Historians from the Future: Pokémon Go

By Caitlin Burns

Historians from the Future is a recurring segment that asks the deep questions that we aren’t looking at immediately when we’re evaluating current events. What do we not see that’s staring us in the face? What are we missing that the passage of time might show us?

So you’ve been playing Pokémon Go for the last few months. Of course you have, more people have been playing Pokémon Go in the United States in July 2016 than were using Twitter, Tindr, or volunteered at soup kitchens (we assume, no one is measuring that in real time these days).

Pokémon Go is being lauded as the first big Augmented Reality (AR) product, and that’s true to a point. While we’re all busy with our heads down staring at a map and chasing pocket monsters, what have we been missing? Let’s contact the future and get some perspective. It was the most popular mobile app launch ever, it’s drawing business to small businesses, it earned millions in microtransations per day.

But what will historians from the future say about Pokémon Go? Why would they pay attention at all? And how would the perspective of the future change the way we think, talk and play it today? We’ll explore this in a multi-part series over the course of the next few issues. 

What was Pokémon Go?

Pokémon Go was a social location based game (LBG) built by Niantic Labs (a location based gaming company formerly owned by Alphabet (Google) ) tasked with using Alphabet technologies in alternative reality gaming and similar applications.  Pokémon Go was built on top of Google Maps, which tracks users locations and journeys while using the app. It was also partially owned by The Pokémon Company, and Nintendo.

Released in July 2016, Pokémon Go is the first mass market location data capture game built by one of the world’s largest data monopolies and was not just targeted at adults who have full comprehension of data privacy and opt-ins, but children who were younger than commercial smartphones.

The game was a relatively simple application for mobile phones (both iOS and Android) that allowed users to create a profile and walk around the United States collecting animated “pocket monsters,” collecting bonuses from drop points and conquering “Gyms” from other players for one of three teams.

This game’s success surprised many people, but looking at it on paper it was an obvious blue chip. Pokémon itself was one of the most profitable gaming Intellectual Property of all time, with a multi-generational audience built from the late 1990s on from a franchise that included an animated television series, feature films, console and hand-held games and a wildly successful trading card game. Millions of people both children and adults were fans of the property and its simplicity meant it was easy to engage. The I.P. itself had spawned a wide range of also successful trading card/TV/game competitors including Bakugan, Yu-Gi-Oh and Digimon. At launch, Millions of people knew how to play the simple game, and wanted to catch ‘em all with their friends.

Ultimately, it allowed for Pokémon trading and updated to bring in new Pokémon and challenges as its audience began to drop off in the few months after launch.

The big difference between other iterations of the Pokémon franchise and Pokémon Go was that this powerful story world was coupled with the single largest location-based data network ever created by man. Instead of a closed system like Pokémon’s previous games, this open system took players out of their homes and tapped into data that was previously off-limits for data companies – children under 13.

Film distributed as mobile app enhanced bar crawl: McCarren Park https://vimeo.com/ondemand/mccarrenpark

Film distributed as mobile app enhanced bar crawl: McCarren Park https://vimeo.com/ondemand/mccarrenpark

Other location based games had been created in previous decades using similar methodologies for decades:

  • Geocaching - A type of game using GPS coordinates where players would hide treasure chests at certain coordinates for others to find. Often, anyone who took an item would leave an item in its place. Some notable uses of geocaching included use in large Alternative Reality Games (ARGs) like Flynn Lives for Tron: Legacy and Decoded by JayZ.  Pokémon Go’s pokestops are digital caches connected to physical locations.
  • Geofencing - Using a mobile device, a piece of media would be unlocked for the user only when the player was physically within 40 feet of certain geographic coordinates. I personally played with this in my piece, McCarren Park (2012), and various groups have tried to launch platforms for these games without mass-market pickup: SCVNGR, Movable Feast, Motiv.io.  Pokémon Go relied on similar proximity metrics for their pokéstops,  Pokémon, and gyms.
  • Google Maps – Google Maps was a massive mapping utility made by Google to map the earth. This utility was used by many groups within Alphabet organizations and third parties to create experiences, educational content and geographically related technologies. What’s important to note, is that Pokémon Go was built on top of this mapping ecosystem and all the data it gathered, was brought into the Alphabet data infrastructure without much transparency about how it would be used.
  • Free to play utilities – many popular mass market games in the 2000s and 2010s for smartphones were built on free to play or freemium models. The game is free, but a player could purchase in-game merchandise or resources or the data they captured from their players became a valuable commodity to be sold to advertisers, marketers or other groups looking to understand that market.  Pokémon Go uses both of these models. It’s free to download and you can purchase items in-app. It also relies on each player creating a unique account either through google accounts or through the Pokémon trainer’s club.  

