Have you heard about this new game, Pokémon Go? I hear it’s kind of a big deal.
...OK, I have to come clean, and this is possibly the most embarrassing thing I could admit in a public forum: in 1999, when the first Pokémon movie came out, my best friend and I dressed up as two of the main characters, carrying a Pikachu, and went to our local movie theater. The parents there were not terribly comfortable with two 15-year-olds acting like Misty and Brock at what was definitely a movie for children.
I love Pokémon. And I love Pokémon Go. But it’s not just me—over 15 million people have downloaded it. Why is that? I have a few ideas.
Virtual worlds transcending to the hyperlocal
As you play the game, not only do you move through a world filled with Pokémon, but you move through the real world—your neighborhood, town, or city. It’s a concept known as “augmented reality.” Hidden or obscure landmarks suddenly come to life when they’re branded as Pokéstops or Gyms, where players battle members of rival teams—virtually, of course—for control. Instead of playing a game isolated indoors, players are outside, exploring their neighborhoods, block by block, and finding fellow players along the way. Over the past few days, I’ve met more of my neighbors than I’d met in the previous three months’ time. I got a fist bump from a complete stranger in downtown DC. And Reddit is full of stories.
The game perfectly connects a rich virtual world with the real world and with real people, facilitating connections and even friendships between strangers, solidifying the offline community associated with the game. And some savvy folks are taking advantage of this transcendent quality, with libraries, churches, and other “traditional” community locales using Pokémon Go as a way to start conversations with the people—young and old—who come in search of Pokéballs and experience points.
Sure, it’s all pretend, but all virtual community is in a way. It’s the connections that are created because of it that are meaningful, even if they’re sparked by a desire to catch Pidgeotto.
Nostalgia is intoxicating
Anyone who was even a little bit like me in the ’90s was hit by a wave of nostalgia when Pokémon Go was released. The game brings to life—in an amazing, brand-new way—all of our childhood fantasies of exploring the world catching cute and weird pocket monsters. Pokémon never really left, but for many millennials, they are associated with a very specific joy from our childhoods (or teenagehood, for weirdos like me).
The developers of the game, Niantic, knew that the basic “catch ‘em all” game dynamics and the unforgettable creatures left a strong impression. By tapping into this nostalgia and only including the original 150 Pokémon in the initial game launch, Niantic spoke directly to the original fanbase—”remember this? Remember how desperately you wanted a friendly Pikachu in your world?”
But this game isn’t just for millennials reminiscing on a far-off childhood. Anyone with a smartphone who likes games can play, and have they ever been playing. Pokémon Go has more users than Twitter, and it’s hard to walk down the street without spotting people—from 8 to 80—throwing virtual Pokéballs at virtual monsters as they stand on the real sidewalk.
And so the game simultaneously taps into deep childhood nostalgia for the ascendant generation, without leaving out younger or older players. And, much like many of the most successful communities, even though it might target a specific demographic, there’s a place for everyone to join in.
It’s not about the technology
Augmented reality is not new; it’s been around since the 90s, and none of us can forget the flash-in-the-pan that was Google Glass. So what was made Pokémon Go so very explosive?
Part of it is the element of play; you don’t have to be a die-hard gamer to enjoy the game, and it doesn’t require arcane occult knowledge nor highly-tuned hand-eye coordination. It’s easy, and yet it has a mastery curve that keeps you excited as you grow your stable of Pokémon and become better and better as a trainer. Pokémon Go provides an experience that is both engaging and rewarding to everyone who plays it, no matter their skill level or knowledge.
The success of Pokémon Go is significant for mobile gaming not because of groundbreaking technology, but because of what the technology creates—an autonomous space that exists between the player and their device, full of charming pocket monsters and playful delights. This is a good reminder for everyone who looks for technological bells and whistles whenever they’re designing a digital experience: the technological is the means, not the end.
If you still find yourself wondering how this matters to you, remember this: the rate of adoption for this game is staggeringly high—there are no worries about how to appeal to users in general or specific groups. It is naturally, gloriously engaging. If your community were one-thousandth as successful, you would be an absolute rock star. So think about it: there’s a lot to learn from here.
As for me, there’s an Arcanine down the street I need to catch. See you next time.