With Pokemon, it's all Go, Go, Go

11:19 am on 18 July 2016

By Paul Brislen*

Opinion - Putting aside the question of time travel - a Clinton fighting for the White House, a Ghostbusters movie in theatres and a Pokemon craze sweeping all before it - just what is going on with this whole Pokemon Go thing?

Pokemon Go

Photo: AFP

Since it launched in the first week of July, Pokemon Go has achieved the unachievable. More active users than Twitter, more downloads in one week than Tinder has managed in four years and users spending longer playing with the app than WhatsApp, Instagram or Snapchat.

We're used to that sudden explosion of customer demand in the tech sector. Whether it's an iPhone or Flappy Bird or online music from Spotify or Pandora or whoever, we've become accustomed to products coming seemingly from nowhere to total world domination, but nothing has happened quite this fast before.

So what is it and why has it had such an impact?

It's deceptively simple. Pokemon the creature, for those who aren't familiar with Japanese game nomenclature, are "pocket monsters" and you, the player, are encouraged to track them down and catch them.

Different Pokemon have different attributes and in order to capture the higher ranked beasties you need to work your way up through the ranks.

Where it differs from other mobile games is in its use of what is called augmented reality.

Never mind just peering at your screen and moving a figure around a map, Pokemon Go gets you up and out the front door to run around your neighbourhood searching for the nearest monster.

The game makes use of your phone's GPS capability (and its camera) to put you in the game. If you see a monster at the end of a street, it will be the street you're standing on, so you'll have to walk down there (or run if there are other hunters around) in order to snaffle up your prey.

Pokemon Go on a mobile

Kids are demanding to be sent outside to play. Whatever next? Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly

This is the key. It's a computer game that actually has kids demanding to be sent outside to play.

Already there are concerns about this. One kid in the US ended up in an unsavoury part of town and chased a potential lead down to the local river where she found a dead body. Another group of entrepreneurs discovered they could ambush would-be Pokemon hunters and take their wallets, and phones, at gun point.

Today we see warnings to employees not to forget about doing some actual work, and road signs in the US saying "Don't Pokemon and drive", which says more about our culture than I would like.

Because this clearly isn't just a game being played by kids - adults seem to be reliving some nostalgia for the original game (released nearly 20 years ago) - and I was alarmed to discover a group at the gate in Wellington's airport actively wondering whether they could get outside because there appeared to be a Pokemon down by the runway.

Indeed, walking around the waterfront I came across dozens of groups of adults wandering around in the cold and rain with arms outstretched looking like nothing so much as Messers Kirk, Spock and McCoy having just beamed down to conduct their first survey of an alien planet. Actually they looked like they were having a blast and groups were cheerfully bantering with each other as they battled for supremacy.

I play a lot of games but with this one I had to ask a child what made it so engaging.

"You get to go outside," she said.

"It's very personal because it's your house on your street and your neighbourhood which is cool.

"And you can compete with your mates, which is always fun."

It looks like a process known as 'gamification' which typically is applied to other things, like earning air points or online shopping. Make it a game and everyone can have fun. Give them targets and points to reach and they'll constantly use our site.

What we've got here is the gamification of a game and the results have been extraordinary.

I wonder if it will be as quick to burn out as it was to arrive but, either way, I'm now part of the Pokemon frenzy.

I'm told I have to download it to my phone because the kids don't have data on theirs so they can't hunt outside the range of my Wi-Fi.

This, apparently, is what the world is like now.

* Paul Brislen is a tech commentator who has covered many a strange thing in his day (Y2K anyone?) but never anything quite like this.

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