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.

Greenhouse: Waiting for the harvest

This is the first summer when our greenhouse is in use. So far everything seems to have gone just fine, even while we have been so busy in other areas that we have not really got so much time for the garden or the greenhouse. Even with just minimal care, most greenhouse plants seem to do well – Laura’s tomatoes exceedingly so, they have grown into real giants. My chillies would had profited from earlier change to the greenhouse and to larger pots, but I did not have the electric heater at that time. So my plants are mostly small to medium in size, but on the other hand the idea of this first summer was not so much to maximise the crop, but to test a wide variety of plants, and then see where to specialize in the future. For that purspose, my small but fruit-filled plants suit very well. Here are some photos taken from the greenhouse today.

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Three movies

I had some movie tickets that were expiring in Sunday, so I went for it, watching in a row three recent movies in cinema. All of these were transmedia storytelling – two of these were movies based on digital games, one was based on a book. I have no time to write actual reviews but a couple of notes:

Angry Birds Movie: the starting point feels almost like the rumoured Tetris Movie Trilogy – not much narrative material exists in the game to start with, but what little there is, it will be liberally exploited and expanded upon. In this case, we will learn why the birds are angry. In the original games the different birds were colour coded game units that each enabled different slingshot trajectories or other abilities. The movie version does decent work in providing them with personality, and for developing (bit silly and comedy-oriented) backstory for the conflict between the birds and the pigs.

The BFG (Big Friendly Giant): this is probably the strongest of three, when evaluated in terms of its overall cinematic qualities. The combination of Roald Dahl’s innovative children’s book and Steven Spielberg’s skills in high production value adventure movies provides a balanced mixture of humour, sense of wonder and a touch of some darker themes. The most memorable element is the friendly, 24 feet (over 7 meter) giant himself, played by Mark Rylance, and translated into detailed digital version by advanced motion capture technologies and computer generated imagery. The eyes of this friedly figure are particularly lively, deep and expressive.

Warcraft: The Beginning: like the title says, this movie is set to the early stages in the history of Azeroth, the main world of Warcraft game series. Gul’dan, an orc warlock, uses fel magic (evil, vampiric style of magic) to open a portal from Draenor, homeworld of orcs (now destroyed by fel magic) to Azeroth, inhabited by humans, elves and dwarves, and a dramatic conflict ensues. The challenge in Warcraft movie appears to be the exact opposite from the Angry Birds one: here, an abundance of characters, plotlines, wars, races, mythical places etc. has to be reduced into something that resembles more or less coherent, classical movie storyline. The reviews have generally been negative, but I actually rather liked the movie – perhaps due to having spent considerable time in Ironforge, Stormwind etc. myself, as a player of Warcraft RTS and World of Warcraft games in the past. The movie does not get very far in itself: there is perhaps ten or more significant characters, some of them are killed, some plots unravelled and others set into motion, and in the end everything just stops, after this prologue having provided hints at important future developments. But landscapes are impressive, some characters relatable, and there is constant “epic tone” in all of it (that might feel ridiculous or appropriate, depending what one’s tastes in genre fantasy are).

All in all, this day of movies just pointed out how central fantasy as an element, impulse and setting has become for popular culture, and how various storyworld elements cross media boundaries with ever-increasing ease.

Angry-Birds-Movie
Angry Birds Movie © Columbia Pictures and Rovio.
BFG
The BFG © Disney.
Warcraft: The Beginning © NBCUniversal
Warcraft: The Beginning © NBCUniversal

Semi-autonomous cars in trouble?

There’s the recent piece of news making rounds Tesla Model S using Autopilot being involved in fatal crash in Florida. (See e.g. http://www.theverge.com/2016/6/30/12072408/tesla-autopilot-car-crash-death-autonomous-model-s ) There are multiple reactions, ranging from “autopilot killed the driver” to “fully autonomous cars are the answer”. Our VW Touran is also equipped with multiple “driver assist” systems, and my experience from using them is sort of mixed. There are clearly beneficial functions, like the adaptive cruise control (ACC) that appears pretty reliable in helping maintaining safe distance to other vehicles, reducing potential for accidents, and also reducing driver stress while being constantly forced to slow down or speed up in congested motorways.

On the other hand, VW Lane Assist system is being marketed as a “friendly co-driver” that can sense if car is “drifting out of your driving lane”, when it “gently counter-steers the car back on line”. In practice, using Lane Assist often feels like you are competing from control of the car with the system, as the exact driving line the system uses is not always the one I would choose as a driver. The system should learn about the preferences of the driver, but the fundamental issue with semi-autonomous, assisted cars remains: who is exactly in charge?

