes:
The game … encourages conversations with other players while exploring the area. … Many stories are being told about random strangers, often from different generations, races, and socio-economic classes making new connections when they meet while playing
The game is also turning couch potatoes into pedestrians. Walking is a key ingredient to the game, which is part of what makes social interaction possible.
The game might even be used for social good. “Imagine a world,” writes Kalev Leetaru “in which those 75 million ‘Pokémon GO’ players fanning out across the planet could double as the world’s greatest mapping platform, crowdsourcing a realtime catalog of everything from potholes to trash dumps and feeding those back to cities and NGOs to fix.”
But Should We Worry?
Of course, where there’s possibility of physical interactions and social good, there’s also the danger of physical conflict and social ills. A variety of stories are cropping up that highlight the dangers:
- The story of how one public park in Sydney, Australia became the location of a “rare” Pokémon. An influx of visitors reportedly put a strain on the park as grass was was trampled to mud, the amount of litter increased, and there were acts of vandalism.
- The story of conflicts between game players and veterans at a Veterans Memorial Park.
- The story of how New York state has decided to bar sex offenders from playing the game.
- The story of a Guatemala teenager who was shot while playing Pokémon Go.
Pokémon Go gives us a glimpse into a future where digital media and physical reality are increasingly merged. It will change our conventional realities, but those realities will still be human ones, for better and for worse.
by Mark Vickers
Editor’s Note: The feature photo with this article is by Jwslubbock and posted on Wikimedia Commons. The Pokémon Go logo is from Wikipedia.
To learn more about the Pokémon phenomenon and AR in general, check out the following links: