Pokemon GO(ing down)

This may or may not be another controversial comment on my part. Either way, they’re my opinions on why Pokemon GO has probably peaked and won’t see anywhere near their huge rates of play again.

First, the game was very much a beneficiary of the bandwagon effect. It easily would not have been as popular if it were just based on individuals taking to themselves, but with public spaces with multiple stops having from tens to hundreds of people hanging around, talking in groups about their Pokemon and what they were seeing, and some people getting into it having never played any Pokemon game before because their cousins, siblings, children were. But that’s a scary marker if you’re interested in longevity – crazes end fairly quickly, and Pokemon GO’s certainly has.

Second, the game is having trouble even with users who at least were fairly dedicated previously, as the lack of promised features like tracking make finding rare Pokemon much more difficult. The existence of PokeVision made life easier for a lot of people – they would be able to search their areas for the rare Pokemon they saw on the broken tracking feature, and then go out to find it. Yet Niantic has requested these third party groups to take down websites like these, to “prevent cheating.” Given there is no real high-risk/reward competition in Pokemon GO (the design of gyms causes them to change hands incredibly frequently), cheating is fairly irrelevant in any case.

My last point is that Niantic doesn’t seem as capable to efficiently handle these issues and push past their scheduled releases. The Buddy system was apparently released yesterday (though I don’t seem to have it active on my phone yet), but the majority of users are still without a tracking feature – something that has been an issue since two weeks out of the game’s release. Given that it’s been now two full months and they still haven’t implemented their fix universally, and have had the third party workarounds for it shut down, it almost feels like they don’t care. I won’t say that’s true, but with something that increased so much in size and was instantly profitable, it surprises me that they didn’t allocate more resources to have more timely releases for fixes, etc.

I won’t say that I don’t like the game. I do, and my hours and hours of play time can attest to that. I wouldn’t have gotten all the way to level 22 without enjoying it, but it is frustrating trying to be patient with a game that isn’t necessarily broken but is certainly not complete. When Niantic fixes the game, I’ll probably come back and put many more hours into it, but until then I’ll be another user that’s moving further and further from the game.

Pokémania: 1998-2016… and beyond?

With the release of Pokémon Red and Blue in the United States in 1998, “Pokémania” swept the nation. The video games, the anime, the board games, the Pokémon stuffed toys and action figures, the licensed Pokémon cups and bowls and macaroni and cheese – the craze lasted into the early 2000s as Pokémon movies saw release in theaters. As with any sudden pop culture craze, many parents were suspicious of the influence these popular monsters might have on their children. As Times reporters Howard Chua-Eoan and Tim Larimer wrote in 1999, “the key principle of the Pokeocracy is acquisitiveness… And never underestimate a child’s ability to master the Pokearcana required to accumulate such power: the ease with which they slip into cunning and thuggery can stun a mergers-and-acquisition lawyer.” Others expressed fears that Pokémon were demonic, especially psychic-types like Kadabra. And who can forget the debate over whether the Pokémon Jynx represented racist blackface?

Chua-Eoan and Larimer’s article focuses on other concerns of the parents of the 90s. Though the writers expressed discomfort at the way child players have adapted to the technology – “seven-year-olds navigate unerringly through the miniscule screen that is the porthole to Pokedom, punching two tiny buttons and a cross-shaped cursor bar to find their way. It’s a much difficult task for adults” – their prime criticisms focused on the obsession that the game engenders in its players. Creator Satoshi Tajiri is described as having “obsessions, more dysfunctional than Disneyesque.” His early passion for arcade games made his parents worry that he’d become a “delinquent,” and he and his likeminded friends are called “junkies” as they start to build what would eventually become a multimillion dollar franchise. This wording reflects the concerns that many parents had: that Pokémon would convert their child into an obsessive, video-game-playing shadow of who they once were. But don’t worry, Chua-Eoan and Larimer wrote – “parents who have had to suffer through the games, the TV series and shopping trips can take some comfort in the fact that the Pokemon demographic is the same one that has abandoned Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Power Rangers.” Pokémon never disappeared from the pop culture and video game scene – a gigantic version of franchise mascot Pikachu graces the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade to this day – but it did, at least, leave the limelight.

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Pikachu continues to loom over Americans. Source: the Macy’s Day Parade Wiki. 

Until July of 2016, when Pokémon Go was released. Pokémania was back.

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Taking control of a gym. Screenshot of Pokémon Go gameplay from Niantic.