Whether the ambition of these previous games or their financial resourcing was what limited their scope and success the technology and a mass-market intellectual property put this instance over the top.

The combination of this powerful story world and its appealing, non-threatening characters and game mechanics that had been tried and established, distributed on devices easily accessible to an audience from 5 to 50 was a recipe for success.

Why is Pokémon Go at all important to the future?

This app marks the first time a single, intentional product created a mass market location based game + geographic data capture network. In retrospect, it was obvious that this would need to be something that hit younger generations of technology users, as the previous generations were more skeptical of communal sharing of private data and less likely to have the free time or inclination to engage in this type of social gaming.

It’s also the first time that you can find a location based game mobilizing its player-base to leave their homes and engage in physical exercise en-mass. This was a huge change in behavior and perception of games. While it had been theorized that games – which are intrinsically based on convincing players to engage in a series of actions – could be used for population mobilization (literal mobilization) previous instances had been niche.

It also reached communities in less urban areas than previous location-based games. It reached a much larger audience. Because it is the first to market case study that showed that location based gaming and AR could be mass-market hits, it influenced the future not just of game development, but the business of data capture.

This was not all good, there is a slippery slope that Pokémon Go is part of that represented a wider psychological and sociological trend. As people become more comfortable with virtual systems and spending their time learning the mechanics of imaginary worlds, the more disconnected they become to the mechanics of the real world. A concerning obsession with virtual worlds can be critiqued as an excuse to become complacent and apathetic to real-world concerns: individual, local, social, cultural or political. As people became more engaged with catching virtual monsters, generational expertise was being lost whether it be mechanical tinkering, arts and crafts, cooking, or gardening. The skills that previous generations had accumulated because their time was focused on tangible real-world pursuits was lost because of a few generations overwhelming focus on imaginary worlds.

There would ultimately be a backlash, such as the neo-agrarian movement where urban-dwellers chose to become farmers. Radical self-reliance and a new renaissance would grow out of the wake of the Great Recession. The ability to make those choices is often limited by geographic or economic constraints – it’s much harder to purchase and run a family farm in a midwestern state where agritech companies like ConAgra or Monsanto are the big players than in an area like Upstate New York where small farms exist even as the children of farmers opt-ed out of running their parents’ farms. Movements like the Maker Movement and the explosion of individual crafting represented by Etsy.com were populated disproportionately by people starting in the white, upper-middle class. While the promise of stronger individual opportunity based on these skills was apparent, accessing the tools to learn these skills, apply them in business, and to sustain oneself depended on leasure time and access to extracurricular education. The promise of the Maker movement was only true to autodidacts, those able to learn from classes, mentorship and the time to refine them were limited by the lack of multigenerational mentorship in family groups. 

What’s the deal with personal data privacy?

Personal data privacy may have been THE issue that people ignored in the early 21st Century that we look at now – from the future –  the same way we look at medical practices before germ theory – how did they not see this happening?

As games moved from physical distribution into platforms on closed hardware systems, the companies that made them looked for models that would give them an edge in the market. This could mean their own private data ecosystems or hardware ecosystems or both.

For other groups, like mass market apps, they needed to ensure that players were integrated into their games fast, had incentive to stay, and in a market that included 54 Million competitors they needed to find every avenue to profitability and streamline production budgets possible. This led to even heavier reliance on third party data ecosystems like google maps and in turn, the sale of player data to partner or third party data research groups.

What happened to that data when it was sold? Well that’s the biggest question, a few games, mostly serious or scholarly games had very clear data sharing protocols and would be focused on the study of brain patterns, like Sea Hero Quest,  or like FoldIT relied on the wisdom of crowds to advance specific studies. Most data capture systems from games or into data ecosystems like Google (Niantic) or Facebook (Oculus) were entirely open-ended in their terms of service. The average daily user of Google’s data system contributed about $45 worth of data to their system per year, for Facebook users, this number was approximately $35. This was bartered for the free services provided and was rarely addressed or challenged in regulation from institutional or government oversight groups.

To take a look at the current online tracking systems that are looking at your activity, we recommend the interactive online documentary Do Not Track.

Consumer products marketing has DEFINITELY thought of the children.

Consumer products marketing has DEFINITELY thought of the children.

Won’t somebody think of the children?

