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 in July.
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 1990s as a trading card game, then as a TV show, then as a Gameboy-supported video game. The unlikely resurrection of the virtual world of animated creatures into a 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 Co., has seen its stock value rise by the billions as a result of the success.
Local Landmarks, History
The success that Pokémon’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 Pokémon Go, once the app is downloaded and an avatar is selected, the player is located by the game via GPS.
In Pokémon Go, users roam to parks, landmarks, and buildings in their communities to gather resources. Every once in a while the gamer’s phone will vibrate and shift the display from a GPS-maps-like view of the gamer’s avatar, to a view activated by the gamer’s camera.
At this point, the game jumps from a third- to first-person view, and the gamers see a direct feed of the grass or sidewalk in front of them, with a digital overlay of whichever Pokémon was randomly generated. When the illusion is conjured properly, the users feel as though they have “discovered” a magical creature hiding in plain sight.
Pokéstops, places where players can collect free items, are often placed at parks, historic sites, or monuments, drawing out local history, Torres said. By encouraging users to seek out these real-world landmarks in person, gamers are noticing their surroundings and absorbing real local history in ways that are getting educators excited, she explained.
“It is a springboard for learning urban geography and the history of a region,” said Dawn Casey-Rowe, a social studies teacher at William M. Davies, Jr. Career and Technical High School in Rhode Island who plans to utilize the game in her classroom for the upcoming school year.
Even in other parts of the country where there might not be 400 years of Colonial history, the game has the potential to be a good introduction to civics, said Casey-Rowe. A teacher, leading students through Pokéstops, might be able to take advantage of pointing out “this is the town hall, this is where we do ‘x.’”
But perhaps the most promising application, suggested Casey-Rowe, is in teaching students basic skills about mapping, cardinal directions, and navigation. “There is so much going on from a geospatial point of view.”
Meanwhile, Torres also sees potential for young students to practice literacy through the app, which encourages a fair amount of reading.
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, added Torres, because Pokémon tend to pop up in their natural habitat areas—for example, a fish will usually 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.
Rebecca Randall, the vice president of education programs and partnerships for Common Sense Education, noted that physical education 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.
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 a country that Gee and other commentators argue is becoming more fractured for a variety of social and economic reasons, Pokémon Go 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.”
Nevertheless, educators should be cognizant that the game might not hold the same appeal for every student, said Casey-Rowe. Some of them might get wrapped up in “unhealthy competition” over controlling territory, or simply won’t find the game interesting, she added.
As with any new-age digital tool, Casey-Rowe argued that it is incumbent upon teachers who engage in these spaces to model professional uses of social media, and social games.
In addition, as important as the “augmented reality” features of the game are to its popularity, the game’s need to track a user’s geographic positioning has stirred fears among data-privacy advocates.
Those fears increased after early reports from bloggers, later picked up by mainstream news 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, said educators need to be wary about data collected by apps like Pokémon Go. “It was very bad,” he said of the initial glitch. “The issue is: what else did they miss in their QA [quality assurance] process?”
Randall, of Common Sense Education, also noted 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 a company statement said the digital-security issues have been resolved, there have also been concerns about physical safety. According to news reports, gamers have been injured because of not paying attention to their surroundings, and in some cases, they’ve even been lured into armed robberies.
Some observers are also wary of the marketing aspects of the game, especially since Nintendo will soon allow businesses to sponsor or purchase Pokéstops as a way of driving traffic to their site.
The game also borrows from popular iOS games of the last five years in using a “freemium” business model. The practice is controversial because it creates feedback loops which give players a thrill when they spend real money and improve their character that gradually dissipates as improvement plateaus. Gamers then feel compelled to spend more money, chasing the rush of seeing their avatars become more powerful, said Gee of Arizona State.
But perhaps the most unexpected criticism for such a popular game is that many expert gamers find some of its 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.
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 mechanics 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.
A lot of kinks need to be worked out to incorporate Pokémon Go into the learning day, Torres said. But teachers can help themselves by taking the time to understand the game and how students experience it.
“Our kids are going to want to talk about it when they get back to school,” Torres said. “If teachers are familiar with it and can talk about it, that’s going to be an easy way to build a relationship.”
“Get a teen consultant” and “make sure that you are an authentic part of the community,” advised Casey-Rowe on how educators can make the most of the Pokémon Go opportunity. “Use your experts, be invited in, and learn to use it.”
“There are going to be a lot of naysayers,” but teachers who focus on “how do we use this to promote education” will find a goldmine, she predicted. “I’ll always use any tool I can to further the cause.”
Coverage of the implementation of college- and career-ready standards and the use of personalized learning is supported in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the August 03, 2016 edition of Education Week as As Pokémon Craze Grows, Educators Weigh Game’s Value