Earlier this month the mobile-app game Pokémon Go was released in the U.S., and the game has been ubiquitous ever since. Aside from being a sudden pop culture phenomenon, the game’s success poses some significant implications. First of all, this is clearly a breakthrough moment for augmented reality. Pokémon Go is not the first augmented reality game, nor is it the most ambitious, but it has undoubtedly brought AR into mainstream consciousness. Secondly, the success of Pokémon Go has led me to reconsider all my previously held assumptions about the uses of mobile apps and gamification for interfacing with urban spaces. I have historically been cynical about the prospect of using mobile games or AR interfaces to interact with urban space, since they usually strike me as shallow and insignificant, typically resulting in a fleeting diversion like a flash mob dance party, rather than altering people’s perceptions of place in any lasting or meaningful way. Pokémon Go satisfies all the requirements of my earlier preconceptions, yet despite my best critical instincts, I really like the game.
The buzz about Pokémon Go had been building on various forums online, and after it was released it was virtually impossible to avoid Pokémon Go-related posts. Save for maybe 10 minutes with a friend’s Game Boy in the late 90s, I’ve never played a Pokémon game and I preemptively wrote off Pokémon Go as yet another cultural fad that I would never partake in or understand. Curiosity got the best of my wife, however, and she downloaded the app and we walked around our neighborhood to test it out. To my surprise, the game was a lot of fun; our familiar surroundings were now filled with digital surprises, and we were excited to see neighborhood landmarks and murals represented as Pokéstops, and wild Pokémon hanging out in the doorways of local shops. We meandered around discovering which of our local landmarks had been incorporated into the game, and each discovery increased my enjoyment of the app. Yes, the game is simple and shallow, but I was completely charmed. I downloaded the game so I could play, too.
Reactions to Pokémon Go have been as fascinating as the game’s widespread adoption. Many news articles sensationalized the inherent dangers of playing the game: distracted players wandering into traffic or off of cliffs, people’s homes being designated as Pokéstops and besieged by players, and traps being laid (using the games “lures”) to ambush and rob aspiring Pokétrainers. There have also been insightful critical analyses of the game. An early and oft-shared article by Omari Akil considered the implications of Pokémon Go in light of recent police shootings of black men, warning that “Pokemon Go is a death sentence if you are a black man“:
I spent less than 20 minutes outside. Five of those minutes were spent enjoying the game. One of those minutes I spent trying to look as pleasant and nonthreatening as possible as I walked past a somewhat visibly disturbed white woman on her way to the bus stop. I spent the other 14 minutes being distracted from the game by thoughts of the countless Black Men who have had the police called on them because they looked “suspicious” or wondering what a second amendment exercising individual might do if I walked past their window a 3rd or 4th time in search of a Jigglypuff.
Others questioned the distribution of Pokémon across neighborhoods, suggesting that poor or black neighborhoods had disproportionately fewer Pokémon and Pokéstops. Among urbanists, however, reaction to the game has been mixed. Mark Wilson at Fastcodesign declared that Pokémon Go “is quietly helping people fall in love with their cities“. Ross Brady of Architizer celebrated the game for sparking “a global wave of urban exploration“. Writing for de zeen, Alex Wiltshire boldly states that the game has “redrawn the map of what people find important about the world“. City Lab contributor Laura Bliss proclaimed “Pokémon Go has created a new kind of flaneur“.
Others have been more critical of the game, with Nicholas Korody at Archinect retorting: “No, Pokémon Go is not an urban fantasy for the new flaneur“. At Jacobin, Sam Kriss implores readers to “resist Pokémon Go“:
Walk around. Explore your neighborhood. Visit the park. Take in the sights. Have your fun. Pokémon Go is coercion, authority, a command issuing from out of a blank universe, which blasts through social and political cleavages to finally catch ‘em all. It must be resisted.
Some, like Jeff Sparrow at Overland, drew direct parallels to the Situationists:
On the one hand, that’s way cool – suddenly, the old pub near your house is inhabited by monsters.
On the other, there’s something faintly distasteful about the recuperation of specific real histories into a billion-dollar corporate mythology. Nearly 150 people lost their lives when the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory burned to the ground, entirely needless deaths caused by the atrocious working conditions of the garment trade. The tragedy became a rallying point for the trade union movement, the name of the factory, a shorthand reference to employers’ greed.