The entertainment industry had previously been able to gather metrics on physical activity in different ways to demonstrate return on investment in a limited number of ways: box office ticket sales, Nielsen ratings for at-home television viewers, device-based metrics for digital applications, etc…. Pokémon Go unlocked a wide range of social feedback data metrics that combined or explored attributes of user activity that included and provided context for usage during play including location, displacement and distance, impact on local economies and a wider range of data that was captured over the coming months and years: the in-game trading economy, social and communal growth, predictive analysis of pedestrian traffic patterns and the ability to test or influence those same patterns.  

It was also a landmark moment in children’s entertainment– and more particularly, Advertising aimed at children through entertainment – that is answerable to the Federal Trade Commission’s guidelines for children’s online content “COPPA” and had previously held itself to a general set of best practice rule sets established by the Children's Advertising Review Unit Self-Regulatory Program for Children's Advertising “CARU”. CARU delineated what sorts of data capture and advertising would and wouldn’t be targeted at children under 13.

This app, aimed ostensibly at “Everyone” undermined the posit that children’s location or activity data wouldn’t be pursued by games and other entertainments. In the early days, no one seems to notice this trespass into the lives of the young, but Pokémon Go will be a powerful case study when future legislators start reviewing and revising the oversight of data capture for children… or be viewed as the cliff that regulation fell off of, mortgaging a generation’s data collection future to whoever can catch all the users.

It didn’t help matters that Google companies had a track record of misusing or miscommunicating personal data was compounded by early “bugs” in the initial release that asked iOS users for complete access to all their interrelated Google Accounts. Niantic walked this back within weeks, and while privacy experts still wrung their hands, Pokémon Go still set revenue records for months following.

The Personal Data Economy

Overall, the casual user of the Internet in 2016 didn’t pay much attention to the use or value of their data. As commerce and development moved ahead there where three major trends that influenced the development of similar data capture systems.

Free-to-Play was here to stay, meaning more games looking to capitalize of data revenues would be built.

Instead of relying on one-time up-front payments to play games, the app market has overwhelmingly used free-to-play models to build successful game projects. In these products, .15% of players yield 50% of free-to-play game revenue, so while a producer can reach a wide audience, any way to sustain revenues from data research is used not just to improve products, but as its own commodity for sale to third-parties. As this became the norm, users were increasingly disconnected from the value of the data they were exchanging for these pastimes.

Asking forgiveness rather than permission in new technology experimentation

An overall trend in emerging business and technologies during the first half of the 21st Century was one of developing a disruptive technology regardless of legal regulation of its related category, and through rapid scaling to ensure that a company became too big to be regulated by local, or even federal institutions. We'll go into more on this in a future issue. 

Users as self- quantifiers

The idea of users experimenting with their own data and participation in new businesses is not necessarily a bad thing, as long as people know what they’re getting into. Companies terms of service increasingly made clear their liability and the expectations one should have of their services stating clearly things like Inside Tracker’s  “THE SITE DOES NOT OFFER MEDICAL ADVICE AND NOTHING CONTAINED IN THE CONTENT IS INTENDED TO CONSTITUTE PROFESSIONAL ADVICE FOR MEDICAL DIAGNOSIS.” It’s a legal disclaimer that doubles as a statement of purpose.  

Where this breaks down is that there is an asymmetric relationship between the user and the organization providing those terms. 

  1. It is rare that a user even reads the terms of service before they agree.
  2. It’s even rarer that users have the experience with legal language necessary to parse the complexity of those terms of service, that quickly balloon into the dozens of pages. 
  3. There is a basic lack of understanding on a personal level the value of the data the individual is providing to the organization
  4. The organization is rarely transparent about their overall use user data, or future intended use  – for instance, how many people who signed up for 23andMe to trace their family genome anticipated their DNA to be part of an anonymized dataset sold to 3rd parties? Would they have been as quick to share their DNA code if they did know?   

The Interpretation Gap

A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, and one of the reasons that certain categories have evolved rigorous review and research criteria over centuries of human development (medical testing, scientific research, zoning and civic planning) is that without the contextualization of experts, information can be misleading and require consultation.

Take the example of a reporter testing health monitoring app showing his results to a clinician.

“His advice boiled down to the straightforward and altogether unsurprising: lose some weight. In a way, taking the blood tests felt like I’d paid a mechanic for a comprehensive evaluation, only to discover that the fix involved nothing more than regular oil changes. They largely confirmed something I could have learned from stepping on a bathroom scale. But knowing what I needed to do wasn’t enough, and if there was one thing periodic testing did, it was provide continual updates and reminders.”

