Pokemon GO is an interesting phenomenon – it is extremely relevant to the ideas posted on this blog, and to gamification in general. To start, the gameplay involves going outside, physically tracking down pokemon (think digital animals), and then catching them. The simple fact of compelling video gamers to go outside and exercise has astounded many people.
The game is based on Augmented Reality (AR), which is a technology in its infancy. The focus is on the graphical overlay, which takes imagery/text/animation and superimposes it upon your surroundings via a camera. Apps were created that allow you to view advertising and menus outside of restaurants, translate text in real time, and even track down star constellations that may be hiding from your eye. While Pokemon Go also relies heavily on overlaying pokemon onto your surroundings, I believe that the highly overlooked feature in most AR apps is the GPS tracking your location.
If you play the game, you quickly realize that how well you do depends on your location in the world (and the cellular data usage around you – to the dismay of many a Pokemon trainer living outside a city). Even more so, the Pokemon exist outside in the world in distinct locations, forcing players to track them down physically using the Pokemon Go app as a navigation system.
So to recap – if you peel back the layer of Pokemon, this game simply has people searching for points on a map. The simplicity of it is truly a marvel, while the potential to expand upon it is almost limitless. While technology like this can certainly cause trouble, as I’ll explain a bit later, it also has the potential for tremendous good. Read the following hypothetical example:
A fire breaks out in a town, and the local fire department needs pictures of it as rapidly as possible so that it can plan a more directed response. So it asks the creators of Pokemon Go to spawn a certain rare Pokemon, let’s say Pikachu, at the fire. All the nearby Pokemon trainers are then alerted of the Pikachu’s presence and hurry to the scene of the fire to catch it. The images, or even video, that the AR system on each player’s phone is utilizing, is then live streamed to the fire department, who would then use the data to create a 3D model of the scene of the fire as it’s happening.
This example is surely outlandish, not only because a Pikachu would have no reason to hang out in a burning building (a Charizard maybe more likely), but also more importantly because it would obviously pose a large hazard to oblivious Pokemon GO players. It’s been stated on this blog that if the in-game reward is large enough, dedicated players might be willing to do almost anything to obtain it (braving a fire is probably only even a slight exaggeration). Combined with GPS technology, what you have is a powerful tool that incentivizes people to travel to certain locations. Now here’s another, safer, example of how this idea could be utilized:
A local group has organized a day for volunteers to gather and clean up the town park. This group however has also asked the creators of Pokemon GO to spawn more pokemon at the park than usual on this day. Surely this will attract any serious pokemon trainers in the neighborhood. And while they are already incentivized to remain in the area, the efforts of the local group can hopefully also sway them to pitch in and clean up the park a bit during their stay. Perhaps this local group can even work out a deal where they are authorized by the Pokemon Go creators to hand out in-game rewards, such as items or experience.
In the more distant future we’ll even get points for each individual piece of trash we pick up, but until that technology arrives I think cases like the above would prove fascinating interactions. Many people who have played the game have definitely had similar concepts cross their mind in relation to local businesses – more specifically the idea that a company can pay the creators of Pokemon GO to generate Pokemon at their establishments or events in order to attract more customers. While the capitalistic aspect will hopefully garner more interest and support for the technology, the potential social good applications are unique in that they have a chance to revolutionize community volunteering and engagement.
You don’t have to play Pokemon Go to observe the herds of children, teenagers, and even adults standing around in public spaces playing this game. Not only does this simple fact alone make these spaces safer for all, but imagine now if the game asked these people to interact further. What if collaboration, for a wide number of plausible reasons, on a tiny local scale, could be incentivized on a grand scale using AR game technology? One minute you are playing Pokemon Go, the next you have a met a stranger in your neighborhood and are planning ways to practice first aid, or even actively providing aid to an individual while an ambulance is on route. All in the name of advancing one’s self in an imaginary world. One could picture governments around the world experimenting with AR as a means for civic duties in the future.
Unfortunately, another way in that governments will be interested in this technology, but most likely for good reason, is regulation. The ability to direct the movements of people in the real world is a serious responsibility. Already cases have sprung up of people trespassing, crashing their vehicles, and even being targeted for robbery while playing Pokemon GO. Even if the Pokemon are placed responsibly, certain users of the app will abuse that to commit theft or even worse, as popular spots are noted equally on everyone’s screen. What form this type of regulation will take shape is anyone’s guess, but there certainly will be plenty of trial and error. Even at the time of writing, the feature in Pokemon GO that allowed you to actively track Pokemon has been disabled (it wasn’t working correctly), and so players are now simply forced to randomly come across Pokemon. A new tracking system is being tested, but perhaps the change was made as a result of the developers fearing lawsuits? While one would think it is ultimately the player’s responsibility to avoid trouble, as these AR games become more and more engaging, this assumption will certainly become blurred.
The last point that needs to be made about Pokemon GO is it’s use of popular culture to achieve success. The game which preceded Pokemon GO, Ingress, has gained much less popularity, despite being almost the same game but with much more features. Could it be that popular fantasy worlds have a growing influence on the public acceptance of a technology?
In the late 1990’s Pokemon was a cultural phenomenon among children and teenagers. Now most of these individuals are adults and their interest in the series has been newly rekindled by Pokemon GO. It has even attracted the attention of many individuals who never gave it a chance the first time (or are now forced to chaperone their children around as they capture pokemon). One can imagine that in another 20 years that the cultural saturation of Pokemon will be almost complete, meaning that the rewards for continuing to play the game will become more and more relevant in the world.
Imagine a future where people, who don’t have the the time to go hunting pokemon themselves, actively buy rare pokemon from others to complete a collection, for battle, or even simply as a status symbol. Others could ideally be able to make a living by volunteering locally, or better yet travelling the world volunteering, and engaging in the global pokemon trade (a dream for any person who has played a Pokemon game).
Lastly, Pokemon is but one example. How will popular fantasy worlds such as Star Wars, Warcraft, Marvel, or countless others affect technological and social progress in the future? The potential for good is tremendous if handled responsibly. Now imagine this final Pokemon Go application:
An earthquake has just struck and people are in need of help. People who are at the scene and are unharmed can assist by scouting around – taking pictures and video (and capturing pokemon). This can then be streamed to volunteers sitting at home, who identify damaged buildings and infrastructure (receiving items or experience). The resulting analyzed video/imagery is sent to local emergency relief forces, who then in turn ask local pokemon trainers, perhaps trained in first aid, to assist nearby first responders or even directly rescue people (gaining large amounts of experience or even rare pokemon). In the months following the earthquake, local trainers can volunteer in reconstruction, humanitarian aid, or disaster mitigation and preparedness efforts (gaining more experience, items, or pokemon).
Pokemon Go players would not only be actively helping out communities, but also would be acquiring valuable new skills, either through volunteering, or as a prerequisite to doing so. Rather than simply seen as people loitering in public places, players could be seen as upstanding citizens among their neighbors, who devote their time and energy not only to a fantasy world – but to the bettering of the real world as well. All it would take is a bit social ingenuity, perhaps some government or economic incentivization, and of course the continued success of a particular Japanese cartoon world.
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