Now, though, it’s three free Pokeballs.
We might also say, then, that, even as the game leads players to embrace the derive, it also offers a remarkable demonstration of the phenomenon that Debord critiqued.
Writing for the Atlantic, Ian Bogost mediated on “the tragedy of Pokémon Go“:
We can have it both ways; we have to, even: Pokémon Go can be both a delightful new mechanism for urban and social discovery, and also a ghastly reminder that when it comes to culture, sequels rule. It’s easy to look at Pokémon Go and wonder if the game’s success might underwrite other, less trite or brazenly commercial examples of the genre. But that’s what the creators of pervasive games have been thinking for years, and still almost all of them are advertisements. Reality is and always has been augmented, it turns out. But not with video feeds of twenty-year old monsters in balls atop local landmarks. Rather, with swindlers shilling their wares to the everyfolk, whose ensuing dance of embrace and resistance is always as beautiful as it is ugly.
Pokémon Go’s popularity has led to many online comparisons to the Star Trek: TNG episode “The Game,” in which the crew of the Enterprise is overcome by a mind-controlling video game. The game in Star Trek is not strictly-speaking an augmented reality game, but does involve projecting images onto the player’s vision similar to an AR-overlay. Previous gaming and gadget fads have been compared to the TNG episode, notably Google Glass (for it’s similarity to the eye-beaming design used to interface with the game in Star Trek) and the pervasively popular Angry Birds game (as evident in this parody video). The comparison has regained cultural cachet because, unlike Angry Birds which can be played on the couch, Pokémon Go is played in motion. This, of course, has contributed to the perception of the game’s zombie-fying effects; we’ve grown accustomed to the fact that everyone’s eyes are glued to a smartphone screen in our public spaces, but now there are whole flocks of people milling around with their eyes on their devices.
My cynical side is inclined to agree with the critics who see Pokémon Go’s proliferation as proof positive of the passification and banalization of our society; the visions of Orwell, Bradbury, and Phil Dick all realized at once. But there’s something there that has me appreciative, even excited about this goofy game. As my wife and I wandered our neighborhood looking for pocket monsters, we noticed several other people walking around staring at their phones. This is not an uncommon sight, but it is re-contextualized in light of Pokémon Go’s popularity. “Look,” my wife would say, “I bet they’re playing, too.” After a while she had to know for sure, and started walking up to people and asking, “Are you playing Pokémon Go?” Every person she asked was indeed playing the game. Then we were walking along with these people we’ve just met, discussing play strategies, sharing Pokéstop locations, spreading word of upcoming lure parties.
One night around 10:30 last week we went into the Oakland neighborhood, home to both Pitt and Carnegie Mellon’s campuses and a hotbed of Pokémon Go activity. When we arrived, at least 20 people sat along the wall in front of the Soldiers & Sailors Memorial, smartphones in hands. We walked around the base of the Cathedral of Learning, where dozens of people in groups of two, three, or more were slowly pacing, stopping to capture a virtual creature. We crossed the street to Schenley plaza, where still dozens more people trekked through the grass, laughing and exclaiming and running up to their friends to share which Pokémon they had just got. Sure, most of these people were only talking to their own groups of friends, if they were talking at all, but it was still a cool experience. For me, the greatest thing was not which monsters I caught or XP my avatar earned; rather it was the energy, the unspoken but palpable buzz generated by all these people walking around in the dark of a warm summer night. Yes, I was giving attention to my smartphone screen, but what I remember most from that evening are the stars, and the fireflies, and the murmuring voices. Pokémon Go is promoting a sort of communal public activity, even if the sociality it produces is liminal at best. Yes, it is still shallow, still commercial, still programmed, but it’s something; there’s an energy there and a potential that is worth paying attention to.
Pokémon Go is not the be-all-end-all of augmented urban exploration, nor should be it considered the pinnacle of how mobile technology can enable new ways of interfacing with city space. But the game’s popularity, and my personal experience using it, has given me hope for the potential of AR apps to enrich our experience of urban spaces and engender new types of interactions in our shared environments.