The semi-autonomous system feels like it knows best, in most situations. But in several situations it does not react, or cannot detect the obvious danger. The car companies emphasise that the driver is always responsible of the control of the vehicle, but as assistive systems are developing stronger, they are sending mixed signals. There is always the temptation to take feet off the pedals, or hands off the steering wheel. Yet, the driver should keep focused and alert, in order to react at the right moment when the robotic assistant fails or comes to the limits of its abilities. For a driver, this also means that one should not only know the limits of one’s own abilities, but learn to know the limits of the assistive systems, and learn new driving skills, that are half based on old-fashioned direct control of the car, and half on division of tasks to the artificial intelligence systems. And that is a new kind of skill set.

On Bluetooth Headphones: The Case of Bose QC35

2016-06-28 11.45.18 (2)Enjoying music of all kinds home and on the road (and, at summertime, at the beach / in nature), I have been interested in mobile audio solutions (though not in any religious or “serious audiophile” manner, luckily for my wallet). At homes, my headphones are AKG K550, which are very analytical, crystal clean-sounding, closed-back German headphones, featuring 50 mm drivers and weight of 305 grams. I have attempted to travel with these things, but they are just not designed for travel, they are large and do not fold into any compact proportions. Also, long and thick cable is real hassle when you move from train to airport to bus, etc. Thus, to travel headphones.

In travel, everything is a compromise, in this case primarily between portability, size, weight, and features. Currently, I have settled into three-tier approach. In daily life, I always carry Apple EarPods with Remote and Mic: these are better than most light, in-ear headphones, but they do not isolate the user from the environment sounds, and they also play nicely with my iPhone 6 Plus apps for making phone calls and having those Skype meetings.

The second tier is currently occupied by Bose QuietComfort 20, which are a pair of in-ear noise cancelling headphones that are perfect for that short flight or other day-trip with only light hand luggage. It has well-designed “StayHear+” style silicone tips that happen to fit my ears perfectly (there are three sizes). These are the most efficient noise cancelling headphones I have tried. In everyday use they might even be a bit too efficient: the user is just enjoying blissful silence, even if directly addressed or discussed around you. You will not hear a thing. There is a specific “Aware Mode” button that you need to press, in order to get some ambient sounds through. Also, this is a wired system, so the cable will catch and occasionally tangle with the straps of your laptop bag and elsewhere.

And here comes the third tier, the more demanding mobile use and the solution provided by the new wireless, Bluetooth headphones by Bose: QuietComfort 35. These are bit on the larger size, so I would not probably always pack them with me on short trips, but on longer travels this is an excellent choice. The noise cancelling is very good, but not quite as efficient as that on QC20, since these are an on-ear model rather than a completely isolating in-ear ones – but in many situations that is even preferable. And the sound quality is excellent. There are probably some aspects that a real audiophile expect could criticize (there always are), but What Hifi? magazine reviewer for example gave them five stars. These have a rechargeable lithium ion battery that promises circa 20 hours of power, and after that it is possible to connect a cable and continue in wired mode, without noise cancellation. There is also the ability to connect to multiple (two simultaneously) Bluetooth devices, so that one can take that call from the work phone, while listing to music from the laptop or iPad (I have not tested this yet, I am currently on summer vacation). Pairing can be done with NFC, by touching, and there is a Bose Connect app for smartphones (iOS and Android) that can be used to managing paired devices, changing battery status, and setting sleep timer, for example. When power is turned on, the headphones use voice synthesis to speak aloud the battery level and device name they are currently connected with. Handy. The weight is 309 grams, so this is not the most light-weight option, but wearing QC35 feels comfortable. Testing with different music styles, I was particularly impressed how QC35 handled the “Silent Night” album by Tapani Rinne – with its mixture of deep-bass electronica and quiet, soft acoustic tunes, this is a very challenging recording, and the clear soundscape and powerful dynamics of QC35 really let this kind of music shine.

All-in-one: still not there

HP-elite-x2
HP Elite X2 1012 press photo (image © HP).
Some time ago, I blogged about tablets as productivity devices, and then I also have written about some early experiences as a user of Microsoft Surface Pro 4: a Windows 10, 2-in-one tablet PC that relies on combination of touch screen, pen computing, and keyboard and touchpad cover (plus Cortana voice assistant, if you are a US/English user). It just might be that I am restless and curious by nature, but these days I find myself jumping from Microsoft to Apple to Google ecosystems, and not really finding what I am looking for from any of them.

When I am using an iOS or Android tablet, the file management is usually a mess, external keyboard and mouse inputs are not working reliably, and multitasking between several apps and services, copy-pasting or otherwise sharing information between them all is a pain.

