Pokémon Go and What It Means for Parks

August 1, 2016, Department, by Nicolas Amselle

Augmented reality games like Pokémon Go track a player’s progress through his or her real-world interactions.Suddenly, tens of thousands of people can be found wandering around parks and public spaces, cellphones at arm’s length, looking intently at their screens.  Along with millions of people across the world, they are playing Pokémon Go, the latest form in the evolutionary chain of “augmented reality games.”

Augmented reality games came about in the 1990s, with the basic premise of disseminating links to real-world websites, real-world phone lines and real-world email addresses that were necessary to the play the game. A phone number or web link found in the game may lead the player to a pre-recorded message with clues or directions to follow the quest and complete the game.

San Francisco-based software developer Niantic took this technology a step further in 2012 with the creation of “Ingress,” an app-based game that required players to visit real-world locations in order to advance in the game for their “teams.” Ingress paved the way for Pokémon Go, Niantic’s latest and most advanced augmented reality game — and likely representative of the next evolution of augmented reality games — to date. Pokémon Go forces players to walk, outside the home, in parks and public spaces. Walking allows the player to capture “Pokémon,” monster-like creatures with various powers and attributes. Players must also hatch eggs, which only begin to open after walking a certain distance.  Players are encouraged to travel to areas with high volumes of “Pokéstops.” These Pokéstops are focal points for obtaining the items necessary in the quest to catch as many Pokémon as possible. Pokéstops are real-world locations that have real-world significance, such as statues, memorials, plaques, signs, historic sites or natural features — anything in the real world that you would take a picture of on a trip to that location is a Pokéstop.

This isn’t the first time video game developers have attempted to get their fans physically active. Nintendo — which co-developed Pokémon Go with Niantic and The Pokémon Company — made a pedometer that came with one of its prior games that allowed players to train Pokémon by walking. Systems within the game were developed that required users to physically travel to a location with other people in order to trade Pokémon. They made it so that walking with your Nintendo DS — the developer’s hand-held, dual-screened game console — could net users in-game items. But, these early systems were easy to trick. Walking indoors or shaking the device was counted by the console as steps.

Pokémon Go doesn’t count steps. It counts distance. This means players must leave the house to make substantial progress in the game. Additionally, the way in-game locations are laid out, it not only becomes necessary to leave the house, but also to actually go places. Now, instead of sitting at home, shaking a small device to win the game, players must take the time to walk across the neighborhood. Pokémon Go is even designed so the game doesn’t count driving as walking. It knows if you are in the car and certain essential aspects of the game — like hatching eggs — are only possible when the player is walking. 

What does this mean for parks? Sure, Pokémon Go will get kids outside, but how is that special? Simply put, parks are one of the most advantageous places to be. Game developers gave parks special status in the game, because they attract higher numbers of Pokémon as well as better quality and rarer types of Pokémon. Parks also tend to have structures like plaques, gazebos and statues that draw players in, but the No. 1 thing that makes playing Pokémon Go in parks so effective is that it is fun. Using the pedometer was boring, because you couldn’t see your progress. But now, the progress appears right in front of you. And not only is Pokémon Go fun, but everybody plays it. People of all ages enjoy the game, from my 7-year-old little sister to adults. And no matter who plays, everyone has to walk to reap the benefits. With thousands of people looking to spend time outside walking in locations that have better and more plentiful Pokémon, there is no place better to be than the local park. Writer Mark Wilson of fastcodedesign.com remarks that Pokémon Go is even helping people to better experience local history and learn about area landmarks by attracting people to places that they would not usually visit.

The current debate regarding the best way to get kids into parks often focuses on the idea that you cannot get kids active and outdoors without first removing technology. There is only one problem with this idea — most kids really like technology. When they know that something they like is being taken away, the normal conclusion is that the reason for it being taken away is because it is bad. If the kids decide that they might lose their tech by going outdoors, then the solution to get kids excited about being outdoors seems obvious, and Nintendo knows it. Pokémon Go is the perfect example of how technology and parks can coexist. By making parks a better area to play the game, kids will be encouraged to go visit parks and spend time outdoors. And this is not just sitting outside “playing,” a video game — it’s active time spent walking around, chasing down Pokémon and having fun. Rather than pulling kids away from technology, Pokémon Go uses technology to entice them into parks. 

In a manner similar to reverse psychology, kids will want to go to parks because they have almost been tricked into going. They go to the park because they really want something in a video game, not because they are being forced to go. And, they really do want to play that video game. Now, because of Pokémon Go and likely other augmented reality games that will soon follow its success, the adventure and allure of exploring a local park will be stronger than ever. Exploring parks and discovering nature will be great fun and it’s all augmented with ones and zeroes. 

Nicolas Amselle is 15 years old and a sophomore at Rock Ridge High School in Loudoun County, Virginia.