- This EdTech article by D. Frank Smith showcases an app designed by a UW-Madison professor to teach campus sustainability through gamification:
One of the app’s games lets students practice waste sorting to reinforce good habits in distinguishing waste from recyclable materials. Different objects scroll down the side of the screen on a conveyer belt, and students click and drag to sort them into the proper bins.
Work on the app was funded in part by a Sustainability Innovation in Research and Education (SIRE) grant from the UW Office of Sustainability. It is being designed by the Mobile Learning Incubator (MLI) team at the Madison campus. Sustainable U is the team’s follow-up to Waste Eliminators, an interactive, environmental tour of campus which was also created with the help of Middlecamp and two graduate students in 2013, according to a university news release.
- Michael Logarta at GMA News reports on the expansion of homework-helping social platform Brainly to the Phillipines. The article touches on the value of ‘play’ for students, the challenges of gamifying education, and why playing is the future of learning:
“When lessons are delivered in a game-like manner – that is, interactive, challenging, with instantaneous feedback – students easily remember them,” said Christine Rom, Game Developers’ Association of the Philippines (GDAP) board member and CEO of educational games developer PODD. “If we harness the elements that make these games interesting and integrate them into education, we get the opportunity to enhance the learning process.”Gamification improves motivation. “By giving students a sense of achievement (through exciting rewards and recognition), students will be encouraged to learn and progress more,” explained Rom.
- Amanda Schneider at HuffPo considers gamification and the shift from “productivity” to “engagement”:
In a recent Mashable article Gabe Zichermann, the author of Game-Based Marketing and the CEO of Gamification.co states that one of the reasons for the increase in gamification is that long-standing marketing techniques are now failing. “They’re failing because people today are seeking more reward and more engagement from experiences than ever before.” Younger generations may be even more in tuned with gaming because they have likely never known a world without computers. Specifically, “Today’s youth mandates a more engaging experience. Gamification is required to bring those things into balance, and to make things engaging enough so people will pay attention to them and stay focused on them for a longer period of time.”
- Media theorist and ludologist Ian Bogost recently penned some thoughts on Facebook’s development platform (referred to as “Facebook’s bleak new feudalism” in the title of Kotaku’s repost of the original piece):
The short truth is this: Facebook doesn’t care if developers can use the platform easily or at all. In fact, it doesn’t seem to concern itself with any of the factors that might be at play in developers’ professional or personal circumstances. The Facebook Platform is a selfish, self-made altar to Facebook, at which developers are expected to kneel and cower, rather than a generous contribution to the success of developers that also happens to benefit Facebook by its aggregate effects.
- Jeffrey van der Goot at Been Playing argues for “more Kubrickian and Lynchian narratives in video games“:
A lot of reactions to the narrative of [Bioshock] Infinite that I encountered were that it “didn’t make sense,” and that it was “being weird for the sake of being weird.”
Those reminded me of criticisms leveled at two of my favorite filmmakers: David Lynch and Stanley Kubrick. I think these comments arise because Infinite doesn’t go all the way, it hesitates. It tries to stick to conventional logic. It strews about Voxaphones to explain its abstractions.
- Shujaat Syed at Player Effort writes about “making linear story telling interesting in video games by acknowledging the fourth wall”:
At their core, video games are authoritarian. They have rules that need to be followed, and you are restricted to the game play systems and a story the programmers and designers have created. However, compared to other forms of media, they offer a breadth of freedom that is unmatched. I will not be speaking about the freedom of exploration. What I will be talking about is the freedom of creating a different type of narrative that is only possible through video games by breaking the 4th wall between the game and the player. This is one of our mediums greatest advantage, however, very rarely, is this power explored. With video games, we can have truly powerful forms of narrative, but at most we get ideas that could theoretically work as movies. Open-world sandbox games can dodge this because the player is free to create their own narrative alongside the main plotline, and this is a concept that is entirely unique to video games. It’s the linear story-based games where the narrative is usually much harder to distinguish than what you would get from a book or movie.
- Miles Klee at The Daily Dot reports on an app “that gamifies your boring sex life”:
In addition to registering your decibel levels (I’m hoping mine will get a boost from the garbage truck always idling outside my window), Spreadsheets will also monitor your overall duration, frequency, and somehow, thrusts per minute. Apparently this does not require supplementary electrodes.
What’s more, you can unlock “badges” and the like. For example, to meet the “Hello Sunshine” achievement, worth 10 points, you must take on the ultimate challenge of our time: “perform morning sex.”
