There are lots of people theorizing on why Pokemon Go is popular. Some argue it’s because it’s simple, requires moving, and is social. Meeting new people, enriching exploration/experiences, others say.
Okay, I am not saying that these things are not true. Yes, some people are enjoying the social aspect, but not everyone is in it for the social experience. The social experience is more of an outcome of playing, not why people initially started. Getting positive emotions through exercise is also an outcome. These are not reasons why the game has so many downloads (which seems to be the main metric the media uses to assess its popularity).
Conceptually, Pokemon Go is not new. There have already been games that have been using location around for more than a decade. In this must-read, Frans Mayra discusses how baffled location-based game researchers are and tries to explain the phenomenon through the “casual game” perspective: that the sheer simplicity of the game makes it easy to get addicted to, but it remains to be seen how long the trend will continue.
To be fair, however, existing location-based games were never adopted by the mass. The brand power of Pokemon (and its existing fan base) undoubtedly played a role on its quick adoption. But the popularity of Pokemon Go, in my opinion, has little to do with Pokemon per se. If this were a game about collecting random cute fictional animals– for example, if it were a game about collecting the Wonderful Creatures of Harry Potter Hidden in the Muggle World, or a game about collecting different types of cats– it would still have been popular, methinks. Who knows? Since the game is already released, there is no way to truly test whether or not it was the Pokemon brand that fed the hype.
I think there are two underlying reasons why the game became so popular. One is about why people started doing it, and one is why they continue (at least for now).
1. Social Media and the Political Climate
When innovators (who are people who like to be the first people who try out new things) started posting screenshots on social media, this had a viral effect. It helped that the app was released at a time where there were so many depressing things happening in the world that people just wanted to do something fun, post about something cool without the risk of being an insensitive person to societal issues. Once the screenshot posting started gaining traction, the early adopters jumped on board because they didn’t want to be the un-cool person who didn’t understand what this “new app with new technology” was about. Once they started playing, they enjoyed it (as has been pointed out by numerous people, including those I have cited above) and then had bragging rights that they had experienced augmented reality, in its earliest form. As people’s social media feeds began filling with Pokemon Go content with the help of sorting algorithms, mainstream media also started contributing, which led to a more mass adoption. It is a classic story of diffusion of innovation that was accelerated by social media.
2. Collecting Stuff
Some people, like me, will have tried the app, collected a few Pokemon, and stopped. So why are those people who are continuing play? Perhaps social has something to do with it, but I believe at the end of the day it is our cultural obsession with collecting sh**, I mean, stuff. I don’t think I need to elaborate, as there are plenty of examples of collecting behavior at a societal level: Beanie Babies, trading cards, Happy Meal toys, and more recently, cats in Neko Atsume. The differing range of rarity of the different Pokemon characters feed into the collecting obsession.
Unlike traditional collecting, these items are all virtual, but younger people don’t really view virtual items as ephemeral. In some sense, the augmented aspect of taking a picture of a virtual item in a physical space represents our generation’s fluid sense of content ownership. Most entertainment forms no longer have a physical component (Tv, games, music, video) so collecting virtual items still feels like collecting, even if there is no physical artifact.
There are certain people who like collecting, partly driven by visible metrics and self-competition. Without any changes to the game, these are the people who will most likely continue playing. For people who already like exploring; people who already enjoy physical activity, Pokemon Go is an incentive.
However, there are many opportunities for the game to tap into other features– like coordinating social stuff, competitive play (think League of Legends PVP), or liaisons with local businesses (think Four Square)– that may lead to continuance of the game at a mass scale. Like Candy Crush or Angry Birds: it may not be as popular as when it first came out, but there will still be a decent number of people who play. It will be interesting to see how this pans out, and whether or not the company will allow “shortcuts”– such as letting people buy rare Pokemon for money– and integrations– such as letting certain businesses, organizations, governments, or individuals place Poke stops (places where you find Pokemon) in locations of their choice.