Unless you’re news-shy, off-grid, and/or a hermit, you can’t fail to have noticed all the media hype surrounding Pokémon Go. My youngest son and seemingly all of is friends have been out and about enjoying playing the latest gaming phenomenon. A lot of the press stories that I have read concentrate on the allegedly ‘addictive’ properties of the game (see ‘Further reading’ below). But what makes Pokémon Go such an appealing game? Here are my top ten reasons:
(1) It’s a popular franchise with a novel twist
Pokémon is a huge franchise with lots of associated spin-offs (animates films, carton television show, card games, figures to collect, etc.). And unlike some franchises, it’s a game that appears to be popular across age and gender but various aspects of the game (such as the use of augmented reality) give the game a novel twist on most other games (by utilizing real-world locations in which players explore their neighbourhood locality or wherever they happen to be).
(2) It’s fun, free to play, easy to play, and easy to access
Unlike many popular games, you don’t need a dedicated console to play the game. There is little in the way of barriers to entry. Anyone who has a smartphone can download Pokémon Go and it can be played anywhere at any time because it is played on a mobile device in which players try to catch Pokémon at specific locations (‘PokéStops’). This means that the number of potential users is huge, even in comparison to console games. In addition, there are no complicated buttons to press or controls to use. Most importantly it’s fun and free to play (but players can buy in-game items, an area that I’ve done a bit of research on which I outlined in a previous blog).
(3) It’s nostalgic and a ‘blast from the past’
Pokémon Go features many of the early ‘classic’ Pokémon characters (the ones that you could name in a pub quiz) hailing back to the 1990s. As well as attracting new and younger players, adults who loved Pokémon as a child or teenager can now re-live some of their childhood and adolescence. In short, some players can experience something new yet familiar. A research review carried out by Dr. Constantine Sedikides and Dr. Tim Wildschut demonstrated that “nostalgia has remarkable implications for one's future. It strengthens approach orientation, raises optimism, evokes inspiration, boosts creativity, and kindles prosociality. Far from reflecting escapism from the present, nostalgia potentiates an attainable future”. A number of online articles coomenting on the popularity of Pokémon have included quotes about the game’s nostalgic element from Dr. Jamie Madigan (author of the 2015 book Getting Gamers: The Psychology of Video Games and Their Impact on People Who Play Them). He asserted that “if nostalgia is in play, and it evokes this positive emotion…our brain can substitute the question, ‘Does this make me happy’ for ‘Is this a good game?'”
(4) It’s a social game (if you want it to be)
Back in the early and mid-2000s I published a number of studies showing that the most important reason for playing online multiplayer games was for social reasons and to connect and interact with other players. The great think about Pokémon Go is that meeting other players face-to-face is almost inevitable as the game is played outside and on the move, and it’s easy to spot other like-minded players. People can make new friendships or consolidate existing ones. Players talk to each other and can share their experiences. Some may even have shared memories that plugs into feelings of nostalgia. However, Pokémon Go players (if they so wish) can play on their own too. The game is flexible enough to adapt to the player.
(5) It features augmented reality
One of the defining features of Pokémon Go is that augmented reality is a fundamental (and arguably the main) part of the game. Augmented reality (AR) is defined as “a live direct or indirect view of a physical, real-world environment whose elements are augmented (or supplemented) by computer-generated sensory input such as sound, video, graphics or GPS [global positioning system] data”. Pokémon Go has successfully managed to embed AR into the game which some players claim makes characters feel “more alive”. An article on the phenomenon in Time magazine said that Pokémon Go provides “the illusion that wild Pokémon are out there in the real world, waiting to be caught”. There are also some claims (such as a paper by Dr. Keith Bujak and his colleagues in a paper published in a 2013 issue of the journal Computers and Education) that augmented reality can be potentially addictive. The authors claim that children are most at risk from AR addiction and assert that:
“Augmented reality does not separate the user from his reality but instead uses it and realistically transforms it…This effect can cause a high degree of surprise and curiosity in users”.
(6) It’s motivating
Any one who plays videogames or researches in the area knows that successful games have to be motivating to play. Rewards within Pokémon Go help players to foster achievement, and achieving goals within the game drives motivation. As an article on the Keep It Suitable website noted: “The self-confidence that arises from the achievement of a goal – catching a Pikachu – motivates people to play more and more…and ‘Pokémon Go’ players are indeed very motivated…The ease with which the reward comes every time your phone buzzes, alerting you that a Pokémon is nearby, is very basic psychological conditioning”.
