Pokemon Go Is AR’s Foot in the Door to Our World

Image on a phone of a person standing next to Pikachu Pokemon
Photo: Noriko Hayashi/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Taking only 13 hours to reach the top of the highest grossing app chart in the United States, Pokémon Go broke a number of world records in its first week, and is now the phone app with which people spend the most time daily, surpassing Facebook, Snapchat, and Twitter. Even Niantic, the company behind Pokémon Go, wasn’t prepared for this level of popularity, and its servers are struggling. Many non-players, walking around those determined to “catch them all,” are wondering when (and hoping that) this craze will end. But even they will agree that the launch of Pokémon Go will mark a place in history, and it is likely to influence the direction of game development and player interactions for years to come.

Technically, Pokémon Go is not an augmented reality (AR) game—in that it is not really integrating the Pokémons into the user’s perception of the world—though some believe the overlay of the cartoon characters on the camera’s view of reality might be the earliest glimpse to what AR games would look like in the future. The game, as it stands, is more of a location-based game. True AR will come in the form of headsets that seamlessly fuse the virtual and the real from companies like Meta and Magic Leap.

 Pokémon Go, however, is indeed playing a critical role in democratizing the idea of AR, so that everyday users will be more prepared to adopt the technology when it is later introduced.  Shifting the public’s understanding of what is “normal” is critical for the adoption of emerging technology. Remember when the hands-free feature first became available for cellular devices? People walking in the streets, ostensibly mumbling and laughing to themselves, confused many nonusers. Nowadays, people barely even notice this. Likewise, today’s Pokemon Go players look odd to outsiders, but norms will shift here as well.

Briefly, if you haven’t yet played the game, the premise starts with the Pokemon characters, a library of some 700 creatures that have been featured in video games, trading cards, television shows, and movies over a span of more than twenty years. The player creates an avatar, and then visits real-world points of interest to collect balls and other tools that help catch virtual creatures. A map helps the player track down the Pokemon characters, some of which are common, some rare, and most appropriate to their environments—with water creatures found near lakes and ponds, for example. To catch a Pokemon, the player looks through the camera on the mobile device to see the character as an overlay on the real-world image, and then tries to accurately hit the character with a virtual ball. Collect enough characters, and then the player can join a team and go to a pre-determined location in the real world, like a coffee shop, that serves as a virtual gym, where they can set characters loose to battle opponents.

The desire to interact closely with fictional characters has been documented time and again in media scholarship since the 1950’s. “Parasocial interactions” refer to the ways in which users of mass media perceive a level of social interactions with media figures or characters; this fosters perceptions of companionship and social support. And perceived levels of parasocial interaction turn out to be one of the strongest predictors of media content consumption.

So individuals consume media because they want to enjoy the social interactions that they perceive between themselves and the characters they like. For instance, children speak to animated characters on television as if they might be able to hold conversations with the characters; fans of all ages can become very upset if their favorite character in a television series meets a sudden, unexpected death.

Games like Pokémon Go can take the concept of parasocial interaction to a different level, because users become an active participant and interact with the characters, and parasocial interactions become more like true social relationships—bidirectional. Fans of the original Pokémon franchise, who have been following the animations and video game releases, can now become trainers themselves, catching Pokémon and helping them battle against others. It is little wonder why the game can be so engaging.

When AR technology is truly able to integrate digital elements into the real world, above and beyond the current location-based mobile games, we may be looking at a different form of media consumption that shifts seamlessly from one media platform to another. Pokémon shows the path here; it moved from video games, to television, then to our mobile phones, creating constant streams of more interactive and more intimate media consumption experiences. In the future, other television show may be extended and integrated into viewers’ lives, allowing them to develop stronger relationships with the media characters. For hardcore fans, this might be a dream come true; for others, having the presence of media characters interweaved throughout their virtual and physical worlds may seem rather intrusive.

But the true potential of AR technology lies beyond gaming and entertainment applications, as tools to assist people in navigating various aspects their lives, affecting education, health, and environmental sustainability. For instance, my laboratory has tested preliminary applications of “mixed reality” health programs that incorporate virtual pets, wearable activity monitors like Fitbit, motion sensing input devices like Microsoft Kinect, and mobile phones to promote physical activity and healthier eating choices for children. Our findings suggest that even without using gaming mechanics, children can be motivated to make substantially healthier lifestyle choices with the help of the parasocial interaction with the virtual pet.

Much of the initial positive buzz around Pokemon Go has centered on its ability to get former couch potatoes out walking, sometimes for hours each day. However, emerging evidence, including my own findings, suggests that when games designed to foster physical activity rely on extrinsic rewards, such as points and unlocking levels, and people start exercising purely to obtain the rewards, this actually takes away the inherent pleasures of exercising (becoming fit and healthy) and people stop exercising as soon as the rewards stop. So if people start to exercise purely for the sake of earning points and leveling up in Pokémon Go, they may stop exercising as soon as the novelty of the game wears off and they no longer wish to “catch ‘em all.” On the other hand, games that allow players to enjoy intrinsic rewards, such as social interactions among players and pleasures of interacting with game characters, will engage players for longer periods. Considering that the Pokémon franchise has successfully kept long-time fans, it’s quite possible that many of them will continue to play the game even after the novelty has worn off, contributing to constructing a lasting player base for the game.  

The true positive potential of Pokemon Go and its AR brethren that are coming soon, goes beyond fitness. AR offers potentials for stronger parasocial interactions that lead to parasocial relationships, allowing virtual characters to become a source of social support, particularly for vulnerable or underserved populations who may not have regular access to the social support they need. Imagine a virtual buddy who will be able to provide encouragement and support anywhere and anytime one needs help or companionship—a Pikachu that can walk a student through a difficult STEM assignment during a lab session in school and can also spend time with the student after school, for instance.

Of course, the technology still has a myriad of challenges to address before this future can be realized. But recall that the first massive, bulky mobile phones were sold for almost $4,000 in the 80’s. By early 2000s, people started walking around with slim computers in their palms. The scenes from science fiction movies just a decade ago are already being realized. Even if the game’s popularity does not last, the worldwide phenomenon of Pokémon Go may be a historical moment heralding a future where the virtual is organically intertwined with the real, and social relationships are mixed with parasocial ones. 

Sun Joo (Grace) Ahn has long studied the virtual world. Ahn currently is an assistant professor of advertising at the Grady College of Journalism & Mass Communication at the University of Georgia, and is founding director of the Games and Virtual Environments Lab. Her main area of research looks at how virtual experiences through digital devices change the way people think and behave in the physical world. She received her masters and doctoral degrees at Stanford University, where she worked in the Virtual Human Interaction Lab researching how user experiences in virtual worlds can influence their attitudes and behaviors in the physical world.

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