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When Pokémon GO really gets epic

You may’ve noticed this: More than the usual number of people with phones in their hands have been bumping into things and each other lately. That’s because of Pokémon GO, which market researcher MFour announced the other day had passed Twitter as the U.S.’s No. 1 app. “Fully a third of U.S. Android smartphone users 13 and over have downloaded the augmented reality game that’s become the talk of the nation,” they reported.

It's actually not a zombie takeover (Pokémon GO play in the Netherlands)

It’s actually not a zombie takeover (Pokémon GO play in the Netherlands)

Posted on July 6 when the app was released, the official Pokémon GO video already zoomed past the 4 million view mark this past weekend. Macrumors.com reported Saturday that the game’s now available in 26 countries (not yet in Canada or Asian countries), and “Nintendo shares surged another 10% on Friday.”

Weird things are happening. For example, The Verge caught on camera “a literal stampede” in New York City’s Central Park Saturday night. “When a Vaporeon showed up, people ran and jumped from their cars to capture the creature.” [On the same page there are some “advanced tips” on video for Pokémon GO players, such as, “All you care about is the points” and one about the little features like Razz Berries (available at Level 8) that make it easier to catch Pokémon.]

What’s the deal with the stampedes?

The game is all about going to real places like Central Park to catch these little Pokémon critters that appear in the app when you get to that particular location. So in these early days of the game, lots of players tend to congregate in Pokémon-rich places.

“Inside the app, the target Pokémon are spread across a Google-powered map of the real world, complete with labeled landmarks,” reports Popular Science in one of my favorite articles on the subject so far. “Your character’s avatar appears alone on a grassy landscape mapped to reality, surrounded only by identical physical structures indicating landmarks, and the Pokémon themselves, when they choose to appear.” That’s what “augmented reality” means – things like animated critters and spaces layered on top of physical, or offline, reality.

The “stampedes” will probably diminish as the novelty wears off, players level up, fewer people will be going after the same Pokémon in the most predictable places, and Nintendo evolves the game.

Forbes had a piece by a guy who’d already passed Level 20, when the game gets very different. “Yes, there are still dozens more to go [i.e., dozens more Pokémon to find] but, depending on where you are, you will go from catching something new multiple times a day to catching something new once, maybe every couple days.”

Yes, really. Chauffeured Pokémon GO

My other favorite piece on the subject to date was by a fellow anti-online-harassment activist of mine, game developer Brianna Wu, in The Daily Dot. She found a startup that’s layering itself on top of this game that’s layering itself on top of real life – one that got her to a bunch of Pokémon-laden spots in Boston without her having to drive. Called PokeGoSafari, it’s kind of a high-end Pokémon GO Uber-plus-tour guide. For $30/hour, people with disposable income can get driven to all the best Pokémon-catching spots. They also get freely shared Pokémon tips and tricks from a Poké-knowledgable driver, phone charging and a bag of Doritos.

“It was a good deal,” Brianna wrote. “Our Pokédex was absolutely bursting with Meowths, Psyducks, and Geodudes. This had been a PokéSafari extravaganza beyond my wildest dreams.” [Hmm, do I see PokéGOSafari birthday parties coming down the pike?]

The camaraderie in public Pokémon-catching spaces that she and other players write about reminds me of the Pokémon trading card parties and events of ancient pre-digital Pokémon times.

But this is different. Today’s version is “quite literally bringing disparate people together in service of a common goal, albeit a frivolous one (‘Gotta catch ‘em all!’),” wrote Carl Sanzen in Popular Science. They aren’t coming together with the intention to meet; they’re being compelled to by a game in their hands.

The real end game

Pokémon GO is just a baby step. The real magic will happen when the frivolous goal becomes less so – when AR games have social change designed into them, as game designer Jane McGonigal, PhD, said in her famous 2010 TED Talk, “Gaming Can Make a Better World.” Or even when providers like Nintendo partner with blood banks or other charities where people can, for example, find themselves able to catch something and give something at the same time (as I heard a restaurant server say yesterday when we were talking about Pokémon GO). Just one small local example of leveraging genuinely good fun for genuine good.

It’s probably clear to anybody who’s been watching this phenomenon that this is only the beginning, and not for a single game. There’s vast potential for good in augmented reality games, as McGonigal said in her talk. She referred to “four superpowers” in well-designed games that turn game players into game-changers (“super-empowered, hopeful individuals who see themselves as capable of changing the world”):

  • “Urgent optimism” (the desire to act immediately to tackle an obstacle believing we have a reasonable hope of success)
  • “A tight social fabric” (games can build bonds, trust, cooperation, stronger social relations and community, which can increase safety and well-being)
  • “Blissful productivity” (being challenged to “level up”; she said “we are optimized as human beings when doing hard, meaningful work”)
  • “Epic meaning” (“gamers love to be attached to awe-inspiring missions and planetary-scale stories”).

I think it’s safe to say that Pokémon GO the phenomenon needed to happen to get imaginations going.

[SIDEBAR] Some takeaways for parents

  1. Exercise is happening. Yay! Right? This is outdoor screen time. The concern already feels pretty dated because media’s so mobile now, but I still see a lot of complaints about kids sitting around in front of screens too much. Well, Pokémon GO players can’t possibly sit around.
  2. Gobbles up data plans. Also battery life. Phones moving around constantly are not on wi-fi, as we all know. So phone owners and account administrators will need to plan for and talk about this unpleasant reality.
  3. It’s immersive, i.e., distracting. We’ve all heard about the risk of distraction when we are moving objects or are in moving objects. If little kids want to play Pokémon GO, go with them! It can be done on bikes, on family outings, road trips, etc. Major bonding and family time is possible along with this opportunity to talk about not being distracted to the point of bumping into animate and inanimate objects. This is not online risk/safety we’re talking about, here (see this about that).
  4. Spontaneous crowds happen. They’re all looking at their phones. They’re people of all ages. This can be so fun and even a little magical. Sometimes it can go south when people aren’t paying attention to what’s going on around them. Kids can keep it fun by playing with friends and relatives and keeping track of each other every bit as much as Pokémon and points. Safety in numbers.
  5. Safety not augmented. All the usual good sense applies. I’m sure I don’t have to say it, right? Kids don’t answer ads by strangers offering to drive players to Poké spots.

Related links

Pokémon GO players in Anchorage

Pokémon GO players in Anchorage (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

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