Why has Pokémon Go struck such a chord? A Lapsus investigation.


Source: Wikipedia

THERE IS A NEW GLOBAL EPIDEMIC, it has kids and adults alike mindlessly roaming alleyways, searching dark bushes at night, and trespassing private property for that sweet, sweet hit.

The other day I was a passenger in my brother’s car, cruising as we do. When out of nowhere one of the victims stepped in front of the motor vehicle, travelling ~60km/hr. The young man was so in love with his phone, he hadn’t the slightest clue he very nearly became a crumpled heap under the wheels of an automobile. He didn’t acknowledge his mistake and his intimate connection with his phone was only momentarily disrupted.

‘What on Earth would drive a person to such distraction,’ I cried! It could only be one thing. One devilish app, digging its irresistible claws into the minds of millions world-wide. A divisive social phenomenon pitting passionate proponents, completely enamoured, against hardened cynics, who find the whole trend puerile and wretched.

I am of course speaking of Pokémon Go.

Gotta catch it all (your data, that is)

The simple smart phone-based video game has received widespread appraisal and fanfare, and that’s to be expected. Perhaps more interestingly, the augmented reality game has garnered a considerable amount of criticism, with some proposing the video game is intrusive and invades the user’s privacy in unprecedented ways. Just check out this list of permissions you are required to accept before installing the game.

Oliver Stone –the chap who directed Natural Born Killers and the newly released Snowden— went as far as to label the game “surveillance capitalism”, saying the goal of similar ventures is to mine the data of its users for capitalistic gain.

“It’s not for profit at the beginning, but it becomes for profit in the end,” says Stone.

“Because it creates its own awareness, and it gets into everywhere in the world, until it manipulates our behaviour, and we start to act like that, which has happened already quite a bit on the internet.”

Considering Niantic Inc. –the company who developed Pokémon Go– are an independent entity birthed as an internal start-up within Google, it could be suggested their ties with the world-leading organisation may not be completely severed, and the data gathered from its ever-growing database will provide Google with immeasurable amounts of data to potentially sell off. Whether that data is used for marketing purposes, or even shadier and sinister purposes, we’ll likely never know.

What is known is that large organisations such as Google and Facebook have been selling off your data, your search engine entries, your likes/dislikes and your favourite subreddits for years. The panic surrounding Pokémon Go, while warranted, may perhaps be focusing too narrowly on the issue. The app is invasive, yes, but so are the social media sites you use as a platform through which to complain about them.

poke go

The psychology of it all

First you get the badges, then you get the power

Video games are widely acknowledged as a predominantly console-dominated market. But the numbers suggest smart-phone gaming is on the up. According to the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), 35% of gamers play games on their smartphones and this number is increasing exponentially. This stat doesn’t even include the countless smart-phone users who casually download video games on their phones for shits and gigs.

Among these gamers are a growing base driven by the desire to ‘score points’, ‘build their XP’, ‘collect trophies’, or ‘catch Pikachu’. This is known as ‘gamification’, and a 2015 study looked at whether or not the addition of trophies or badges to a video game encourages more frequent and active use of an application.

Half of the participants were placed in a badgeless condition, where the video game gave them no reward for their efforts. The other half received badges for accomplishing tasks in the game. It was revealed that users in the badgeful condition were significantly more likely to use the game, and even carry out transactions within the game than their badgeless buddies.

Official Trailer for Pokémon Go

Weaponised nostalgia

Pokémon Go plays right into these gaming desires. The aim of app is to obtain items and creatures, to level up, to battle peers. Paired with the overwhelming nostalgia of the Pokémon brand, it’s no bloody wonder the app has taken off as quickly and effectively as it has.

Nostalgia is fast becoming the entertainment industry’s wet-dream. In an age of reboots, re-makes, prequels, sequels, and spin-off’s, it seems all an entertainment company has to do is slap on a familiar title and their product will skyrocket to the top.

Batman, Terminator and the big mama of them all Star Wars, all saw reboots or sequels in the past 12-18 months, and all of them were commercial successes. Right now, the nostalgia-fuelled Netflix series Stranger Things is going gang-busters. It could be argued Pokémon is as popular, if not more, than all of those titles. Its one driving factor in 2016 is nostalgia.

Just like everyone else, 90s kids want a little break from bombings or shootings or two morons fighting for power over a country, and who can blame them?

A 2016 study by Sedikides and Wildschut, published in Trends in Cognitive Sciences suggests nostalgia strengthens approach orientation, raises optimism, evokes inspiration, boosts creativity, and kindles pro-sociality. These are all pretty splendid things, and it’s hard to ignore the true facts of the situation.

Herd Mentality

The popularity of Pokémon Go is beyond comprehension, perhaps even for Niantic, the developers of the world-conquering video game. The current estimate sits at 75 million downloads. So why aren’t you playing? Everyone else is.

Earlier I mentioned Oliver Stone’s comments, where he argued the power of the internet and its ability to infiltrate and change human behaviour:

“…[It] gets into everywhere in the world, until it manipulates our behaviour..”

Herd mentality –or mob mentality– has been a fascination of social science and psychology for yonks now, this is no secret. In recorded history, psychologists have been snooping around the topic for a few centuries, and what has been discovered may come as no surprise: our behaviour can often be influenced by the actions of our peers.

In a world where social media and constant online presence is the norm it’s hard to ignore the impact of this game on a cultural and societal level. It’s basically expected of you at this point. Around you there’s 75 million people talking about this game, playing it in front of you on the bus, telling you to download it. It’s only a matter of time before you download it, or take the contrarian perspective. Either way, you will be a part of this phenomenon, whether you like it or not.

It’s the biggest mobile game in history and you would be a weirdo if you didn’t try it out. A complete weirdo. What’s wrong with you?

Maybe we are slowly creeping towards Oliver Stone’s predicted “robot society”. A totalitarian world where organisation’s manipulate what you think and how you behave. Right now, everywhere you look, you see groups of Pokémon hunters having a good time. Organisations may learn some things about you, and use it to market towards you, or track you, but it’s safe to say we’re learning a little bit about ourselves through this silly little game.  For better or worse.

For more on all things nostalgia, check out this article from the Lapsus archives.

Uh-oh! You were distracted playing Pokémon Go and fell into a black hole! Here’s a Lapsus Survival Guide to help prevent your inevitable spaghettification.

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