In the past couple weeks we’ve seen “Pokemon Go” explode across the nation, taking over parks, bars, streets and historic landmarks. Some estimate the augmented reality game where players capture virtual creatures in the real world, is now more popular than Facebook and Minecraft.
People who grew up with video games will remember other gaming crazes; like in the mid-2000s when “Dance Dance Revolution” got people moving or more recent phenoms like “Angry Birds” and “Candy Crush.” In one week “Pokemon Go” is estimated to have surpassed all these games in daily active users.
The game takes place in the real world, getting players moving and socializing around public spaces — what does this mean for the culture of gaming and society as a whole? UC Davis Professor Cuihua “Cindy” Shen, a media and game expert, looks at the latest.
Shen’s research debunked the gender performance gap in video games and found playing massive multiplayer online (MMO) games with family members resulted in prosocial outcomes.
CapRadio: Have you ever seen anything like this before?
Shen: There is another location-based, augmented reality game called Ingress. It was developed by the same company Niantic, but was not as popular as “Pokemon Go.” In fact, Ingress and PG share the same map system, so players of PG often use Ingress as a so-called "maphack" to find Pokestops and Gyms.
CapRadio: Do you think this is bigger than a lot of previous gaming trends (“Dance Dance Revolution,” “The Sims,” “World of Warcraft”) – or does it just look bigger because gamers are outside and visible?
Shen: It is hard to predict, given that PG hit the market only a week ago. The latest statistics show that it is already the biggest mobile game in US history, having just under 21 million daily active users, surpassing other mobile hits such as “Candy Crush.”
To put things in perspective, “World of Warcraft” had a peak of around 12 million monthly subscribers. But numbers aside, the real challenge is its longevity. A lot of mobile games got high daily active users fairly quickly, but their popularity faded quickly as well. We have to wait and see how “Pokemon Go” will do in a month, a year, and beyond.
CapRadio: Gamers are often a marginalized and misunderstood community, do you think cultural attitudes toward gamers will change as a result of this game?
Shen: This is an interesting perception. Based on the statistics (check ESA, for example), I do not think gamers are still a marginalized community, but culturally they might still be. And the change of cultural attitudes is a very slow process. I do not believe any one game could single-handedly change the cultural attitudes towards the gamer community, even one as popular as “Pokemon Go.”
CapRadio: Large meetups are planned and taking place all over the city – does this debunk the gamer stereotype as an antisocial-white male in his parents’ basement?
Shen: The stereotype of an antisocial-white male in his parents' basement has been debunked many times. If you look at the popular games on the market, most of them are enjoyable because of their social aspects. It is actually very hard to find a game these days that focuses on solo play without any social interaction with others.
So yes, I think “Pokemon Go” also contributes to the debunking of that stereotype. Specifically, “Pokemon Go” could bring potential prosocial benefits to the gamer, for two reasons. First, unlike other games rely on online interactions only, “Pokemon Go” creates many opportunities for gamers to meet offline. Such opportunities may include chance meetings (i.e., two people are out hunting pokemons in the wild) as well as planned meetups. And meeting offline is a great way to get to know people better and deepen otherwise shallow social relationships.
Second, “Pokemon Go” is location-based, which means the people you meet through [the game] are from the same local community, not from far-flung places. You may know these people already, or are indirectly connected to them one way or another. I have read or heard stories of people bumping into their acquaintances, or making new local friends through “Pokemon Go.” Together, these connections generate social capital and strengthen the community as a whole.
CapRadio: What are your initial thoughts on the game itself? What is your perspective of the cultural shift in gaming, if any?
Shen: I really think a location-based augmented reality game like PG has lots of potential to "engineer" our social systems. For example, Pokestops and Gyms are important places where people can hunt pokemons and compete with each other. I've readan article about how small businesses can creatively drive traffic to their shops using ‘Pokemon Go’. I can see how educational institutions can use similar strategies to attract people to libraries, schools and so on (remember a lot of children are playing “Pokemon Go”).
What about doing something similar at polling stations, so that we can encourage voter turnout? What about integrating something like “Pokemon Go” into the urban planning process, so that we could encourage and monitor the use of community space, encourage community engagement such as volunteering, and even promote racial integration? There are many possibilities and we have just started to explore them.