Pokémon Go has been sweeping the world like no other game before it. Since its launch in Australia on July 6th this year it has trended on every form of social media. So what is it, where did it come from? And most importantly, as educators how excited should we be about it?
What is Pokémon Go?
This is a game that takes players out into the physical world in search of Pokémon. Once you have registered and logged in, Google maps gives you an excellent stylised orientation to your local area. Signals in the map will lead you to the resources you seek to play the game.
When you find Pokémon you need to capture them (by ‘throwing balls’ at them on your screen). This is when the fantasy map view switches to a camera view of your immediate surroundings, placing the Pokémon clearly in your physical world. This augmented reality view blurs the lines between game and physicality, between fantasy and reality.
You can pay for some resources in the Pokémon (in-app) shop but to avoid paying and to continue to play the game, such as hatching eggs or doing battle, you must walk about in the physical world. This is the unique part of the game. Gamers have to get up, get outside and move! And of course players take lots of photos of this part and share them on social media. (We players are the best marketing tool Nintendo ever had.)
For those who are into gaming, in design Pokémon Go follows the lessons learned in Niantic’s previous game Ingress. Indeed the physical locales for Pokéstops and PokéGyms (vital to the game) are drawn from the nodes created by Ingress players.
And if you are a player, I probably should disclose I am on team Mystic.
Pokémon began with card collecting
But Pokémon itself is not new. It is a game system that began with collectable cards some 20 years ago and developed into a video game in 2003. I use my experience of talking to a 7 year old about Pokémon play on the Nintendo DS as an example of the level of complexity young players embrace in well-designed games. (I have been using this example for years!)
Understanding the many Pokémon, their relative skills and comparative statistics, is vital togame play. Yet my 7-year-old player who is doing all of that strategic thinking in a complex system will then face rudimentary mathematics operations back in the classroom at school. We need to ask ourselves if and where school offers genuine opportunities to engage with complex systems and how students stay motivated when switching between disparate levels of complexity.
Of course Pokémon Go has now morphed the Pokémon game into a worldwide phenomenon.
So what is our reaction to the first (almost) four weeks of playing Pokémon Go?
We seem to have the whole gamut of reactions across both mainstream and social media. Some see the game as evil, addictive and dangerous while others see it as delightful and both socially and physically advantageous.
A mother in Pittsburgh blamed Pokémon Go for her 16-year-old daughter walking into the path of an oncoming car. A war vet with PTSD thanked Pokémon Go for getting him out to play with his kids and meet neighbours, who were also playing, in a local park. A father worries about whether men with cameras outside his child’s preschool are playing Pokémon Go or engaging in some thing more nefarious.
An animal shelter invited people to walk a shelter dog to catch Pokémon and hatch their eggs. A mother told me that her teenage son, who constantly plays online from the confines of his bedroom, is now heading out to meet mates in a park and claim a local ‘gym’ for his team.
There are many sides to this game that we seem clearly unprepared for
You can post lures that attract Pokémon. The potential danger of this is obvious, but lures can also be placed in a children’s hospital, for example, so that bed bound kids can engage in the fun of play. Then, of course, the possible commercialisation of lures is boundless. (Shops and businesses are already buying lures to bring in potential customers.)
And this game is not just for kids, it is attracting players of all ages and the curious who may never have played a mobile phone game before. This multi-generational augmented reality has taken us by surprise. Parents have not had the chance to have safety conversations with young players for a form of play they could never have conceived. None of us could have predicted the numbers and diversity of people who would take up this game nor the excited and animated sharing and conversation it would engender.
In less than four weeks this game is proving to be a powerful social vehicle. Parents are playing with their kids. Neighbours are meeting up. Facebook is alight with discussions and images sharing the delights and concerns of play in the “real” world. A recent blog post by games researcher Dean Groom outlines the potential bonding and bridging of social capital such massively multiplayer games can produce.
The early levels of play certainly seem to herald a heightened social connection, and isn’t that something we would want to scaffold in schools?
Should Pokémon Go go to school?
I would suggest yes. But not in the way you might think. We don’t need to play the game in school to leverage what the game affords us as educators.
The discourse around the game, what James Paul Gee refers to as the ‘Big G’ of games, is where the most transformational activity happens. The digital media is the ‘small g’ and the discourse of the player community is the ‘Big G’.
I know there are those already looking at the possibilities for using it in the curriculum. But I seriously wonder if we should appropriate every popular game into school. It really should be considered on a case-by-case basis.
In this case the question is whether we need to appropriate the game or simply connect up as external players. I would suggest connecting to it. The possibilities in the “Big G” experience are where our energies should go rather than trying to press gang the game into the curriculum.
At last week’s EdTEchSA state teacher conference I recommended every teacher and parent download the app and get playing. I invited them to play so that they can get in touch with their own sense of fun, not just to know what all the hype is about but also to experience, first hand, the sociability of the early stages of play. Teachers and parents need to understand the concept of fun as a challenge based experience.
And Pokémon Go definitely offers the challenges and through that affords tinkering, goal setting, sociability, rewards, and a sense of personal and group accomplishment. We have an opportunity to connect with learners through discourse about play, sharing tips and discussing the local area landmarks.
Yes for the teachers!
Pokémon Go could definitely go to school for the teachers. I heard of a teacher group starting a lunchtime walking club to walk and talk in the school area during the week while they play together. The bonding and professional dialogue this will engender could be very beneficial, and yes fun!
Whether teachers talk about the game or branch out into other topics, the game is the trigger. It becomes the vehicle for the physical experience with the possibility of professional and social discourse.
But don’t get too excited
A note of caution needs to be offered here about the excitement in these early weeks of play. The community orientation of the early stages of the game may not be sustained unless the game grows and develops. Apparently already players, not interested in battling, are reporting a loss of the passion for the game. Respected game designers like, Amy Jo Kim, have questioned why the game design does not sustain activity around the cooperation and sociability of the early play.
However after less than a month we have been truly enchanted by this game. It is early days yet to decide where it will go and what could happen next with augmented reality gaming. The one certainty is that is Pokémon Go has many educators thinking how it might change or enhance what we do in our schools.
Dr Bronwyn Stuckey, is a Specialist in Gamification, Community of Practice and Open Badges. She has been engaged in educational community and gameful practices in learning development for the past 15 years. She has worked to explore virtual worlds, games in learning and how we can cultivate identity, agency, citizenship, leadership, and community. Bronwyn earned her PhD in researching the core factors supporting successful online communities of practice. Since leaving lecturing and learning design in the higher education sector (OTEN, UOW, QUT, UWS) her research, consultation and design have been in gamification and game-inspired designs for professional learning and communities of practice.
Bronwyn has consulted in K-12, adult and workplace learning contexts in relation to communities of practice, games based learning and aspects of gamification. She is a co-facilitator of the Open Badges Australia and New Zealand (OBANZ) community and has for the past 2 years researched the efficacy of open badges in re-imagining and re-framing academic learning programs and contexts. She is a postdoctoral research fellow of the Arizona State University Center for Games & Impact and is global leader in the gamification for community and identity cultivation. Bronwyn is also lead member of the Sydney Education Technology Group working to support edutech startups and to make Sydney the hub of educational entrepreneurship.