Pokemon Go re-ignites ‘addiction’ debate – and it’s wrong.

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Saying Pokemon Go is fun – is like saying jogging uses energy. Most people, including me, are pro-fun and play. In this post, I want to look at why you shouldn’t re-subscribe to the ‘addiction’ debate about video games, simply because this game has become VERY popular in a few weeks – and I’ll set out my reasons why parents and kids are enjoying it.

Games rise and games fall. Pokemon Go is no exception to this reality. Nintendo’s current success spells the final-death-nail for toy-games such as Disney’s Infinity. While not connected, the rise of Pokemon Go enphasises changes in consumer reception to digital games. The  once massive toy game market in which parents bought physical plastic Skylanders, LEGO Dimensions and Infinity has paved the way for games like Go!.

I’m injecting this here – because my argument is that Pokemon Go is an evolved version of ‘collecting’ which appeals to a huge numbers of ‘latent’ playing adults and has made a connection between parents-children that other games (toy games, Minecraft etc.,) have achieved – but to a much higher level. As I’ll explain, games which allow children and adults to have a shared taxonomy are seen (by parents) as media worth having and playing.

Nearly all games are designed to be fun and play cannot be separated from  human behavior. Pokemon, like all games, requires the player to engage with a set of  rules which require particular human behavior to be applied to it. Let’s take a simple Pokemon ‘goal’ to be in a Pokemon Gym. Within hours of playing (and talking about) the game, players become attuned to the idea that these locations are split into factional ownership and there are player-elites which have more power than you – right now. In order to become elite requires hours and hours of what MMO players would call ‘grinding’. Repeating simple behaviors – the most significant ones being – spend many hours engaged with it and move to specific locations to for more reward that you might currently be receiving.

Pokestops are not ‘owned’ in the way they were owned in Ingress (the geo-location database created by players 2013-2016 used as the basis of where Pokestops and Gyms are located). Pokestops don’t require any ‘work’ other than to get there are wait around. They don’t defend themselves from new arrivals and your clutch of creatures are not damanged when trying to attain more ‘balls’.  There is not downside to going to a Pokestop and there’s no reason to leave one … because in a few minutes, it will let you have more Pokeballs. So when a parent takes a kid to a Pokestop and kids get what they want – more balls- everyone is happy. Imagine if they didn’t – but the Pokestop killed their best Pokemon or damaged it … less fun right? – Nintendo are not stupid – they are not selling to the same market that plays Ingress – but carefully re-shaping behavior and experience.

Media commentators have become to use the term ‘addiction’ in response. No shock here, as no game recently has managed to generate the level of ‘changed human behaviour’ that Pokemon Go has. Ingress didn’t as it was largely a ‘geek’ game (and still is). The perception, especially among TV new-anchors is that Nintendo have come up with a ‘new phenomenon’ which has magical powers (addition) – by way of them attempting to discuss behaviour which they don’t understand (meaning: haven’t much experience or knowledge of). Let the nodding begin – Pokemon Go is a new opportunity to revisit themes of ‘decaying childhood’, ‘the simple society’ etc., but no one’s interested in a full on media panic – as mobile phone games are largely seen as permissible in society these days.

The original game had just over 150 to collect, which expanded to over 700. There’s no reason to think that Nintendo will not add more – if the game remains popular in this form. The have told us that the current game is about 10% of the final thing (we want to believe it don’t we).

3 Reasons why is it ‘fun’

  1. The games involves taxonomy — the process of naming and classifying things into groups – and that is something humans find enjoyable, so yes kids soon get a handle on this.
  2. Collecting is a rewarding pass time. I am totally guilty of this – I have more cars than I need and obsessively collect parts for them at every opportunity. I don’t drive most of them, I just like to ‘own’ them. It’s irrational to most people, but not to thousands who were in Valla this week for the bi-annual Volkswagen gathering.
  3. The fun is not just in collecting and working to develop knowledge of the taxonomy. Like all successful games in recent times, the fun works around the social-graph of comparing and discussing your collection with others.

The social-graph, who is top and bottom in class, is used in very different ways at school and in society, so Pokemon Go is very much counter-school-culture. No surprise to see those teachers who are fustrated by the generalised-school-image have been quick to show they are using it – in class. You rebels! But imagine if a child’s learning was built around collecting and comparing, not timetables, silos and tests. Now that would be rebellious.

