Pokémon Go, an augmented reality game, intertwines physical locations and the world on screen with the help of Google Maps. In just one week it has almost 2 million downloads and spreading like a wildfire. It is also quite literally luring people outside.
As Emily Burnham wrote yesterday for the Bangor Daily News, the Pokémon Go Craze Sweeps Bangor. The images included with the article show people of various ages getting out there in large numbers looking around town and down at their screens. One popular location is the Bangor Waterfront which hosts nearby restaurants, events, and concerts. Another location mentioned is the Bangor City Forest. This is a place I have spent time biking, running, and exploring on trails.
Connecting the game to my Bangor (where I grew up) got me wondering about how playing Pokémon Go out in our wild spaces will enhance, alter, or change my experience and the experience of others. I am curious what will happen when “pokestops” lead not just to clusters of people in the nearest downtown, but also to the nearest state or local park (a place I usually go to get away from my phone entirely).
The National Park Service (NPS) has a few ideas about it. On July 12 the NPS tweeted “Attention Trainers: We’re so excited you’re headed out to the parks. Go #FindYourPark & catch ’em all! #PokemonGo” along with this short video.
To give you a sense of the tone, here is a quote from the film: “Parks are amazing places to run and play, to hike and bike, to wander and learn. Just make sure to keep your eyes open and stay safe. We don’t want you stumbling off the path or running into some of our real wildlife. While you’re looking for the flying, swimming, and crawling creatures on your screens. Go have fun! That’s why were here.”
I think that the NPS is on the right track to encourage people to get out and explore. As the video says “you might find more than just a new virtual companion.” Indeed!
I am a big advocate for getting outside to explore all of the beauty of the natural world. I have read and heard comments arguing for or against Pokémon Go. Honestly, I am not sure that it is a matter of being for or against so I decided to share my outdoor adventurer perspective on some of the potential benefits and drawbacks.
- It encourages people to get exercise. Whether you are walking, hiking, or riding a bike, moving around is an integral part of the game. Once players gather eggs from “pokestops” they need to walk a certain number of kilometers before they hatch. The better Pokémon are available with the longer distance walks.
- It gets people to new places in their cities, neighborhoods, and parks. When is the last time someone has been to the library, the police station, the cafe on the corner, or local sports shop? The game requires players to visit local places. It also provides an opportunity to visit places that are completely new too.
- It is fun and playful. The game provides a chance to get outside and be playful by interacting with your device and the people you meet along the way. We hear daily about the violence and hate in the world. It is good to get away and find opportunities to play and find joy. Play is also an essential way that children and adults learn and grow.
- It provides opportunities to interact with and see the natural world. While people might be looking down at their devices, they are also looking around too. Perhaps they look up and see the clouds and enjoy the walking paths so much that they return the next day with a friend. It just might be the beginning of many more trips to a local park, the waterfront, or a hike along a new trail. It all starts with lacing up your shoes and getting out there.
- It is a stepping stone to new learning opportunities. This scenario comes to mind. While people are out catching Pokémon they arrive at the local park. As they walk around they notice a sign and read about the history of the park and how the park is currently being supported. Having been to many state and national parks I know that they have a lot to offer in terms of interpretive signs and programs. Gamers might participate and explore any number of opportunities along the way. I also think that using google maps to navigate also provides a great chance to work on navigating with a map.
- It encourages more screen time. We are all very “plugged in” most of the time and a lot of research suggests that taking time away and becoming “unplugged” is really important. You can’t play the new Pokémon game without a screen so perhaps this is not the game for becoming less reliant on devices.
- It might mean people miss a lot that is going on in the natural world. While being focused on the game people might not stop to look at the cloud shaped like a bear or smell the trees and flowers as they pass by. The natural world is such an amazing place and if we do not see it and truly experience wild spaces then I worry we will not see the value in protecting it. It can also mean that by being engrossed in the game you are getting in the way of other how people around you might want to experience a particular place.
- It can take the place of imaginative play. I was just talking with a friend about what he used to do during summer vacation. He remembers fondly swimming in the pond, making forts in the yard, and riding his bike to a friends house. There were lots of games too, like freeze tag or capture the flag. I laughed recalling the idea of “house rules.” Basically, we would modify the rules of the game and make it our own. Are these games going to be just a thing of the past as we follow what the games wants us to do? Will this lead to becoming disconnected from our ability to imagine and create?
- It is based on consumerism and marketing. Nothing is free. I see the potential for businesses to buy into the game to get people to their specific location. It can be good for business but it can also open up an entirely new dimension to marketing in this augmented world. Or thinking about it another way, what if the game changes and allows you can buy kilometers rather than walk them yourself.
- It can be prohibitive for human interaction and conversation. Have you ever called someone while they are in the middle of their favorite television show? How was the conversation? If your experience is anything like mine it means you talk and then you get an “uh huh” “uh huh, uh huh.” I find the same thing with our mobile phones. I know I try to make a conscious effort to put my phone away (or go through unplugged periods of time) to focus my time and attention on the person in front of me.
I love going hiking and exploring the natural world with a device in my hand. My device of choice is a camera. Pokémon Go is a game that uses a phone as a device of choice to provide a way of seeing and experiencing the world too. Whether a camera or a phone a device is still a tool. No matter what device you take or don’t take, you have to be aware of your surroundings and courteous to allow everyone to have the time and space needed to enjoy the experience they are seeking.