I attended a Design Thinking workshop at Sibley Hospital, where we discussed potential solutions to health crises using new media. One of the biggest concerns in the U.S. is teenage obesity. “How,” we asked, “can mobile technology be used to solve teenage obesity?” The workshop ended and left me thinking about more human-centered approaches to fitness and a healthy lifestyle. There is a viral video about a subway staircase overlaid with a larger-than-life digital keyboard. The study showed that as we make fitness more like play, people will do it – there was an 80% decrease of escalator users because of the musical stairs.
This is why I am a huge proponent of Pokemon Go. It is the perfect combination of mobile technology, fitness, and play for young users. The game is to find Pokemon in your area using the app’s GPS. When you find the location of the Pokemon, you can see the monster through your phone’s camera via augmented reality – on a street corner, in a tree, on your neighbor’s head. There are special locations, called gyms, where you can station your Pokemon to claim territory and fight other Pokemon.
I’d like to point out several particularly smart moves on the part of the game designers:
1) You cannot catch a Pokemon in a car. You must be going slow enough to see the Pokemon in your camera and throw a Pokeball at it. This requires a really skilled biker or a walker.
2) The game designers’ algorithm for populating our world with Pokemon makes hot spots out of natural spaces. While a normal street block would have an occasional Pokemon, places like parks, universities, and boardwalks are loaded with Pokestops. This encourages people to go to these concentrated locations and walk around.
3) The Pokemon gyms are public spaces and the incentive to visit these locations brings Pokelovers together.
Furthermore, the augmented reality in the game encourages users to screenshot their catches and start dialogue on social media, which increases the hype of the game.
All in all, it’s getting teenagers (and adults) outside and active, it’s pulling them out of their comfort zone, and it’s facilitating meeting new people with their interests.
Of course, the app has its fair share of criticism. I wonder if there is really a solution to these complaints, as they seem to be “the nature of the beast” – this beast we call mobile technology. First, it is easy for people to know your location if you are posting it on social media using Pokemon Go. This could raise big issues in privacy and safety. Second, Pokemon Go users are now more reckless than ever about walking around looking at their phones instead of at their feet. My own brother biffed it on his skateboard while trying to catch a Pokemon, sustaining a few injuries and shattering his phone screen. And finally, the algorithm does target open areas and natural attractions but unfortunately, some of these include sacred places like church buildings, or the Holocaust museum. Many of these places have had to adapt to their new Pokevisitors, either offering sanctuary or asking for the respect of users to stay their Pokeballs.
As the app continues to develop, eventually offering Pokemon trading and one on one fights, I predict it will maintain its popularity, fix some kinks and become socially accepted as a nerdy but harmless way of getting people out of their houses and into the world… of Pokemon.