As Pokémon Go Becomes a Sensation, Ed. Experts Weigh Pros and Cons

By Leo Doran & Michelle R. Davis — July 18, 2016 8 min read
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Like a thunderbolt from Pikachu’s tail, Pokémon is once again electrifying the nation.

The latest incarnation of the Japanese franchise is a mobile app, Pokémon Go, which puts a digital overlay on the real world, requiring users to walk around their neighborhoods to collect characters and do battle with one another.

The game has exploded in meme-driven popularity to become the largest mobile game ever, only 10 days after its launch.

The unexpected summer surge has parents and educators buzzing about the potential for educational applications, and fretting about privacy and safety risks they’d prefer children to avoid. Educators say they see opportunities to capitalize on students’ love for the game in the teaching of subjects like social studies, local history, math, mapping, and literacy.

“Pokémon Go is interdisciplinary in a way that’s hard to obtain with other programs,” said Jessica Torres, an assistant principal at Brook Avenue Elementary School in Waco, Texas. “I’m tired of seeing science in one area, reading in another area, math somewhere else.”

The Pokémon world first rose to iconic pop-culture status in the late 1990’s as a trading card game, then as a TV show, then as Gameboy-supported video game. The unlikely resurrection of the virtual world of anime creatures into a 2010s social gaming phenomenon is powered by a roster of over 21 million daily mobile users, and counting.

Nintendo, which owns a stake in the parent Pokémon Company, has seen its stock value rise by the billions as a result of the success.

Grand Illusions

The success that Pokemon’s developers have found in stitching together the real world and the virtual game goes a long way to explaining the game’s appeal to users.

Until now, the convention for nearly every game on the market has involved moving a virtual avatar around in a virtual world delineated by a virtual map. But in Pokemon Go, once the app is downloaded and an avatar is selected, the player is located by the game via GPS.

In Pokémon Go, users walk to local parks, landmarks, and buildings in their communities to gather resources. Every once in a while the gamer’s phone will vibrate and jump the display from a GPS-Maps-like view of the gamer’s avatar, to activate the gamer’s camera.

At this point, the game jumps from a third-person to first-person view, and the gamer sees a direct feed of the grass or sidewalk in front of them, with a digital overlay of whichever Pokémon was randomly generated to appear. When the illusion is conjured properly, the user feels as though they have “discovered” one of these magical creatures hiding in plain sight.

PokéStops, or spots where players can collect free items, are often placed at local parks, historic sites, or monuments, bringing attention to local history, Torres said. By encouraging users to seek out these real-world landmarks in person, she said, gamers are noticing their surroundings and absorbing real local history in ways that are getting educators excited.

Young students can practice their literacy skills through the app, which contains a fair amount of reading throughout the game, Torres said.

Other students might be able to use math to analyze where PokéStops will occur, and grapple with the game’s points system used to have characters battle to capture virtual Pokémon Gyms. Science plays a part as well, she added, because Pokémon only pop up in their natural habitat areas--for example, a fish will only appear near water.

One of the most appealing features of the franchise’s latest iteration, especially for adults concerned that kids are spending too much time indoors, is that the game cannot be played from a sofa. In order to catch Pokémon and level-up, players have to mill about outside. As a result, ordinarily sedentary gamers are getting miles of walking time.

Rebecca Randall, the vice president of education programs and partnerships for Common Sense Education, noted that physical education class teachers can use the egg-hatching function--which requires players to run or walk a set distance for a creature to emerge from the shell—to increase student activity.

Math skills can be used to log distances between stops or Pokémon gyms, where characters can battle, or to calculate probability around the rarity of some Pokémon species. All kinds of commentators are weighing in on potential educational applications.

Privacy for Gamers?

James Gee, an expert in educational video gaming at Arizona State University sees the app’s success as partially derivative of the way “it enchants the environment.” In an America which Gee and other commentators argue is becoming more fractured for a variety of social and economic reasons, Pokémon Go is a rare cultural phenomenon that seems to cut across class and race in its popularity, he said.

“Every human would love to think that there are little fairies running around—that’s been a theme of literature and many cultures actually believe it,” Gee said. “Pokémon comes along and does that.”

As important as the “augmented reality” features of the game have been in building its popularity, the game’s constant need to track a user’s geographic positioning has stirred fears among data-privacy advocates.

Those worries were inflamed by early reports from bloggers, which were then picked up by mainstream outlets that the developers were gaining access to users’ entire Google accounts, including full email records, through a broadly-worded privacy waiver.

Bill Fitzgerald, the director of the privacy evaluation initiative at Common Sense Media, a San Francisco-based nonprofit, said educators need to be wary about data collected by apps like Pokémon Go. “It was very bad,” he said of the initial glitch. “For me the issue is: what else did they miss in their QA [quality assurance] process?”

Randall, of Common Sense Education, also notes that schools should tread very carefully around encouraging students to use personal accounts for educational purposes with Pokémon Go, particularly for those under 13. Laws like the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, or COPPA, are designed specifically to protect these younger students.

While the company issued a statement saying that the digital-security issues have been resolved, there have also been concerns about physical safety. According to news report, gamers have been injured for their inattention to their surroundings, and in some cases, they’ve even been lured into armed robberies.

Some observers are also warry of the marketing aspects of the game, especially as Nintendo will soon allow businesses to sponsor or purchase PokéStops as a way of driving traffic to their site.

But perhaps the most unexpected criticism for such a popular game is that many expert gamers find some of the game mechanics wanting. “The app is very faulty and it’s not smooth in terms of the user-interface or the gameplay,” said Steve Isaacs, a middle school game design teacher at William Annin Middle School in New Jersey, who was recently recognized at ISTE.

As Isaacs points out, Pokémon Go will inevitably see patches and updated versions. But to date, the game lacks an effective tutorial and Isaacs found the mechanic used for throwing Pokéballs to capture Pokémon to be overly simplistic. Other reviewers who have progressed further in the game have reported that “battling” can feel like more of an exercise in reflexive button-mashing than nuanced decision-making.

Pricing Model

Even so, there is also a collaborative social component to the game which has educators buzzing. Once gamers reach level five, they are prompted to join one of three factions (yellow, blue, or red), giving players a set of teammates to plot with, and opponents to fight against.

The game also borrows from popular iOS games of the last five-years in using a “freemium” business model. The controversial practice makes the game free to download and play, but then capitalizes on the popularity by giving the option for purchasing in-game credits with real-world dollars.

Players who spend real money are essentially buying shortcuts through the game, fueling the growth of their avatars artificially, and without having to invest hours of game-play “grinding” out improvements.

The practice is controversial because it creates feedback loops which give players a thrill when they spend money and improve their character that gradually dissipates as improvement plateaus. The gamer then feels compelled to spend more money, chasing the rush of seeing their avatar become more powerful, said Gee of Arizona State.

While disliked by hardcore gamers who speak of “earning” in-game achievements, the model is remarkably lucrative, exploding on the gaming scene and now accounting for 70 to 80 percent of the sector’s revenue, according to a report in Business Insider.

Pokémon Go, which offers such in-app purchases, has already raised millions through selling virtual coins, raising concerns from Gee and Isaacs that the tactics used by other game-developers that could be employed to separate the young people from their money.

A lot of kinks would need to be worked out to be able to incorporate Pokémon Go into the learning day, Torres said. But teachers can help themselves take that step by getting to know the game and how students experience it.

“Our kids are going to want to talk about it when they get back to school,” she said. “If teachers are familiar with it and can talk about it, that’s going to be an easy way to build a relationship.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.