Nintendo added US$7.5 billion to its market value within 48 hours of releasing Pokémon Go, an augmented reality app which has since been downloaded over 650 million times and was the most downloaded app in 2016. The game is essentially a scavenger hunt that uses smartphone geo-location to lead players through their real physical city where they can capture, train and battle digital creatures called Pokémon.
In the first few weeks after launch, the world’s population was seemingly divided into two tribes: those who knew what was going on, and those who couldn’t understand why large groups of people were traversing the city, hanging out in public spaces waving their phones around like a wand. Slowly, almost everyone came to understand what was happening, but there were still two distinct tribes: those who saw the point in Pokémon Go, and those who claimed it was at best a waste of time, if not an actual public nuisance.
“The internet is simultaneously one of our greatest achievements and poorest reflections of us as a species.”
It’s naive to write off Pokémon Go as a simple game, and it is unfair to call it a waste of people’s time. Pokémon Go managed to achieve many things that are incredibly hard to do in a city – things that elude professional city-makers every day. Not to mention it did these things on a global scale with an audience roughly twice the size of the population of the United States.
Five Great Things about Pokémon Go
1 — It created a really simple phygital world (physical and digital) using something that almost every adult has: a smartphone. Most virtual reality experiences require you to put on ridiculous goggles and suspend your disbelief, making you simultaneously feel and look silly. The digital overlays of Pokémon Go simply augmented reality, make boring parts of the city interesting and ugly parts attractive.
2 — The new Pokémon world established different types of status symbols and created a whole new social ecology in a matter of hours. While the game has a paid, premium version and in-app purchases, it is free to download in the first instance and the Pokémon appear in public places, meaning it is essentially egalitarian. Imagine the delight of an awkward teenager who isn’t good at sport, doesn’t have rich parents and lacks a big social media profile. Pokémon Go invited everyone into a fresh way of spending time, making friends and feeling good about themselves.
3 — Out of its open invitation to play, Pokémon Go has built a genuine community of players interacting online and in the real world where they pool around places where Pokémon have been spotted. Watch a tribe of Pokémon players and you’ll see strangers begin to interact and talk, something that is the holy grail for healthy communities and super hard to kick-start in any new city neighbourhood. Not since the banning of cigarettes in licensed venues led to the phenomenon of ‘smirting’ (smoking and flirting) outside bars has there been such an epidemic of new friendships being forged.
4 — Pokemon Go hasn’t just created new pilgrims – it has also created new temples. Fortune favours the walker in Pokémon Go, and the game gets people out and about into the streets, parks and gardens of their city. In an age of screen addiction and sedentary lifestyles, at least it solved half the problem.
5 — And ultimately the purpose of Pokémon Go is to help people have fun. That’s all there is to it. Pokémon Go is not something you do while the real and sinister thing you don’t know is going on happens in the background. Think of it this way: as a player you are Nintendo’s customer, whereas you are Facebook’s product. Facebook’s sells your attention to advertisers, who are their real customers.
The internet is simultaneously one of our greatest achievements and poorest reflections of us as a species. So much of what we have built online is genuinely bad for us mentally, socially and economically. Within that disheartening context, Pokémon Go provides at least some hope that technology will bring more than frictionless retail transactions and faster public transport to our cities. So, are collecting little dragons trivial? Not if you had to walk to get them, spoke to a stranger along the way and ended up feeling good at the end of it all.
Barrie Barton is co-founder of Right Angle Studio. Since 2005 he has overseen the company’s strategy and insights, establishing it as as one of the most influential agents of urban change in Australia and increasingly across the world, with Right Angle now also working in London and Johannesburg. Qualified as a lawyer but motivated by creating cities that improve the lives of their inhabitants, Barrie brings an humanistic understanding and casual style to property development. ‘On Cities’ is an excerpt from his forthcoming book.
Image top: Hundreds of young people meet in a city park in Milan to take part in the Pokemon Go Tour, official event for hunting and catching Pokemons. Photograph by Tinxi / Shutterstock.com