This sense of self-quantified reliance on new systems means that users also rely on consultation from these novel sources, regardless if they are overseen by medical professionals or 20-year-old college dropouts.

Localization and Legislative Cultures

While privacy issues relating to Pokémon Go specifically were brought up in the United States Senate. Europe and the United Kingdom had already distinguished their legislative parameters from those of North American countries remarkably. Pursuing AntiTrust cases against Google and Facebook, establishing the online “right to be forgotten” and holding these and other companies liable for misuse of personal data.



Pokémon Go: Augmented Reality’s Star Wars?

When reading about Pokémon Go, immediately after it’s publication, it’s easy to see how excited the press was about it’s early success.

It hit the market early by the standards of AR and it was the first time most of its millions of players had experienced an Augmented Reality (AR) interface.

Star Wars was a feature film that thought of itself as a franchise at a time when long-term planning and licensing were not the norm for the entertainment industry.  It’s long term success became the case study that movie studios pointed to in order to invest and develop feature film properties for the next several decades.

Pokémon Go, while AR is not its primary gameplay mechanic, proved to investors that AR was a viable technology for a mass market implementation. While Virtual Reality has been the hot new topic for several years, but by all researched metrics, the applications in entertainment and other industries for Augmented Reality was likely to be more than twice as profitable, as its applications covered a much wider range of market categories.  Because of its novelty, Pokémon Go will be the case study referred back to unfailingly in conversations about AR as an entertainment technology – whether it’s appropriate to the application of the technology or not.

While Head Mounted Displays (HMDs) the hardware for running advanced virtual reality experiences has been receiving large investments in recent years and gained major headlines as the first consumers HMDs shipped in 2016 (Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, PlayStationVR) teams are still several years away from consumer level Augmented Reality and Mixed Reality HMDs (Microsoft Hololens, Meta, Magic Leap).

Pokémon Go is whetting the appetite for investment for AR content in a way that did not exist in June 2016 by showing that this style of user experience is one that players will engage with and enjoy. It doesn’t hurt that it prompts picture taking and the creation of sharable content, allowing users to promote the game casually without relying on heavy branding or any spending on traditional out of home or digital advertising. To date, Pokémon Go has not spent a cent on out of home or banner advertising. It’s never had to.

Since Pokémon Go’s release, AR content and location based technologies are compelling to investors in a new way and groups that have been pounding the pavement seeking out investment for their projects for years with little traction have had their phones ringing off the hook since July 2016. This could be the beginning of the AR gold rush.  

Pokémon Go: Location Based Gaming Data’s Gangnam Style.

Star Wars is one way to look at the position of Pokémon Go as an industry and investment case study, but a more apt analogy may be Gangnam Style, viral-video’s splashiest global phenomenon.

While the video for Gangnam Style by Psy has been viewed more than two Billion times as of this article’s publication and spawned a global cultural phenomenon, it has neither prompted significant new interest in its content category on the whole (no other K-Pop song has cracked Billboard Music’s Top 20 since) nor has Psy or any other web-video creator been able to replicate its success since.

Psy’s follow up work, Gentleman has yet to crack 1 billion views (I know, only 998 Million, what a failure). No video on YouTube published since Gangnam Style has been able to eclipse its sensational reach and success.  

Just as Gangnam Style didn’t kick off a whole new wave of global ascendance for K-Pop, location-based games and AR titles will struggle to match Pokémon Go’s initial success and will be have to be directed at niche audiences. Just as not everyone is Psy, not every intellectual property can be Pokémon.

While the potential for AR gaming, and even more so, the capture of location-based data is demonstrated clearly by Pokémon Go – it’s unlikely its success will be replicated or outshone. There just aren’t other Intellectual Properties with the kind of audiences and topical fit that Pokémon has with a collection-based location game.

What we’ll see when we look back will be the launch of new game categories and a new era of data capture strategies underpinning entertainment content.

In the November issue’s Historians from the Future, we’ll dive into part 2 of our Pokémon Go series to examine the socioeconomic impact of homogenous development teams, #blacklivesmatter and what the digital divide means when we talk about personal privacy, location-based gaming and data economies.

About the Author

Caitlin Burns is one of the founders of Pax Solaria.She currently serves as Vice-Chair of the Producers' Guild of America's new media council and has spent more than a decade working as a transmedia producer, expanding multiplatform storyworlds and exploring the use of new technologies and experiences with media projects. Learn more about her here and follow her on Twitter: @Caitlin_Burns