- This week my fiancée told me about an app she had recently installed on her phone. As she excitedly described it, users of the app can “check in” at a retail store (it sounded like your location is verified through GPS) and you receive points for doing so, presumably to redeem for store purchases but I don’t recall all the details. I should also mention that his app is not Foursquare, though I am not sure how the two apps differ specifically. Apps like this exemplify the gamification trend in marketing and advertising. There is an entire wiki dedicated to gamification, with detailed pages like this one describing the various game mechanics used in gamification.
- The gamification of shopping is the subject of this PCMAG article by Kara Kamenec:
Gamification applies basic game thinking and game mechanics to a non-gaming context. Many gamification models reward users for participating, completing defined user tasks, or achieving goals. A great example is Foursquare, which awards points and perks for “checking-in” to places you go. Although some models introduce distinguishable game-related features, gamification of online shopping includes any type of game thinking applied to an online shopping model.
Gamification makes things fun because it taps into our basic human appetite for competition, stature, and social interaction. Rather than feeling tricked or manipulated, we feel a sense of control when participating in transparent game-oriented shopping. As a result, shopping becomes more exciting and rewarding, while increasing highly sought-after engagement and customer loyalty for retailers and brands.
- This LinkedIn post by Dan Sanker describes gamification as “the application of game elements and digital game design techniques to non-game problems” and considers potential applications:
Small tools, influenced by simple game mechanics can be used to modify people’s behavior. […] There is a long way to go to make some mundane tasks more engaging. I think the paradigm that rang true the most this week, especially after talking with the kids about their experiences – is that we need to start thinking about customers, consumers, employees and/or students less as ‘Users’ and more as ‘Players.’ Are there ways to enjoy the experience of buying, procuring, working and learning? It might be a better way for us to consider interacting with Generation Z and those who come after them.
- Joanna Faith at money.com looks at gamification in corporate and educational contexts, and considers whether games are the solution to our savings crisis:
But gamification hasn’t just grabbed the attention of the corporate world. Teachers are trying to make learning more fun by introducing games into the classroom in the hope of keeping children engaged for longer. This made me think about how many banks, building societies and other financial services providers are using gamification to encourage kids to start saving or educate them about money.
- Liel Leibovitz at Tablet thinks gamification could help bring peace to the Middle East:
In the minds of Silicon Valley’s eternal optimists, and the journalists who so unconditionally love them, gamification is the possibility of rendering intricately complex processes, such as education or health care, more effective by transforming them into games. If kids aren’t reading, goes the gamified mantra, perhaps some friendly competitive system of badges and leaderboards might provide the missing incentive. And if adults are getting a tad too heavy, just slap a gizmo on their wrists that challenges them to burn more and more calories each day and they’ll play along.
As a professor of video games, I’ve strong doubts that the same principles that compel us to save Princess Zelda or defeat Donkey Kong apply in the classroom, the boardroom, or the emergency room. Like most game scholars, I view gamification as the creation of the TED-circle nabobs, largely empty, feel-good fodder for the intellectually limp. But the idea isn’t totally useless: There are some special categories of human events, rare and far-between, whose own innate absurdities are so profound that a touch of gamification might actually do them good.
I’m talking, of course, about the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
- Peter Hosking at marketingmag.com writes about ensuring that “gamification adds real value to customer relationships”:
We are naturally drawn to entertaining, visually appealing, easily digestible information sources and the power is in our hands to choose who, when, where and on what we will engage. Witness the rise of video consumption on mobile as part of this trend.
Gamification may be the answer but the problem is that businesses can rush into it without necessarily lifting the bonnet to see what is making it work. There are a number of services putting their hands up to execute it for you but executing without a clear view of what motivates your audience can and will prove fatal.
- Lastly, Sakoni Surti at exchange4media.com offers a few tips on successful gamification practices:
The concept of gamifying products and services came into being when marketers realised that loyalty programmes are becoming too banal to retain consumers. A number of leading brand names, including Hungama, Zapak, Adobe and Microsoft, have used the concept successfully to create a habit of their product amongst users.
Microsoft created a unique gamified tool that allowed users to learn the new MS Office applications and earn rewards, thus making the whole process interactive.