I am in Madison, Wisconsin this week for the ARIS Summit, and GLS12 - the Games+Learning+Society’s annual conference. Attendees are typically academics, designers, game lab creatives and teachers. They are ahead of the curve on the subject of games and learning because they represent a big piece of the brain power behind its development.
Like most conferences, the best conversations happen when the sessions are over and the socializing begins. As the ARIS attendees sat around the Terrace, the university’s iconic social hub, there was a moment when the talking stopped and everyone’s attention went to their screens. A “lure” had been dropped on the patio which became rife with Pokemon just waiting to evade capture and be trained.
It is not a stretch to expect this crew to embrace the cultural phenomena of Pokemon Go. Both it and ARIS are after all, mobile locative augmented reality games, meaning that players must be on the move to play them. I was anticipating some lively conversation from the group that would go beyond the explosion of articles, tweets and Youtube videos on the subject. Of course, they did not disappoint. After all, they not only saw it coming, some of them played a role in the ground work that made the game possible.
I have lots of questions about the impact that Pokemon Go will have on locative educational games, starting with will it be a good or bad thing? For the first time, teachers, researchers and gamers can finally explain the basic game mechanics of platforms like ARIS and MIT’s Taleblazer in a single, intoxicating phrase - “it’s like Pokemon Go.” Anyone who has tried to explain this type of game to a teenager and convince them that walking, versus sitting to play a game can be a good thing, can now get their full attention with this simple sound byte. My concern is the expectations that may come with the comparison.
It is early times in the life of Pokemon Go. Readers have undoubtedly encountered clusters of people in public spaces, heads down staring into their phones or wading obliviously into traffic. There are daily accounts in the media of groups intruding onto private property, pursuing Pokemon into risky locations, and even “Pokestalking.” It is even arguable just how much participants are actually looking-up from their screens long enough to truly take-in the stops and sites along the way. At the same time, the potential value of getting outside, investigating new places and rediscovering others cannot be denied. Niantic, Pokemon’s game parent company, knocked it out of the park.
An interesting aspect of the game is that it provides minimal instructions. Online videos and forums on the topic are increasing daily, but the best way for players to learn is by having a good old-fashioned face-to-face conversation with a friend, or talking to strangers at Pokestops and PokeGyms. The sheer number of players available to provide advice makes learning how to play the game very easy. All you have to do is talk to that person nearby who is clearly playing the game alongside of you. It is hard to say whether or not this socialization dynamic was deliberate. Maybe Niantic was just trying to beat the competition to the chase. Regardless, the Poko-community loves sharing what they know.
So will students who are being asked to play an educational mobile locative AR (Augmented Reality) game demand the same user experience (or “UX) as Pokemon Go? Teachers will have to be careful to describe the similarities in broad, qualified terms and emphasize the differences. Otherwise, they may be setting themselves up for push-back by saying that the game in question is ‘like” Pokemon. A safer approach may be to ask them who enjoys it. That way, student interest can be piqued with lots of space to make a comparison rather than a promise.
Will students be so conditioned to flicking Pokeballs and powering-up their characters for battle that any locative AR game that does not do the same will be considered lame and uninteresting? Will their familiarity with exploring and collecting draw them into activity in a bigger way? It all remains to be seen. One thing for sure is that students will have lots of suggestions, which could be the best “lure” possible, especially for classroom-based game design and authoring. My fingers are crossed.