The internet broke again, and it wasn’t a Kardashian this time. It was the biggest mobile game in U.S. history, otherwise known as Pokémon Go. The game-play has been covered extensively and it’s pretty straight forward; players follow a real GPS map collecting cartoon monsters, visiting public murals and sites, and battling with other users at virtual “gyms” located near public buildings. Some of the consequences of this video-game-meets-real-world exploration, both good and bad, have been covered extensively too; the robberies, the car accidents, the discovery of dead bodies, and the pleasant boost in small business activity from phone-wielding consumers who have finally left their couches.
It’s big, it’s different and it’s popular, but it’s also changing the way we see and apply video games as a whole. The fact that it takes place in the real world is the antithesis of the clichés we usually lob at gamers – that they lose themselves in a virtual reality, plodding through a reclusive existence with fake friends and fantastic graphics. Pokémon Go represents a shift in the players’ paradigm and it’s a shift we probably need on a number of levels.
Pokémon Go Isn’t the First “Real-World” Game
Pokémon Go isn’t a new idea—it’s more like an afterbirth. Geocaching, a recreational activity that’s been popular since 2000, was the birth. A geocache is a water-proofed capsule that can only be found using a GPS or mobile device. You sign up at Geocaching.com, use their royalty-free API on one of many third-party apps, and start looking for geocaches. There are over 2 million worldwide, and there is a massive community built around finding them. Once you find one, you sign your name to the logbook, and trade out an item or two.
Pokémon Go does the same thing without any actual artifacts—you just collect virtual monsters using your phone’s camera and an interactive map that comes with the app. What they have in common, along with other augmented reality games emerging from the startup community, is that they peddle in discovery. There’s a promise that if you download these games, you’ll enjoy that long-lost sense of real play. Remember that feeling of discovering a rotting cemetery behind a friend’s house, or an abandoned paper mill, or some explicit graffiti underneath a bridge? It feels good to find cool people, places and things, and yet we don’t tend to prioritize those activities, especially in the context of screen addiction. That’s what makes Pokémon Go so worth the attention.
Video Games To Save Our Socialization?
Most video games mimic the same hedonistic treadmill found at the workplace. They link your sense of fun and completion to external accomplishments. These accomplishments (quantified into money or points) leave us with a pleasant sense of progress. It’s why people can show up to the same pencil-pushing gig for 40 years, or ruin their lives with World or Warcraft.
Pokémon Go borrows that same hedonistic treadmill to lure you in—“you gotta catch ‘em all!”—but they also reward you with something deeper: adventure and human connection. Unlike the hedonic treadmill, which tends to make people feel anxious and inadequate, activities like socializing and being a part of a community are scientifically proven to increase our sense of well-being. The more we do them, the better we feel in the long-term.
For a generation raised by helicopter parents and “To Catch a Predator” marathons, these exploration and connection impulses seem to have been relatively underdeveloped.
If you’re under 30, and therefore a part of Pokémon Go’s target demographic, you aren’t statistically as likely to explore as your parents. According to one study that tracked the unsupervised play spaces of British children, modern 8-year-olds are allowed to roam about 1/9th the distance that their parents roamed. The same parents who traveled freely as children raised a generation of young people who believe that the world is all of a sudden too dangerous to live in.
Apps like Pokémon Go encourage us to test those assumptions. What happens if I knock on a neighbor’s door to catch a Ryachu? What happens if I visit the 7/11 at night to capture a Weedle? What happens if I meet up at a local church to battle other Squirtles? Given that the world is actually safer than it ever has been, and we’re exploring it far less, I think there’s a need to more deliberately cultivate that spirit.
How Will Pokémon Go Change Us?
Pokémon Go feels like a glimpse into the future. Aldous Huxley predicted pharmaceuticals and Isaac Asimov predicted robots. No one predicted adults inventing virtual games, making them small enough to fit in a pocket, and then programming them to tell us where to go and what to find. The fact that this all came from a floundering Japanese anime franchise would have melted Nostradamus’s brain.
Real-world gaming experiences are going to change the way we travel, exchange information, and feel accomplishment. They’re going to change the way we socialize, date, and mate. One day we’ll have a screen on our eyeball, a game engine projecting information to it, and a hard drive recording the whole thing for future reference. Life will completely fuse with our favorite games and Pokémon Go might go down as one of the key watershed moments that drove that fusion. It’s a fusion about which we can be excited.
It could also be a Trojan Horse. Pokémon Go, like Gmail and Facebook before it, is another free carrot that allows app developers to collect data on us—where we go, who we interact with, how long we spend in our homes and outside. This technology will improve advertising while it herds our privacy into smaller and smaller pens.
There’s also the possibility that real-world games will make us less connected. It’s already impossible to sit through a dinner without someone taking out a phone. When will it be impossible to share a meal without catching a Krabby, buttering it, and serving it up?
It’ll be a mixed bag. For now though, Pokémon Go is changing the lifestyles of millions. 5% of Android owners—there’s around a billion of them—are already using the app every day to do something they weren’t doing before (unless they were geocaching). It doesn’t take a Nostradamus to see that this is only the beginning of a very different future and maybe one, ironically, that’s less monstrous than we thought.
Feature image courtesy of Inlander.com
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