Three Research Findings from Three Years of Pokémon Go (Part 3 of 3)

Three years ago, the Augmented Reality game Pokémon Go debuted, inviting players to download the app and hit the streets in order to collect a diversity of virtual Pokémon out in the real world. As an ecologist and a big fan of biological diversity, I naturally wondered how Pokémon Go might replace or complement real-world contact with plants and animals. I interviewed two Pokémon Go researchers who, at that point, concluded that while Pokémon Go might get people outside catching virtual creatures, meaningful connections to nature may only occur accidentally. But that was early on, before researchers had much time to systematically collect data about the Pokémon Go experience. But no longer! I recently dived into the published literature on Pokémon Go and wanted to share three interesting nuggets.

  1. Pokémon Go is not an effective outlet for experiencing real-world biodiversity.
  2. Pokémon Go taps into a late capitalist desire to collect cute things.
  3. Pokémon Go inherits the social infrastructure of the real world.

Pokémon Go is not an effective outlet for experiencing real-world biodiversity.
When Pokémon Go first launched, there was a lot of hype that by hunting for virtual biodiversity, people may begin to appreciate the real version (Fig 1). But most articles I could find on the subject noted that people were not motivated to play Pokémon Go because of an interest in nature, nor did playing Pokémon Go spark such an interest in the natural world. Instead, common motivations included the nostalgia of the Pokémon Go franchise, the social aspect of the game, and an interest in recreating outside [1, 2, 3]. Other major benefits of the game include promoting healthy behaviors, reducing obesity, and increasing physical activity [4, 5]. Unfortunately, this is not surprising. Pokémon Go makes no explicit effort to connect people with non-virtual wildlife, though building outdoor-oriented habits is worth celebrating and building on [6]. Regardless, there is hope. Those interested in connecting people with biodiversity can learn a lot from Pokémon Go in how to combine games with citizen science or ecological discovery, even if for now those connections exist as solely potential [7].

Fig 1: A real life praying mantis (L; Mantis religiosa) next to a virtual ledyba (R; #165). I found both critters while outside playing Pokémon Go. (Photo credit: Evan Kuras)

Pokémon Go taps into a late capitalist desire to collect cute things.
Pokémon Go is all about collecting cute things, which occupies an interesting place in the late capitalist cultures of globalized post-industrial countries such as the United States and Japan. The Atlantic defines late capitalism well as “a catchall phrase for the indignities and absurdities of our contemporary economy, with its yawning inequality and super-powered corporations and shrinking middle class.” At at time when individuals have little control over their material lives (endless routines, uncertain economic futures), the draw of highly visible accumulative play is particularly high [8]. It’s interesting that Pokémon Go does not have an underlying strategic or narrative structure, unlike the majority of popular games today; rather it really is just a game about collecting things that are cute. In that way, players can create their own identities centered around what they choose to collect and revel in the magic of coming across a new Pokémon or finally obtaining Suicunes with all 16 hidden powers (Fig 2)! It is this combination of control and surprise in an open-ended and nonspecific fantasy space that makes Pokémon Go so appealing.

Fig 2. How many Suicunes does a person really need? (Photo credit: Evan Kuras)

Pokémon Go inherits the social infrastructure of the real world.
Pokémon Go may augment the physical infrastructure of our world by layering on cute Pokémon, but it cannot escape its social infrastructure. In other words, Pokémon Go simply inherits the good and the bad of our public and digital spaces, from finding community among fellow players to experiencing sexual harassment and racial violence while playing the game. Since I’ve primarily extolled the virtues of Pokémon Go in past posts, I’ll focus on the problematic elements here. Let’s start with geography. In analyses of PokéStop distributions (culturally significant sites surrounded by Pokémon) in urban centers in the US, researchers have found more PokéStops in white neighborhoods compared to those with higher African-American and Hispanic populations (Fig 3) [9]. One major reason for this discrepancy is that most PokéStop locations were crowdsourced by Pokémon Go developer Niantic’s earlier game Ingress, of which the player base was 80% white and 70% cis-gendered male. One implication is that, for players of color, entering predominately white areas (where there are more PokéSops) and engaging in odd behavior (catching Pokémon) puts them at risk of violence or suspicion from police or others [10]. Women face risks of sexual harassment while playing the game, as reflected in news coverage and hinted at in survey findings where men more frequently reported motivations related to social value of the game (meeting new people, being surrounded by company) [3].

Fig 3. This figure, from Juhász & Hochmair (2017) , shows the density of PokéStops (where you receive items), spawnpoints (where Pokémon show up), and gyms (where you battle) in Downtown Miami and nearby Hialeah, which has a significant Hispanic population.

While I’m disappointed that Pokémon Go did not turn out to be a panacea for connecting people to nature, disrupting capitalism, and addressing social inequality, there is much we can learn from its successes and failures. I hope that the next big game brings activists for biodiversity conservation and social justice to the table so that we can work toward promoting meaningful nature experiences in a way that is inclusive and safe for all players. Until then, I’m going to keep playing Pokémon Go – I’ve got some cute monsters out there that I just need to collect!

1. Alha, K., Koskinen, E., Paavilainen, J., and Hamari, J. (2019). Why do people play location-based augmented reality games: A study on Pokémon GO Computers in Human Behavior, 93, 114-122.
2. Hamari, J., Malik, A., Koski, J., and Johri, A. (2018). Uses and Gratifications of Pokémon Go: Why do People Play Mobile Location-Based Augmented Reality Games? International Journal of Human–Computer Interaction, 1-16.
3. Zsila, Á., Orosz, G., Bothe, B., Tóth-király, I., Király, O., Griffiths, M., & Demetrovics, Z. (2018). An empirical study on the motivations underlying augmented reality games: The case of Pokémon Go during and after Pokémon fever. Personality and Individual Differences, 133, 56–66.
4. McCartney, M. (2016). Game on for Pokemon Go. British Medical Journal, 354.
5. Howe, K. B., Suharlim, C., Ueda, P., Howe, D., Kawachi, I., & Rimm, E. B. (2016). Gotta catch’em all! Pokemon GO and physical activity among young adults: Difference in differences study. British Medical Journal, 355
6. Dorward, L. J., Mittermeier, J. C., Sandbrook, C., & Spooner, F. (2017). Pokémon Go: Benefits , Costs , and Lessons for the Conservation Movement. Conservation Letters, 10(February), 160–165.
7. Smith, D. R. (2016). A walk in the park. Science & Society, 17(11), 1506–1509.
8. Dumas, R. (2019). Atsumenia: Strategic Accumulation and Networks of Desire in Collection-Based Smartphone Games. The Journal of Popular Culture, 52(2), 373–394.
9. Juhász, L., & Hochmair, H. H. (2017). Where to catch ‘em all ? – a geographic analysis of Pokémon Go locations. Geo-Spatial Information Science, 20(3), 241–251.
10. Layland, E. K., Stone, G. A., Mueller, J. T., & Hodge, C. J. (2018). Injustice in Mobile Leisure: A Conceptual Exploration of Pokémon Go. Leisure Sciences, 40(4), 288–306.

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