Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Cool Moments in Game Design: Pokemon Go and Cosmopolitanism

No video for this post. I'm sure as hell not recording footage from this darn newfangled smartphone I've wound up with.

Pokemon Go is a smartphone game where players catch digital creatures and can sometimes use them to battle other digital creatures in certain locations. The trick is that the locations of these creatures and combat areas are places in the real world. The game uses the GPS access of smartphones to track where players are and expects them to walk over to the appropriate places.

This game is bottled lightning. The nature of its success is not very hard to understand, but here's the reasons anyway.

 - Branding. This is a franchise that has twenty years of trust built behind it. Not only do children enjoy Pokemon, but their parents most likely do as well.
 - Nostalgia. Wisely, the game uses only 1st Generation Pokemon at this point. Children are familiar with these, and parents are going to be interested in recreating their own childhood memories.
 - Theming. I'm keeping this separate to branding because there are various games (Digimon, Yo-kai Watch) that have similar theming and could have been used. The simple fact that Pokemon games are about walking around, catching creatures then having digital cockfights in the first place makes the transition to an augmented reality experience all the more important.
 - It's the first one. Anyone could have made a game like this. All you'd need is some contacts at Google to get a hold of how the map code works and set up some sort of creature generating metrics based on location. What's important is that nobody did it before Niantic. While also having the above three points together.

So, this very simple, buggy, unfinished game has set people on fire. I've seen people walking in groups all sorts of places and at all sorts of times. I've seen friends who've barely seen the sun in years go on adventures to grab the goods. I'd have joined in myself, but unfortunately the game uses things like population density and areas of cultural significance to  decide where to place pokemon. Since I live in a rural area, there's nothing to catch unless I drive, which defeats the adventurous vibes of the game.

All that's fine and dandy, but it's not the walking in groups I want to talk about, it's the forming of the groups themselves. See, I've been hearing stories. Stories about strangers going for walks in malls, seeing a group of people looking at their phones intently and nudging in with a "hey, there's an alakazam over on Gouger St." Stories of police officers assuming they were seeing a gang planning vandalism, but instead discovering they're after a pikachu, learning about the game and playing it once their shift is over. Stories of animal shelters getting record levels of adoptions due to this game. In short, in a  year where Britain has voted to leave the European Union, a petty, spiteful, contradictory businessman keeps echoing fascist sentiments while running for president of the USA and Turkey is on the verge of genuinely becoming a dictatorship; the Cosmopolitan dream is not dead.

Cosmopolitansim is an idea that goes like this:
The whole world is one big village.
A pretty simple concept, but one that can be hard for people to really grasp. See, people have issues grasping things that are outside their range of vision. Sure we know about ideas like distance, but they're still much less tangible once that distance is past the horizon. For thousands of years people barely moved outside the range of their local village, and in turn concluded that anything past it is scary and possibly dangerous.

As transport and communication technologies have improved, our scope has increased. The "village" people could perceive as within their understanding expanded from a series of houses, to a large series of houses, to a place that could take a few hours to commute to by carriage, to places that could be reached by train or boat, to anywhere in the world. At the same time, increasing communication speeds that have reached an instantaneous point via the internet mean that we can not only add more locations to our personal scope, but other people as well. And in doing so, people are finding that there's other people over the horizon who aren't scary or dangerous. People that, in fact, have similar views to their own.

All that sounds like the anecdotal evidence I gave about the game earlier, but there is one part of the game I feel really interferes with the experience. That is the factions. A short way into playing the game, players are expected to choose one of three factions to contribute scores to. It has barely any impact on the gameplay, but as the last few paragraphs have likely suggested I'm more interested in the social impacts of the game than the mechanics on their own. The problem with having factions is that it creates a divide in the playerbase. This can seem pretty innocuous, or even be considered an advantage in the Cosmopolitcan experience as it provides an extra talking point for people, but it's still a divide. The problem with divisions is that it leads to Othering. Basically, in order to define what something is, you need to inherently define what something is not. As a result, by having players say which faction they are, this can create a division when talking to others they've just met. There is potential, particularly when deeper gameplay mechanics are introduced, for the devisions to deepen. Perhaps resentment towards people who are part of the prevailing faction, or disdain towards players who are part of a faction that's been on a big losing streak. I can see why it might've been implemented to encourage competition, but I think it's simply going to interfere with the unity and exploration that are what's keeping people playing.

So with that all in mind, Pokemon Go is bringing people together who never expected to do so. By being a well-branded, well-themed, nostalgic buzz that ignores humanity's own prejudices, it's created a bridge in an unexpected place. I'd like the factions to be ditched entirely for a more positive experience, but I don't think the game's going to bring about world peace if they do so. Most importantly, in the dismal year that 2016 has been so far, it's a little glimmer of hope that we can see the best in each other.

1 comment:

  1. Niantec did actually do it first, but the pogeymans wasn't their first attempt.