Pokémon GO is a massive win for serious games, a typically underrated and underappreciated subsection of the game industry. Pokémon GO piqued my interest from the start, with me applying for beta testing the day it was announced and downloading the app as soon as it was released (back when it was still the eleventh option in the iOS app store and rated a measly two stars, hipster that I am). But it wasn’t just my interest in catching Pokémon that enthused me; as somebody who teaches serious game design to budding developers at university, the potential of Pokémon GO was obvious and very exciting.
In reality, Pokémon GO has exceeded even those optimistic expectations. Quickly becoming a global phenomenon, the game is having a positive impact worldwide for a massive percentage of the population in a number of ways. Stories of the app distracting people into dangerous situations, such as car accidents, have been outnumbered by the many ways the app is helping people. Let me tell you about a few.
Exercise and Going Outside
One of the key features of Pokémon GO is that it makes you leave your house (unless you happen to be one of the rare few to have a PokéStop and a gym within reach of your lounge room, and a constant stream of Pokémon dancing down your hallways). As much as I love going on walks, I’m bad at prioritising outside-time; having a PokéStop a couple of hundred metres from my house and a gym around the block has helped me get more frequent time out in the sun. If I see a rare Pokémon in my ‘nearby’ menu, I will drop what I’m doing and go for a quick stroll to see if I can locate it, giving me more regular breaks from work (which can sometimes be difficult to schedule when working from home).
On top of this, I’m now more likely to spend my lunch hour sitting outside or wandering around on the days that I do go in to the office, and I’ve also been planning PokéWalks or PokéHunts on my weekends with my partner. These weekend PokéWalks aren’t always limited to small-scale affairs organised with friends and family, however, as Guy ‘Yug’ Blomberg recently discovered. After attempting to organise an event with some people he knew, soon Yug was playing host to what must have felt like all of Sydney at his recent PokéWalk. Many others have followed suit, organising events in their own cities and towns—including the Serious Games team at my university, who will be hosting a PokéWalk as part of Orientation Week festivities, encouraging new students to spend time outside while meeting existing students and staff.
Pokémon GO offers a way to bond over videogames that doesn’t require you to sit inside, which is incredibly valuable. From my weekend adventures with my partner to Yug’s large-scale event in Sydney, people are going outside and having conversations about this app. Contrary to common narratives about screens making people antisocial, Pokémon GO acts as a fantastic icebreaker.
It is easy to tell when others are playing the game, particularly when using items like ‘lure modules’, and this can lead to surprisingly comfortable conversations with strangers. There are a cluster of PokéStops on my university campus that are often lured, and striking up a conversation with the people gathered around this perfect Pokémon-catching location couldn’t be easier. Before long, people are chatting about what team they’re on or what their best recent catch was, and pointing one another towards rare finds nearby.
While not everyone uses the icebreaking nature of Pokémon GO for good—with recent news stories of lured PokéStops being used as a way to mug players of the game, and other tales of disingenuous people using the app as a way to pick up women—primarily, this social factor has been an effortless way to make new friends and strengthen existing bonds. I met a lovely group of people near the PokéStop on my street the other day when it became lured, and I have had other great conversations with students and staff on campus who are playing. I watched a precious exchange the last week, as a number of high-schoolers passed through our campus and a university student pointed them towards a nearby Ghastly; I don’t think I’ve ever seen a group of teenagers so excited about anything.
Beyond general socialisation, Pokémon GO has created connections between players and the community in ways that I never imagined. For starters, PokéStops and gyms are often positioned at points of interest such as sculptures, artworks, parks, and recreational areas, which encourage players to engage with areas of their and other communities in a way that they may not have before. I now know the name of all of the parks around my house, and I didn’t two weeks ago.
There have been some issues in terms of these ‘landmarks’, however. As each of these key locations is based on user-submitted data from Niantic’s previous title, Ingress, there has not been careful screening on some of these spaces. This has led to awkward scenarios, such as swarms of people looking for Pokémon in places of mourning, like cemeteries and even a Holocaust memorial museum. But, for the most part, PokéStops and gyms in Pokémon GO encourage a healthy exploration of community spaces.
Pokémon GO also encourages players to connect with businesses, particularly small businesses. Although there is word of an upcoming deal with McDonald’s, mostly Pokémon GO has offered a new stream of revenue for small businesses who were early to jump on the Pokémon GO bandwagon and are now profiting from their clever marketing.
Active marketing isn’t the only way to profit from Pokémon GO, as GameStop has discovered; since the app’s release, sales at GameStop stores positioned on PokéStops and gyms have gone up by 100%. With rumours that Pokémon GO is considering allowing businesses to add PokéStops to the game’s map for an ongoing fee, this game may become a money-making machine if used effectively.
But it’s not all about profit. Take Thomas Larkin, who has helped the children of Jessica Hawkins (who both suffer from seizure disorders) to play Pokémon GO without asking for anything in return. Pokémon GO has been used positively at a number of hospitals to help keep patients—particularly children—mobile (and social). There are ways that you can help sick children too, with some institutions encouraging generous players to put lure modules on nearby PokéStops to encourage Pokémon to visit the children staying there. However, if you are interested in doing something like this, it’s worth checking for permission first; some hospitals would prefer you didn’t place lure modules near them, as they can make children feel excluded if they are out of reach.
Another way that you can become more connected with your community using Pokémon GO is by offering to walk dogs at a nearby animal shelter. With players taking long walks to hatch their Pokémon eggs or catch rare and elusive varieties, the Muncie Animal Shelter started a trend by asking users to come to the front desk as ask for the ‘Pokémon dogs’ if they wanted to have a friendly companion during their outings. This cute advertisement became one of the many viral sensations that Pokémon GO has experienced so far during its short life.
What does exercise, going outside, socialising, and community engagement all have in common? They can all drastically improve mental wellbeing. Pokémon GO was released only two weeks ago, and in that time, people have been reporting dramatic improvements to their mental health. I have personally noticed a decrease in my own stress and anxiety, presumably due to spending more time outside and moving around, as well as taking more frequent short breaks from work (which has also led to better output). More exercise has also helped me sleep better, making me more alert and active. It’s a positive cycle.
Pokémon GO brings with it a multitude of exciting outcomes, some of which I was expecting and that I believe Niantic considered when designing the game, and some of which have taken me (and possibly them) by surprise. It’s amazing the way communities can form so quickly, and even more amazing to see the beautiful ways people can use technology to make the world a better place. Though Pokémon GO likely won’t be this popular forever and the world’s enthusiasm for the app will fade, the potential for serious games that this endeavour has spotlighted is magical.