(7) It involves collecting
In a number of my previous articles I have written about the psychology of collecting and this also appears to be one of the attractions concerning all things Pokémon (in fact the Pokémon mantra has always been “Gotta catch ‘em all”)In my articles I have always referenced the work of Professor Russell Belk who has written a lot of books and papers on the topic. He was interviewed by Forbes magazine on the topic of Pokémon Go. The Forbes article noted:
“In a 1991 article published in the ‘Journal of Social Behavior and Personality’, Belk described two main types of collecting: aesthetic and taxonomic. Aesthetic collecting occurs when objects aren’t in limited supply and so adding things to your collection depends on personal preferences. This includes artwork, but not pocket monsters. ‘I expect no matter how beautiful or ugly the Pokémon is, there’s relatively little aesthetic judgment,” says Belk...’You want them all — or as many as possible’. Collecting Pokémon is a lot like building a coin or stamp collection. It involves taxonomy – the process of naming and classifying things into groups. Taxonomic collecting can end temporarily but continue later: the original Game Boy games (Pokémon Red and Pokémon Blue) featured 151 monster ‘species,’ but sequels have pushed that number over 700. If ‘Pokémon Go’ remains popular and profitable in the long term, the app’s developer will no doubt add new species. Belk adds that the desire to collect isn’t driven by a need to complete a collection. ‘You’re not striving for that closure as much as striving for bigger and better collections…That implies some social comparisons – that your collection is in some sense better than theirs.”
In the same article, reference was also made to a just published literature review (‘Extended self and the digital world’) by Professor Belk in the journal Current Opinion in Psychology. In the paper Belk claims collecting has now gone beyond physical items and can now include the collecting of digital artefacts. As Belk notes:
“Collecting digital objects can have advantages over physical possessions. While coins and stamps are kept in cabinets at home, you can store an entire collection of ‘Pokémon’ on your phone to show friends…One reason why ‘Pokémon Go’ is so popular is that it puts digital monsters in the real world. Like finding a rare book in an antique shop, this turns the discovery of Pokémon — the challenge or thrill of the chase — into a story. With augmented reality, they’ve made the ‘thrill of the hunt’ in a version where you can tweet about it, you can post about it on your website, you can carry around images of the Pokémon that you’ve collected…That’s a conversation piece, and something you can carry with you or brag about online.”
(8) It gets people active without them knowing it
A number of articles on Pokémon Go have noted that playing the game has meant players having to go outdoors and walk miles to catch the Pokémon. In short, if you want to do well in the game, you have to get out the house and do some exercise. As one article summed up on this aspect: ‘The running meme is that Pokémon Go managed to do in 24 hours what Michelle Obama could not manage over the course of 8 years: get people outside and active…It turns out gamification of healthy activities can be done and that’s potentially a huge win for the gaming subset of our society that doesn’t exactly have the healthiest track record”. Personally, I’m not convinced that Pokémon Go is as good as more traditional ‘exergaming’ (such as playing Wii Sports) but I can’t deny that it gets people out of a sedentary routine.
(9) It’s a never-ending game
Pokémon Go is a non-linear game in which every user’s playing experience is different given that it uses the person’s individual geo-location. Like many massively multiplayer online games, there is no end to the game and some players continue playing because of FOMO (fear of missing out). Ultimately there is theoretically no limit to how many Pokémon a player can catch or how the game might evolve over time.
(10) The rewards are unpredictable
Over the years I have written countless papers talking about the role of random ratio reinforcement schedules (operant condition processes) that underlie repetitive behaviour (that in extreme cases can result in gambling and gaming addictions). In simple terms, playing a videogame or a slot machine results in intermittent and unpredictable rewards. Knowing when a reward is coming gets boring in the long run but games where the player doesn’t know when the next reward is coming (like when in the Pokémon Go game, the player will next see a Pokémon to catch). Anticipated rewards (similarly to actual rewards) also facilitate dopamine (one of the most important ‘feel good’ neurotransmitters in the human body) release in the body. In fact, a paper by Dr. Patrick Anselm and Dr. Mike Robinson published in the journal Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience argued that dopamine release “seems to reflect the unpredictability of reward delivery rather than reward per se” and suggests that the motivation to gamble or play videogames “is strongly (though not entirely) determined by the inability to predict reward occurrence”. In short, playing Pokémon Go can keep you playing longer than you might have originally intended.
Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
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