Searching for Pikachu: The Future of Online Gaming

Searching for Pikachu: The Future of Online Gaming
Photo Credit: Jose Cabezas / Reuters / 達志影像

What you need to know

The most significant thing about the Pokémon Go phenomenon is what it portends for the future of online gaming.

Japan joined the worldwide hype over the Pokémon Go with the debut here last week of the smartphone game that is said to have turned the streets of more than 30 countries a bit more dangerous in recent weeks — not because of violence but distracted people frantically playing the game rather than paying attention to the world around them. Despite a rare government warning prior to its release, the home of the monster characters has already had its share of mishaps associated with the addictive game — including people caught driving while playing the game, a cyclist robbed with her attention all on her smartphone screen and an absorbed pedestrian wandering onto an expressway. Examples overseas have ranged from players falling off cliffs, walking across highways without looking, being lured into isolated spots to be robbed and ramming cars into trees and parked cars.

It has been an extraordinary success, setting new records for downloads and active users. On the day of its Japan launch last Friday, Nintendo’s shares on the Tokyo market soared from ¥14,490 (US$2170) to ¥28,220. It is forcing a rethink about virtual reality and how we interact with video games and devices. It is a remarkable reimagining of a 20-year-old video game that exploits a healthy dollop of nostalgia, too.

Pokémon Go is a video game played on mobile devices that combines the video game and TV series with augmented reality and GPS: After downloading the application onto a phone, users search for Pokémon characters as they go about their daily lives. The app uses GPS data — generated in a previous game by the app maker — that locates character in various places such as parks, zoos and buildings. When the user looks at the map, the character’s "footprints" are visible as they get closer to its location. When they find the character, it is visible on the phone camera. They then can "capture" it to earn points. This real-world adventure has turned nostalgia for the children’s game and show into a massive money maker. Prior to its Japan debut, the game had already been downloaded 30 million times since its launch earlier this month, and was anticipated to become the first smartphone game to generate $4 billion in revenue in a year.

Photo by Richard Atrero de Guzman/NurPhoto
TOKYO, JAPAN - JULY 22 : Pokemon players plays in front of Shibuya station as Pokémon Go finally launches it's first day in Japan on Friday, July 22, 2016.

Its popularity has been evident in other metrics as well: The number of searches in the U.S. for the phrase Pokémon Go surpassed was already twice that for “Star Wars” before that film was released last year. Players are almost evenly split between gender and, confirming the power of nostalgia, the most enthusiastic players are in the 25-34 age group.

People are not just downloading the game, however, they are playing — some analysts prefer the word “addicted.” In the U.S., 70% of people who get the app are found to be playing it the next day; the usual rate is just 30%. More people are playing the same these days than are using Twitter, and they are spending more time on the app than they are on Facebook. That is especially impressive when the flood of people playing the game has overload servers worldwide.

Other companies are trying to capitalize on the game’s success. The U.S. website Yelp, which offers reviews of restaurants and service providers, incorporated Pokémon Go data into its reviews so that players now know if a favorite eatery has a Pokestop — a character — nearby. In Japan, the McDonald’s hamburger chain, under a sponsorship deal, has turned its roughly 2,900 eateries into spots where people can 'train' their monsters and pit them in battles against those of other players.

Of course, there are risks — besides the possibility of walking off cliffs or into traffic. There have been reports of malware and scareware being inserted into software associated with the game — cheat sheets, tips and the like. Information security firm Trend Micro Inc. says it has confirmed 43 counterfeit apps as of last week, and is warning against fake products specifically targeting Japanese users.

What may be most significant about the Pokémon Go phenomenon is what it portends for the future of online gaming. The popular image of such gamers is that of pasty-faced individuals, stuck indoors straining eyesight and arm muscles. But Pokémon Go demands that players get outdoors and move around, interacting in real time and in the real world with other players, unlike other games in which such interaction is mediated by virtual reality. People are not meeting; their avatars do.

The activity demanded of participants in the new game has meant that players are losing weight while playing, on average about 1.5 kg, according to a U.S. survey. Players are being forced to explore their communities. Parks, museums and other monuments in the U.S. are said to be experiencing surges in visitors because of the game. Advancing in the game requires cooperation with others to learn new skills and acquire new powers. As one astute observer has noted, Pokémon Go is enhancing interaction with the real world, rather than isolating players from it.

The News Lens has been authorized to republish this editorial. The original can be found here.

First Editor: Edward White
Second Editor: J. Michael Cole