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Disrupt Everything: My Summer of Pokémon Go

· October 21, 2016

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Every summer has its craze, and this year it was all about Pokémon Go. I’m still playing, even after the initial hype has died down, so it’s an interesting time to think about the impact of Pikachu and friends. Pokémon Go has been a revolution in mobile gaming, leading to several interesting disruptions — in terms of how location-based games work, who plays them, and expectations about data sharing.

Before we start, this’ll be an easier read if you play yourself (it’s free — why not try?) but in essence, your phone becomes a screen through which to view the world of Pokémon. When they pop up, you can catch them, using Pokéballs, which you get by visiting Pokéstops, landmarks varying from cathedrals to hipster street art. One aim is to try and catch all 250 Pokémon, like a butterfly collector. The other is that, as you advance, you can put the Pokémon in the gym to fight on behalf of one of three teams.

First disruption: the game took an extremely nerdy framework and made it mainstream. The joy of seeing Pokémon pop up at the bus stop is certainly a great novelty. But much of the system, like the location of the Pokéstops, has been imported from earlier games, like Geocaching and Ingress.

Geocaching — or as I like to call it, sci-fi orienteering — consists of using coordinates, and usually GPS, to find hidden boxes in the real world containing a log book and some trinkets, as this charmingly hyper woman explains. Ingress, an earlier game developed by Pokémon Go creators Niantic, pits two teams in an eternal battle that relies on players “capturing” “portals” in an augmented reality and, occasionally, wearing matching T-Shirts!

Geocaching and Ingress both sit comfortably in the Venn diagram of Settlers of Catan, Vibram shoes and his’n’hers fleeces. That’s an awesome space, but not a guarantor of mainstream cool success. Pokémon Go somehow subverted that and became a worldwide hit — and even, thanks to the Pokéstop information pulled in from Ingress, a great way for people to find out about quirky architectural features in their area.

After disrupting the world of location-based games, it also transformed who plays them. I played Pokémon on my Nintendo Gameboy in 1999, and was roundly mocked for it (I never caught them all — I didn’t have a link cable, so am stuck on 106). This time, my friends were all playing too — smart young urban professional women, who I assumed would be more into dating apps like Happn.

One friend, a medical researcher, walks several miles to work and back each day, and said it revolutionised her commute. “I’ve actually occasionally taken a new route to hit a couple more stops or pass by a gym with a space to drop off one of my ferocious fighters.” Is it a fad? “I’m a ‘completer/finisher’ with a streak of pedantic perfectionist,” she admits, so won’t stop “unless my phone screen gets smashed before then — a very real possibility when I try to catch some pesky flappy Zubat,” a bat-type Pokémon which is, ahem, challenging to catch.

Another friend, who works for a charity, even directly compared it to dating. Why does she like it? “Cause it’s addictive, like Tinder, and perfectly set up to exploit my slightly compulsive personality,” she said. “I’ve really enjoyed wandering around the City of London at lunchtimes: it’s taken me to some strange and unknown places… this has also helped me lose weight.”

Making us fitter… helping lose weight… gotta catch them all. “Catching new pokés hits all the reward centres in my brain,” admits a third friend. It’s also commitment-free — unlike online dating. “I like that you don’t need to check in constantly – you can leave it for days at a time without any penalties, unlike tamagotchis, and the game goes at your pace.” And, she adds, it’s free.

It’s also disrupted the social fabric of London. For a start, I’ve been speaking to strangers — normally about the speed at which local gyms change hands. And because the amount of Pokémon spawning depends on mobile signal activity in the area, London’s most overcrowded tourist hotspots are suddenly appealing. I live here — so I normally wouldn’t go to Leicester Square, not for love nor money. These places are tourist hellholes… but Pokémon gold.

Finally, there’s one area where nothing has been disrupted. One of the greatest forces for innovation recently has been people getting creative with data. From apps like CityMapper to IBM’s Watson, the power of making datasets public is something we’re only just starting to understand. But it’s not something they’re keen on at Niantic. This attempt to make a map of where Pokémon were spawning was shut down, as explained on GitHub, and I’m not going to risk my reputation by linking to others that work.

In Brussels, of course, boffins have taken the map concept to the next level. As well as patrolling grassy areas from Parc Josaphat to Bois de la Cambre, the city has Brusselopole, which gathers information from across the city to show which teams are doing best. Currently, Mystic is winning, with 169 gyms to Valor’s 119 and Instinct’s 80, in this town where forging alliances and picking tactical battles is key. I’m not saying red is the Commission, blue is the Council and yellow is the Parliament, but…

Using Raspberry Pi mini-computers to create virtual trainer accounts across Brussels, the designers have created a centralized database of every Pokémon encountered in the city. The website then builds statistics & heatmaps based on those data. All, ahem, without Niantic’s permission. Watch this space. Expectations about who can access data are constantly shifting…

What next? I’ll keep playing, if purely to hatch my 10 km egg. I’ve walked 70 km while playing, which is a great metric to have. It’s led me to discover Pokéstops in the most unexpected places — Venice’s Bridge of Sighs, South London micro-churches and even the Iraqi Supergun. And I still haven’t caught Pikachu. So while it may have been a summer craze for some, I’l carry on — and the disruption to who plays geo-based games, how they are played and what people can do with their data is here to stay.

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