By Jackie Marsh, University of Sheffield, UK
Already, tales of mythic proportions surround the ‘Pokémon Go’ app. Reports abound of stabbings, robbings, shootings, people falling off cliffs and even finding corpses as they play the game. There are concerns about sex offenders targeting children, and children accessing dangerous spaces to get their next Pokémon monster. A New Zealand resident recently quit his job to play the game full-time, and people joined crowds to get to a rare monster in Central Park, fostering anxieties about addiction. Now even the police are using the app to catch fugitives. The moral panic surrounding the launch of new media titles is not new, as I have discussed previously when comparing the audience response to the Disney film ‘Frozen’ to that of the ‘Davy Crockett’ film launched in the 1950s, but what is of interest is the speed of this response, given that ‘Pokémon Go’ was only launched a few weeks ago, on July 6th. The rapid take-up of the app has occurred with little direct marketing.
For the uninitiated, the free-to-play app draws on augmented reality technology to enable players to capture and train virtual Pokémon creatures, whose images pop up, overlaid on the ‘real’ world, on a mobile device. Augmented Reality (AR) consists of a blend of the physical world and the virtual world. In this blended reality, three-dimensional images or environments are projected onto a physical object or terrain, but users are not immersed in the same way as they are with virtual reality experiences.
This is not the first app to use augmented reality to entice its users. We undertook a research study on under 5’s use of tablet apps in the UK, in which children’s engagement with augmented reality apps was examined. The research team watched as children, enthralled, made the popular charity figure Pudsey bear appear in 3D and dance to disco music using the Quiver app, or played with augmented reality animals that appeared in the ‘AR Flascards’ app. As we stated in a subsequent paper from the study which reflected on play in the digital age, “Contemporary play draws on both the digital and non-digital properties of things and in doing so moves fluidly across boundaries of space and time in ways that were not possible in the pre-digital era” (Marsh et al., 2016). Augmented reality technology is still at an early stage of development, but the hype surrounding it indicates that it has the potential to excite and is a feature that is bound to become more prevalent in the toy and game industry in the future.
The ‘Pokémon Go’ app is notable for its popularity across generations. It appeals to those who collected the plastic Pokémon monsters in the brand’s earlier incarnations, taking them back to a fondly remembered childhood pastime. It could even remind them of previous GPS location-based tagging games they may have played, such as ‘Foursquare’ (whose creator, Dennis Crowley, has said he is not at all bitter about the success of ‘Pokémon Go’). Such nostalgic media practices are nothing new, as numerous scholars have noted, but what makes this one particularly exciting for its adult fans is the transformation of their childhood monsters into virtual characters that live in their smartphone. The app is also drawing in a new Pokémon audience, one that knows little about the original television animation, video games or toys, launched initially in 1995. It offers opportunities, therefore, for family play, as noted by commentators who are keen to identify the game’s positive elements in the face of all of the media panic. And, as some have asked, shouldn’t we be pleased that the game has got people off sofas and into their local environments?
Of course, this calculated appeal to an intergenerational audience is one that is already paying off, with the app becoming more successful on launch than Candy Crush, and Nintendo, the original creators of Pokémon, estimated to be worth an additional $12 billion because of it. For both Nintendo and Niantic, the company that created the app, the real value of the game may not be in the microtransactions it embeds, with the possibility to purchase in-game features, but in the potential commercial use of the data it collects from the people who play it. This, as scholars of children’s media practices have pointed out in relation to other digital games, raises key questions about data privacy and children’s rights.
It would seem, therefore, that the launch of ‘Pokémon Go’ has resulted in the familiar tropes of panic and hype that surround many launches of new games and toys. The longevity of the app is difficult to ascertain at this point in time. When the excitement dies down, it remains to be seen what the impact of the app will be on future markets for this kind of game. ‘Pokémon Go’ has succeeded because of its combination of GPS and augmented reality technologies, linked to a very popular media brand that already involved collecting items – thus, players enjoy the familiarity of playing with the old alongside experiencing the excitement of engaging with the new. It will be difficult for other game studios to copy that specific dynamic, but no doubt there will be many attempts to do so, and we could see location-based AR games becoming further intertwined with popular culture as people search local communities for virtual representations of toys, musicians, TV and film characters, media icons and more. In time, apps may be made available that enable user-generated content, so that the general public can leave their virtual wares in physical spaces for others to gather. Given children’s appetite for media content created by other children, that would undoubtedly be a popular type of app, albeit one potentially fraught with all kinds of safety issues. It will be incumbent upon researchers of children’s media use to trace the risks embedded in such developments, but also to identify the opportunities they present for engaging children and young people in digital content creation.