Note on Pokémon Go: fantasy of collecting and exploring “urban nature”

Pokémon Go (logo).
Pokémon Go (the game logo).

For those of us who started doing r&d on location-based mobile games decade or two ago, the exploding popularity of Pokémon Go has been exciting, but also perhaps a bit bewildering to follow. There have been many games that have exploited the collaborative, competitive, user-created or spatially based functionalities of augmented reality play in more innovative manner than Pokémon Go, but none of them have managed to grow their player base as fast and into the scale this Niantic’s game has done. Our own research in University of Tampere included work with The Songs of North prototype which our team designed and implemented in the Mogame research project in 2003-2004. Before that, there had been e.g. Botfighters (2001) by the Swedish company It’s Alive, which was neither not yet based on GPS technology, but rather on the use of cell triangulation and SMS messages. It has been interesting to follow how the motif of “city shamans”, teamed up into competing factions and using might and magic to struggle for control of urban areas has developed, varied and re-emerged, starting from our The Songs of North (2003), followed by the Shadow Cities (2010), and then by Ingress (2013), which adopted many of the basic key elements from Shadow Cities. Pokémon Go, in turn, is based on Ingress on its location-based game mechanics.

Some of the comments of pioneering location-based or augmented reality game developers I have read have sounded even a bit irritated that a rather simple and clearly derivative game makes such a breakthrough, supposedly solely on the basis of association with a popular IP (intellectual property). What we witness here is related to the nature of innovation processes, though. Again and again, it is necessarily not the first implementations that become the great success stories; rather, it is the “second penguin” jumping in later, who can learn from the experiences from the pioneers, and implement something that is perhaps not as ambitious, but that is designed and suitable for large-scale, mainstream adoption. The detailed analyses of Pokémon Go will no doubt start appearing soon in game studies conferences and journals, and it is interesting to see how the key elements of its popularity will be described and interpreted. Simplicity is no doubt one such element, but there is more.

The holding power of Pokémon Go is perhaps relatively easy to explain in terms of certain key player motivation theories, plus counting in certain love or nostalgia with the revived transmedial Pokémon phenomena itself – plus certainly some novelty effect from augmented reality, location-based mobile game play, which is still new experience for many people. In player motivations, there are classic achievement motivations, pleasures of accumulating advancement, repetition and variably rewarded effort (a well-known addictive mechanic), that Pokémon games tap into; there is a long series of these games, starting from the 1996 releases of Red and Green games for Game Boy in Japan, continuing through what is now considered seven generations of video games, and also a popular trading card game, plus manga, anime, films, and other related Pokémon branded products. It is often quoted how Satoshi Tajiri, the producer and main creator of the original concept, based Pokémon on his childhood hobby of insect collecting. What is perhaps not so often noted is that Satoshi has also spoken about how exploration into urban wastelands was one of the key inspirations for Pokémon games, and how urban developments according to him had driven away all these fascinating life-forms – Pokémon games were thus designed from the start to mimic exploration into “urban nature” and stimulate the joy of discovery of both common and rare creatures of all kinds, and of learning about their individual characteristics and even potentials for (insect-like) metamorphosis.

Even if the range of Pokémon creatures is large and understanding their characteristics provides plenty of room for learning and improvement, the basic game in Pokémon Go game is so simple that it can be immediately comprehended: move around, catch Pokémon, collect them, power them up, evolve them into new species, and join teams for tournament style battles for the domination of certain key spots (marked as “Gyms” in the game). Thus, Pokémon Go shows key virtues of classic “casual” games: easy to learn, difficult to complete or totally master, leading to near-infinite replay value, or even addictive potential. What remains to be seen, however, is how many of the millions of players will continue to play the game when the novelty effect wears off. The location-based games in the past have remained in the margins, and one of the key reasons is that the extra effort of going out (sometimes also when it is raining, dark, or the surroundings are otherwise not so inviting or even safe) has meant that only the most dedicated parts of “core gamers” audiences have stuck with these games in the past.

In addition to analysing what features Pokémon Go has as a game, it is also interesting to see what features it does not have. Joining teams (blue, red, or yellow) is part of the game, but coordinating or communicating with team members is not part of the game. This is something that happens naturally between people who play in same locations and meet each other, when there is a critical mass of them, and social media also plays an important role for assisting players in this kind of contemporary “pervasive game”. Thus, playing alone in isolated locations, or disconnected from popular media services would inevitably have an effect on the Pokémon Go player experiences. This is a game that is designed for populated, urban areas and there is also heavy reliance on the location data and sites recorded for the earlier Niantic game, Ingress.

The “perfect storm” of Pokémon Go is, in my quick analysis so far thus mainly a combination of two things: the successful simplification of earlier, tested location-based game design features so that they are clear and straightforward enough for mainstream adoption, and secondly, of the critical mass provided by fans of the second-best selling digital game franchise in the world (only Mario games have sold more). There is also the additional boost from its associated, widely familiar “transmedial storyworld” that millions of people who have not played Pokémon video games will also recognize. The threshold for stepping into the shoes of a Pokémon hunter and trainer is low, and pleasures of real-world exploration, rare creature hunting, collecting, points and levels accumulation, competition and collaboration mean that Pokémon Go provides highly accessible and enjoyable combination of real world and gaming fantasy.

Author: frans

Professor of Information Studies and Interactive Media, esp. Digital Culture and Game Studies in the University of Tampere, Finland.

3 thoughts on “Note on Pokémon Go: fantasy of collecting and exploring “urban nature””

  1. Some of our research on this topic are featured e.g. in:

    Mäyrä, Frans & Lankoski, Petri (2009) “Play in a Hybrid Reality: Alternative Approaches into Game Design”. In: Adriana de Souza e Silva and Daniel Sutko (eds.), Digital Cityscapes: Merging Digital and Urban Playspaces. New York: Peter Lang Publishers. p. 129-147.
    ( )

    Lankoski, Petri, Heliö, Satu, Nummela, Jani, Lahti, Jussi, Mäyrä, Frans & Ermi, Laura (2004) “Case Study in a Pervasive Game Design: The Songs of the North.” In: NordiCHI 2004 Conference Proceedings, p. 413-416. New York: ACM.
    ( )

    Montola, M., Stenros, J., & Waern, A. (2009). Pervasive games: Theory and design. Morgan Kaufmann Publishers Inc.
    ( )

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