My family and I just spent two weeks living on a Vermont college campus, where I was teaching a course. Coincidentally we moved into our dorms the day that Pokemon Go was released, which was particular fortuitous for my 8 year old son, an avid video game player. The time he and I spent together playing the game (and by playing I mean many, many hours biking around campus) has given me an interesting window into the experience, through the eyes of both a parent and an educator.
The two most remarkable aspects of the game are how active and how social we’ve become since playing it. As you’ve probably heard by now, the premise of the game is that on top of our ‘real world’ there is another layer which involves a number of wild creatures waiting to be caught. This virtual world takes places on a map that is laid on top of the real map, so that players navigate it by moving in physical space – reaching the monster around the corner involves actually walking down the steet, not pressing buttons on a screen. Players can hatch virtual eggs into rare monsters by placing them in an ‘incubator’ where the readiness unit of measure is not time but distance. Eggs come in 2 km, 5 km or 10 km increments, so that players are rewarded not for how long they play, but for how far they travel while playing. The ‘GO’ in the title is no joke. My son now wakes me up at 6:00 AM every morning, insisting we have to cycle 5 km before breakfast.
The social aspect of this game is fascinating. When a monster appears in a given location, it’s not first come first served – that monster exists on any individual’s screen when they approach the location. So instead of racing to be the first person to claim the monster, players share tips freely and congregate in areas to play together. Playing with my son, we met a number of players of different ages with whom he became more and more comfortable interacting. He asks questions, shares tips, and shows off his monsters. Over a course of a week, we met Tristan, a wily 12 year old, hanging out one evening on his own in front of the university library, with multiple phones, rapidly pressing buttons, and very happy to share theories of game play with my son for over 30 minutes (until my phone battery finally died). On the steps of the town library, we met Woo – maybe 10, braces, killing time before heading to camp. Woo showed us how to connect to the wifi sneaking out of the library and then he and my son crossed the street to try to take over a PokeGym together. We also spent a lot of time hanging out with college students as well as ‘townies’ who figured out the campus was a good spot for finding Pokemon.
With the rapid spread in popularity of Pokemon Go, there has been an inevitable backlash about the apparent threat to society and the general well being of the planet that this game poses. I would like to suggest another way to understand the phenomenom. I think most of the sensational stories in the press, about Pokemon players becoming so involved in their game play that they walk off cliffs, cause traffic accidents, or generally engage in risky or unsafe behavior, are actually not the fault of the game. Yes, it’s true this game can be so absorbing that players tune out what is going on in real life around them, or that they suspend their otherwise rational judgement about what consists safe behavior. But rather than blame the game, I think this is a tremendous opportunity to start a conversation with young gamers about using good judgement and recognizing limits, both real and virtual, while using a phone, etc. Since playing the game, my son starts a conversation with anyone he sees who is totally absorbed with their phone, under the assumption that they are a fellow Pokemon Go player. He is right probably 50% of the time. However, and this is quite surprising to him, there are some people who walk into traffic while staring at their phone, yet they are NOT PLAYING POKEMON. What could that adult possibly be so interested in that causes him to behave in this way, if they aren’t chasing a rare Charmander? This is one of the mysteries of growing up, but sooner or later my digital native son is going to have a phone of his own, and I hope he will maintain proper judgement about when and how to use it in public. Playing Pokemon Go together has given us an opening to have a conversation about how people get very absorbed in their phones and how that can be dangerous to themselves or others. If without a phone he wasn’t going to wander alone at night to an abandoned parking lot, there is no reason to think he should do it while playing with his phone.
As an educator, I’ve been very curious about what impact Pokemon Go might have on classrooms in the fall (assuming it has not been replaced by another fad by then). I think a more interesting question than how can we use Pokemon Go in the classroom is how can we use Pokemon Go players in the classroom. What can we do in the classroom that builds on all the skills they have been developing while playing? Here are a few broad themes I’ve been thinking about:
- Mentorship. Players start on ‘Level 1’ and gradually power up as they complete tasks and collect points. When my son meets a player at a higher level, he asks for tips on how to play more efficiently or how to find rare monsters. Now that he has obtained a certain status and knows a number of tricks, he is happy to pass on his wisdom to others he meets that are behind him. Knowledge is collective, to be shared.
- Orienteering. The game encourages players to learn how to read a map and to pay attention to place and location. While playing Pokemon, we saw: a massive rainbow, multiple gorgeous pink sunsets, countless bunnies, a huge monster truck, and in addition to the Pokemon players we also met (and pet) many dogs.
- Executive function skills. How does playing this game help a player develop their executive function skills? A player needs to remember and orga
nize a significant amount of information: the monsters, the map, and also to use that information to make decisions about allocating resources both real (time and distance are both factors that can help or hinder the player) and virtual (how to earn candy, fairydust, and XP).
Have you played yet? Have you caught ’em all?