Expert says Pokémon Go has revived our ‘mundane phones’

(Credit: Eduardo Woo/Flickr)

Within days of the launch of Pokémon Go—which allows people to track down, catch, and train Pokémon in augmented reality via their GPS-enabled phones—estimates were in the millions for US downloads, causing Nintendo’s stock to soar.

In less than a week, the game has resulted in a phenomenon of mass, impromptu meetings of people, and players complaining of sore legs. Also, robbers have used the technology to target people, and a young man was stabbed while playing—then continued playing before going to the hospital.

Why the unprecedented fanfare and seemingly unusual behaviors associated with the app?

Pokémon Go, developed by Niantic Inc., may be uniquely situated at a junction merging the nostalgia of Nintendo’s decades-old franchise with imaginations of the future, one in which our realities will be heavily augmented.

“The Pokémon franchise has been around for 20 years and as a result has a large, multi-generational, pre-sold audience,” says Judd Ruggill, a University of Arizona associate professor of computational media. “I suspect that both general and scholarly interest in augmented reality technologies will continue to grow, particularly as people begin to understand more deeply what it means to have computers as playmates, not just as playthings.”

Ruggill is an expert in video game technologies. He responded to four questions about Pokémon Go and the advent of augmented reality reaching a mass, public audience.


What are some of the reasons Pokémon Go, modeled after a 1990s game, caught on so quickly, and how is the game helping to reshape our relationship with technology?


As is often the case with successful applications, the Pokémon Go interface is relatively accessible and intuitive, and the user experience is straightforward but with enough depth for sustained interaction.

The game also asks players to use their phones in ways they maybe haven’t thought of before, essentially revivifying what has become a mundane technology due to its ubiquity.

Internet-enabled phones are no longer unusual devices; people don’t generally thrill in amazement when a friend pulls out a smart phone. On the contrary, such phones are now so common as to be essentially invisible. The behaviors associated with them, however, are another story (texting while driving, talking on them in the movie theater, etc.).


What is the general attraction to Pokémon, and how may it have contributed to the success of this app?


Pokémon Go is certainly a fun and manageable introduction to the concept of augmented reality. Players not only have an opportunity to acquire all manner of interesting and unusual creatures, but also to show them off.

In a sense, the Pokémon franchise offers an affordable form of conspicuous consumption (provided players don’t make too many game-related purchases, of course).


Regarding games in general, how do such game and media franchises gain traction and sustainability?


The allure of the franchise stems from two play logics: acquisition and competition. Game franchises tend to gain traction through ubiquity; that is, through the consistent release of additional content over time and space.

Pokémon games not only pervade the entertainment sphere of the last two decades, but so too do Pokémon films, television programs, and other mediated artifacts and consumer goods.


With reports of criminals using the app to identify victims, and also concerns about personal information, any word of caution for users?


As with any kind of exploration (virtual, physical, or a combination), it’s important to use common sense. This might be as simple as looking up from your phone every once in a while—always a nice thing to do when you’re out and about—or gaming with a friend.