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Pokémon Go: An Outcome-Focused Perspective

Pokémon Go is a cultural smash hit, and it represents a step forward in augmented reality. One of Nintendo’s first forays into the iOS and Android mobile game market, this extension of the beloved “Gotta Catch ‘Em All” franchise has single-handedly boosted Nintendo’s net worth by $11B in a number of days. Adoption of the game is explosive – server infrastructure hasn’t been able to keep up with demands of a rampantly scaling player base, leaving Nintendo scrambling to keep up with their own wild success.

I was intrigued enough to want to dive deeper into the craze. I downloaded the game, customized my avatar, and spent some time hunting for Psyducks and Cubone around the streets of Seattle. From a behavioral economics and usability perspective, Pokémon Go works really well. It’s an engaging and flexible experience that you can spend an afternoon on, or enjoy for a few minutes as you walk to get a coffee. But playing it left me asking questions that we, at Artefact, ask often:

  • Can we design experiences that deliver positive outcomes that extend beyond the immediate gratification of the user?
  • Pokémon Go is a great entertainment, but can we take advantage of what the game does brilliantly – engagement and rewards – and create experiences that strengthen our relationships with each other, deepen our knowledge of our environment, or find ways to use augmented reality to improve the real world.
  • Given the power of augmented (mixed) reality to shift our thinking, what can we do to ensure preferable outcomes?

Minecraft is an excellent example of a product that has pulled off “gaming with purpose” successfully – it’s an immersive gaming experience that also has classroom applications for content delivery, collaborative building, and teaching coding skills. For positive ideology, Dropsy is a game that promotes empathy in an atypical way: the whole point of the game is to guide a reviled clown to change his environment through kind and loving acts. As augmented reality makes its way into the mainstream, there is a big opportunity for companies like Nintendo to extend the purpose of games to include these kinds of positive outcomes.

What Pokémon Go gets right

Pokémon Go’s variation in gameplay is its first success. By toggling between search, acquisition, and battle, the game takes on an addictive rhythm. As I walked around, I looked forward to seeing if the next Drowzee would be standing on a fire hydrant or if I’d find my next Slowpoke staring me down from the hood of a car. Combat mode (at Pokégyms) add urgency and a faster pace to the cadence of play by offering real-time dodging and special moves.

The density of Pokémon, Pokéstops, and Pokémon gyms that appeared across the real world landscape of downtown Seattle was lush. This initially invited me to dive in as a first time player and later to keep playing. The candied hues of the GPS overlay, populated with whimsical creatures, rotating blue cubes, swarms of pink confetti, space-age towers, and endless clouds combined to create a sense of an appealing world just beyond our own that is simpler, cleaner, and safer than reality. In every direction I looked, a rich landscape of colorful landmarks lay before me, the nearest of which was only a few steps away.

To incentivize further play, Pokémon Go offers a very high frequency of rewards via a number of progression systems. Each Pokémon has a power level and evolutionary progression for you to work and, and you’re also rewarded with experience points (making it easier to catch more difficult Pokémon), and medals for accomplishment. By having multiple tracks of achievement, you earn many small increments of progress quickly across a number of systems. For a player, this means you get a nearly constant stream of positive reinforcement. 

Distraction and safety

I’ve already touched on one design principle that will be increasingly relevant for augmented reality games, and is most definitely an issue for Pokémon Go – distraction and safety. This game requires you to move through the physical world to progress. By decentralizing the site of the game, you increase the risk of distraction and reduce safety. There is at least one report of robbers using in-game lures to attract victims.

In augmented reality, we have to think about new gaming paradigms to reduce the cognitive load on users when they’re doing real world travel in unfamiliar locations. Nintendo has tried to solve for this with the creation of the Pokemon Go Plus bracelet – but this is an optional add-on, not part of the core experience. What if the game were designed to require less visual attention in high-traffic areas or during night-time hours? Players could also be allowed to downvote the real-world safety of certain areas to trigger warnings for other users to pay more attention.

Landmarks are learning opportunities

Pokéstops are real world locations where players can travel collect new Pokeballs, and some of them are even populated with information about the site. This has a potential to teach players more about the city they’re exploring, but in it’s current state the game does not incentivize a user to actually open the description or learn any of the information. A few small tweaks could keep the current gameplay streamlined, but offer optional larger rewards to players who are willing to take the time to learn about the sites they are visiting.

I see the Jigglypuffs. Where are the other players?

Pokémon Go does a good job of individual-track progression systems, but the game features offer little social interaction and next to no collaboration with other players as part of core gameplay. To some degree this is a good thing; you wouldn’t necessarily want strangers socializing with your kids. But the individual track still feels like a missed opportunity, especially when I think about how well other Nintendo platforms (the Wii or the DS in particular) have facilitated group play with games over the years.

AR is inherently immersive, and it can also be very isolating and self-centric – we must be very intentional in how we approach future games to make them cooperative and collaborative. Last year, the game “Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes” turned VR gaming paradigms upside-down – the nature of the game allows a large group of people to play and communicate with only a single headset. KTNE is fun, social, and requires mindful communication to succeed.

What does the game teach?

As a parent of twin boys who are now almost four, I approach any content (books, games, shows) that may be aimed at children with a critical eye. The strategic question I try to ask myself is: what is the underlying message or ideology the content delivers?

With Pokémon Go, the ideology simply seems to be acquisition and development of a critter collection. I don’t necessarily expect more from Nintendo because they’re a game company, but I can’t help but wish there was a more meaningful lesson delivered by the game. While Pokémon Go provides novelty and ambition, there’s an opportunity for Nintendo (and other game-makers) to approach future games more like Minecraft or Super Mario Maker – with an eye toward gameplay that might also help teach STEAM-related skills such as coding, and social emotional learning skills like empathy and peaceful conflict resolution.

As gaming becomes more ubiquitous and enmeshed in day to day life, we have a chance – and a choice – to advance what gaming can mean for society. Let’s think outside the (Ar)boks.