Created by Niantic, the smartphone game utilized augmented reality to place pokémon in the world around gamers and to turn local landmarks into Pokéstops where you can get items. You walk down to the corner store, spin an icon marking at as a Pokéstop, and get items: cool! You swipe to catch an Eevee: neat! You power up your monsters and battle hundreds of other players in your area to claim victory for your team and establish dominance for your team: rad! The simplified mechanics of the game, streamlined for mobile playing, irritated some longtime Pokémon fans used to the more complex battling system of the GameBoy and DS games, but generally it seemed like a cute, inoffensive game that encouraged people to go outside. What was the harm?

But just like the original Pokémania, the game set off another storm of controversy. This time, unlike the original Pokémania, critique focused largely on the actual g ameplay mechanics: the smartphone game was allegedly making players (a large portion of which being adults who had played the original Pokémon) inattentive to the world around them, it was a foolish waste of time, it encouraged players to trespass and drive recklessly, and – just like the original criticisms – it was a point of obsession. Click here to view a cartoon  by Polish artist Pawel Kuczynski that expresses many of the critiques of the game. I’m sure we’ve all seen the many Facebook posts from older relatives or people uninterested in video games elaborating on their disdain for the whole phenomenon.

And while a large amount of the Pokémon Go hype has faded by now, the game continues strong, with active players across the world and large content and gameplay updates planned for the future. Further, with the next generation of the handheld console games – Pokemon Sun and Moon – planned for a November 2016 release, Pokemon may stay in the news in the near future. What is it about the Pokémon franchise that stirs such strong emotions in supporters and critics alike – its popularity, the perceived childishness of the game? Or is its criticism not at all unique – what larger cultural contexts drive these criticisms? Setting aside the very real issues of safety (such as playing Pokémon Go while driving), are the criticisms of the game the same hostility that video games as a medium face, or is the augmented reality aspect of the game a special marker that sets its cultural response apart from other games?

Pokemon GO! The Ethics of Augmented Reality

Pokemon Go is the new gaming phenomenon of the year. Revisiting the old fashioned Nintendo Pokemon games, Pokemon Go takes that same experience up a level by adding the features of Augmented Reality. Allowing people to walk around the planet with their phones and search for Pokemon, the game has added a new dimension to gaming. And along with that, one of the main selling points of the game is their focus on fitness. A recent statistic stated that since the game released earlier this year, people playing the game have walked about 4.6 billion kilometers. To put that into perspective, that’s more than the distance from the Sun to Neptune and more than the distance NASA’s Voyager 1 has travelled in the past 12 years!

However, this achievement does not come without problems. While the game has several positive aspects – people are being more active and have started going out more (even though they are still looking into their screens), and meeting new people (I myself have made a couple of friends while playing the game), there have been quite a few concerns regarding trespassing. People have often been reported to walk into peoples private residences, trying to catch a particular Pokemon. While Niantic, the developers of the game are completely on the legal side of this issue, questions about the company’s responsibility for the actions of their consumers have started emerging. The popularity of the game has pushed the company into new ethical and legal issues that have never been dealt with before; and with the fast developing world of augmented reality, such issues are going to become more frequent as new games implementing this technology are released. While some people say that the players are completely responsible for their actions and how they play the game, many suggest that the game in some ways is encouraging players to trespass into restricted areas, or at restricted times through where the PokeStops are located and where many Pokemon are found.

Public places like monuments or parks are the ideal location to play games such as these, so often Niantic focuses on such areas by providing more Gyms and PokeStops, in a way encouraging their players to come to that location more often. Niantic has received requests from several organizations to remove PokeStops from near their establishments, and so far, Niantic has complied. But the question of whether Niantic is responsible or not is still unanswered.

In my opinion, both parties in question are to an extent to blame for this. Neither are completely wrong in doing this, but since this is a new field of ethical gaming and technology we are dealing with, new rules must be put into play. So far, there are no limitations to where one can place digital markers in the real world, but now as augmented reality is becoming a… reality, we need to make some new laws or rules to govern this. The lack of limitations on where Niantic has put their Gym’s and PokeStops often leads people into unknown territory. As far as the players are concerned, ideally they should be paying more attention to where they are walking and should be more receptive of their surroundings, but the fact that to play the game you must always be looking at the screen of your phone is not really helpful. Niantic has made some efforts to reduce the amount of time that people spend looking at their screens by introducing apps for wearable devices such as the Apple Watch, but this is still not the complete solution. I’m sure that as more game developers start implementing VR into their games, new laws governing the use of digital space will emerge, but until then all we can do is make sure to be more receptive to our surroundings while playing until we are offered a satisfying solution.