The thrill of the chase is not a sign of addiction

Pokemon turns the thrill of finding rare car-parts Pokemons into a chase. That chase is a personal story – and we love that. Take a look at educator stories in the last two weeks – a high energy story where each teachers sets about ‘showing’ how their class is into Pokemon and how thrilling it is – this is also part of the educator ‘taxonomy’ of collecting EdTech things.

People are not ‘addicted’ in the scientific sense, but in the self-expressive “spending too much time sense” usually shared around a social-graph. So many people tell my wife that I am ‘addicted’ to buying old cars and that I don’t need them (waste of time and money). They generally don’t tell me this directly, but my taxonomy isn’t one they value.

To talk about Pokemon Go as a game, in the way we might discuss Ingress or Tomb Raider isn’t possible, because the leap from screen to augmented reality changes the user-perception of collecting, comparing and competing. Educators needs to ‘see’ the game against the broader context. Think about a friend who collects Disney memorabilia or Hot Wheels cars – this is what is going on, except that the ‘rules’ on how occurs isn’t constructed socially as you’d see at a collectors-meet, but by a corporation (with an agenda) and an immediate connection to the collector/player.

Of course, in extreme cases, collectors put their interest ahead of other things – buying an object and not paying a bill or spending too much time at a meet-up they forget to pick up the kids from swimming – but these are likely to be extreme cases – and so attempts to get a head of steam about Pokemon Go addiction are already tiresome and ignorant.

Parents need to set limits on screen time and take some responsibility for the ‘quality’ of that time. Games (screens) are not digital-childminders – they are portals to media experiences and not all of them are going to meet the expectations or moral standards of parents (and their friends). In school, Pokemon Go will manifest itself though the interaction and cultural production of the children.

Of itself, this game (like any other) needs to be articulated into the curriculum – to address defined purposes. Anyone can ‘tweet’ about how EduPunk they are — rebelling against the stereotyped modernism of the establishment. Big deal, why this game? What is it’s pedagogical imperative which other games don’t have? – aside from popularity, media attention etc.? For example: what other games are use a collecting/taxonomy which can be used around a social graph? – more specifically – which EDUCATIONAL GAMES.

Minecraft managed to achieve much of this, what blocks can you find, what is your best build, can we work together – how close or different are our interests etc., and yet Minecraft Pocket (mobile) hasn’t received much in the way of teacher interest. For example, why not take MCPE mobile and allow kids to ‘build’ while IRL. For example, go to the park – imagine how you could re-design it?

I think the BIG thing, the really BIG thing about Pokemon Go is that it’s taken the idea of ‘collecting’ into a digital form, in the real world at a time where society no longer cares if every single person on a train stares at their screen and disconnects with reality – working on ‘their story’. The question become how much time are people investing in this, and the extent to which ‘sharing’ their story makes them feel happy and more connected to each others – and who is going to miss-out or feel alienated by it.

Here are three ‘concerns’ I have … which to be fair, are true of most commercial games being used towards ‘educational’ time (I’d say purposes, but I don’t think we’ve earned sufficient CP to claim that yet).

  1. We know digital-media is used variously to create internalized constructions of the self. Being ‘digitally popular’ is important to many people. The effort they perceive to be needed or valid is translated into hours-spent as a form of work. We’ve seen issues with this in other social spaces, especially in teens.
  2. So far, research suggests children have variable levels of success in self-regulation of digital media. This game is designed to promote repetitive behaviour and provides consistent rewards for this. Aside from time-spent, the depth of the game remains relatively shallow, focusing on time-spent and simple actions. Given the Google DNA of the game, it’s reasonable to suggest that user-behaviour is ideally suited to rewarding sales-promotion and shopping behaviours, such as coffee-discounts, being in a store for a length of time, or winning a new limited edition creature.
  3. In schools, there are vast differences in location. We know rural schools are at a disadvantage for all sorts of reasons, and the Ingress DNA of user-created portals favours the city – where more portals we’re created over rural ones. So, city educators have more opportunity to use this game than more rural schools. There are limited choices for rural school to engage in this form of commercial game which presents further equity issues.

I’d be interested to hearing your experience and views!

 

 

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