Pokémon Go - A New Avenue for Urban Exploration

Ali Attari
July 24, 2016

By now, many of you have heard about the craze taking smart-phone users by storm. The new game 'Pokémon-Go' has skyrocketed to the top of the app store rankings and is taking over social media channels everywhere. Continuing a legacy that had successfully penetrated most major modes of entertainment, Pokémon-Go has revolutionized the way we view video games and the way we play them. In contrast to the conventional impression that inactivity is a prominent feature of the lives of gamers, Pokémon-Go is literally a game changer since it integrates our surroundings within the game-play, and the only way to be successful in playing it is through exploring one's surroundings. Looking at this from a different perspective, this development in the gaming industry can lead to changes in the way people experience their cities.

Pokémon began as a video game on the handheld console 'Game Boy,' and has since grown into a popular media franchise that includes an animated show, trading cards, and more. In the original game, players start off as trainers who roam the Pokémon world with the goal of collecting fictional animals called Pokémon, and battle other trainers over control of gyms and by filling up their Pokédex, a database of all the Pokémon they catch.

The game, which is developed by Niantic, was only released two weeks ago, and has since gathered an international following. The new game utilizes augmented reality which relies on data provided through Google Maps, and scatters Pokémon and different features of the game around a given city. People have been willing to go to great lengths in order to capture their Pokémon, and in turn improve their ranking as players. Pokémon-Go makes use of original features of the Pokémon game by making it a point to catch as many Pokémon as possible, and to battle other players for the control of gyms. 

A Pokémon appearing in the CSBE office.

 An ‘Augmented Reality’ view of the game, which works
by overlaying digital imagery over a player’s
real-world view. 

The game incentivizes exploration by creating awards based on several variables such as the distance walked and the number of gyms captured. Different features of the city are incorporated in the game. For example, a fountain in the park by our CSBE office building is a 'Poké Stop', which is normally a landmark (a building, mural, sculpture …). Players are given free items when they are close enough to the Poké Stop to activate it. Players seek out these Poké Stops because the items they receive usually are of help to them either during battle or during their search for more Pokémon.

A Poke Stop. Swiping the picture gives players free items.

As a result, a new dynamic has been born. The game has managed to facilitate different forms of social interaction and exploration. At first, I found it very odd when I heard that someone in Amman walked fifteen Kilometers to capture a Pokémon. I am finding out, however, that stories like these are common. News items of people kayaking to the middle of a lake to battle for a gym, biking for tens of kilometers a day in search of Pokémon, and strangers becoming friends as they search for Pokémon are being covered in popular media outlets around the world.

In some instances, however, negative consequences have resulted from this game. Instances of people committing offenses such as trespassing have been circulating social media. Also, gangs have used the game to bring players to specific locations where they would mug them, and people have gotten into car accidents as they tried to multi-task driving and playing. Niantic CEO, John Hanke, mentioned that the game uses crowd-sourced hotspots to come up with locations that are deemed safe according to their data collection methods. The data, however, does not seem to be as accurate as he would like it to be, especially since many mistakes relating to location are being pointed out around the world. For example, a man in Australia woke up to find a crowd of Pokémon players surrounding his house because it was designated a gym. Even though the game has only been officially released in a few countries, the rest of the world has been quick to catch on, and many have found ways to download the game.  The lack of data in some locations (Jordan included), however, is evident in the lack of landmarks, gyms, and Pokémon. Areas with more data tend to have an abundance of the game’s features. Major cities contain more Poké stops and Pokémon in a given area than less prominent ones. They also are generally characterized by more data availability, as they have more sources of data, and it makes more sense for developers to focus their efforts on denser areas.  In Jordan, 7iber writer Reem al Masri interviewed some Pokémon-Go players who noted that they had a much tougher experience playing the game in the city of Zarqa than in Amman because it has far fewer Poké stops, even though it is a sizable metropolis. A similar distinction may be noticed when comparing Amman to cities such as New York or Sydney. 

A highway sign in the American state of Arizona warning people
not to play Pokémon while driving.

These developments in the augmented reality field are changing urban experiences in unimaginable ways. The random nature of the game makes players venture into new areas of their cities as they search for new Pokémon, and consequently stumble upon landmarks they were not aware of. It does not stop there as the game has facilitated get-togethers through social media networks, where people organize public meet-ups for group Pokémon hunting events. Just recently, a public Pokémon hunt at the Abdali Boulevard in Amman was organized on Facebook. A number of businesses are also taking advantage of this trend by announcing that they have rare Pokémon on their premises. I expect that games such as Pokémon-Go will have positive results on businesses that are able to keep up with these trends and make good use of social media.

A Facebook event for a public Pokémon hunt at the Abdali
Boulevard in Amman
 


An announcement by a restaurant in Amman indicating that
 it has rare Pokémon inside.

It remains early to predict how these augmented reality applications will affect our surroundings, but a surge in physical movement among players has occurred, and people are exploring their cities in ways they wouldn't have done otherwise. The launch of Pokémon-Go has shown how a mobile application can have a massive effect on how people conduct their lives in an incredibly short period of time. While there have been many smart-phone applications that help people track and improve their activity levels, this game is achieving the same results without making people think about exercise. They instead are just having fun and enjoying one of life's simple modern pleasures: that of playing a video game. Getting people to walk more has been a major goal for policy makers and planners around the world, and this application has managed to accomplish this while bypassing many of the planning procedures, physical interventions, and bureaucratic hindrances that often obstruct these efforts. This isn't a criticism of the planning process; it is more of a call to embrace the new possibilities that can result as part of ongoing advancements in smart technologies.

My thanks go to Mohammad al-Asad for his feedback in developing this article, and to Afnan Barqawi for creating the logo used in it.