When I am on a regular Windows laptop or PC, keyboard and mouse/touchpad usually are just fine, and file management, multitasking and copy-pasting work fine. Touch screen inputs and the ease of use lag behind tablet systems, though. (This is true also to the Apple OS X desktop environment, but I have pretty much given up the use of Macs for my work these days, I just could not configure the system to work and behave in the ways I want – as a Microsoft OS/PC user who has hacked his way around DOS, then Windows 3.0 etc., and thus has certain things pretty much “hard-wired” in the way I work.)

Surface Pro 4 is the most optimal, almost “all-in-one” system I have found so far, but I have started to increasingly dislike its keyboard cover. Surface Pro 4 cover is not that bad, but if you are a touch-typist, it is not perfect. There is still slight flex in the plastic construction and shallow key movement that turns me off, and produces typing errors exactly when you are in a hurry and you’d need to type fast. I am currently trying to find a way to get rid of the type cover, and instead use my favorite, Logitech K810 instead. But: I am not able to attach it to Surface Pro in solid enough way, and there is no touchpad in K810, so workflow with all those mouse right-clicks becomes rather complex.

I really like the simplicity of Chromebooks, and this blog note, for example, is written with my trusty Toshiba Chromebook 2, which has excellent, solid keyboard (though not backlighted), and a good, crisp Full HD IPS screen plus a responsive, large touchpad. However, I keep reaching out and trying to scroll the screen, which is not a touch version. (Asus Chromebook Flip would be one with a touch screen.) And there is nothing comparable to the Surface Pen, which is truly useful when one e.g. reads and makes notes to a pile of student papers in PDF/electronic formats. Also, file management in a Chrome OS is a mess, and web versions of popular apps still respond more slowly and are more limited than real desktop versions.

So, I keep on looking. Recently I tested the HP Elite X2 1012 (pictured), which is pretty identical to the Surface Pro systems that Microsoft produces, but has an excellent, metallic and solid keyboard cover, as well as other productivity oriented enhancements like the optional 4G/LTE sim card slot, USB C port with Thunderbolt technology, and a decent enough screen, pen and kickstand design. However, Elite X2 falls short in using less powerful Intel Core M series processors (Surface Pro 4 goes for regular Core i5 or i7 after the entry-level model), by being rather expensive, and according to the reviews I have read, also the battery life of Elite X2 is not something a real mobile office worker would prefere.

Maybe I can find a way to connect the Elite X2 metallic keyboard cover to the Surface Pro 4? Or maybe not.

(Edit: The battery life of Elite X2 actually appears to be good; the screen on the other hand only so-and-so.)

Just for the likes?

Using Facebook and Twitter today, like we do these days, liking and sharing and retweeting, it again came to me how complex these basic actions actually, fundamentally are. We click an update to express support, to say “me too”, or just to send a social presence (phatic) style of update: our connection is still working. I am reading what you are saying. In some cases a like or retweet is an endorsement, sometimes not. Sometimes we spread the word because we cannot get our mind around a particular issue or piece of news: could some of you take a look at this, and say if this makes any sense, or not? Many of shared and circulated items are there just for the joke. Tension release and laughing together is important for creating feeling of community.

At the same time, much of these nuances go unnoticed. We just judge the communicative situation, evaluate our social contexts, possibly tweak a bit the distribution range (a closed group, just the closest friends, just the family, all friends, public, etc.) – and then go with the flow. Media is social and our social world is media these days. However, I think it would help to teach, educate and engage more in discussion about “algorithmic literacy”: about our strategies and abilities to read the system that supports, delimits and underlies our media-merged existence today.

This is just a short, late-night note, but I spent a minute trying to find a good primer to contemporary, social media and games related algorithmic literacy, and could not find one. Maybe you can point me to relevant direction? (Blog comments are closed, but my contact details in all leading platforms are readily available.) There are plenty of studies that focus on media literacy, computer literacy, even some on game literacy – but algorithmic literacy focused studies and popular presentations are apparently still harder to come by.

What I mean by everyday algorithmic literacy relates to, for example, how people may strategically follow, like or access social media updates of others, in order to tweak their automated news stream or filter settings: by communicating to the system that I am interested in messages of certain topics, or coming from certain persons, groups or organisations, I am able to influence how my “social graph” develops – until the system logic is again changed, of course. I am not sure how common such “theorycrafting of social media” is these days, but I suspect that pretty much everyone who actively uses these systems instinctively develops some silent knowledge about how their actions produce consequences in their info-sphere, or communicative spaces. Getting that discussion into more self-aware and public ground would be useful. I am sure there are several smart people and teams on social data analysis and information or games literacy fields, at least, who must have much to say on this topic.