The phenomenal uptake and use of Pokemon Go since its launch to the public over the weekend is nothing short of incredible. There are reports it has overtaken Twitter for daily account access and use, and the sight of huge groups of people out in public places poring over their smart phone screens in search of Pokemon (gotta catch ‘em all!) is certainly a sight to behold.
So, what is it, should your kids play it, and what are the pros and cons? The staff at Nature Play WA have been playing Pokemon Go since its release (all in the name of research, of course) and here’s our two cents worth.
What is it?
In a nutshell, the game is based on the Japanese media franchise which centres on fictional creatures called Pokemon (short for “pocket monsters”), and human Pokemon trainers, who catch, train and battle the creatures for sport. Originating in 1995 as a pair of video games for the original Game Boy device, the franchise now includes animated tv shows and movies, toys, trading cards, comic books and much more.
Pokemon Go is a hand-held GPS-led game, played on an app where Pokemon reveal themselves around your house, local neighbourhood, and pretty much every public space, for you to catch. It uses your phone's camera to create an augmented-reality style of play, where the Pokemon are inserted into your actual surroundings. You start the game with a certain amount of Pokeballs to catch them with, and when you stumble across one you swipe to throw a pokeball at it to catch it. Other elements include Poke Stops; local landmarks that provide you with additional Pokeballs and eggs to incubate and hatch into new Pokemon, and Gyms where you battle your Pokemon against others, for victory and glory!
Pokemon Go has certainly galvanised and moved one of the most sedentary demographic groups in our community off the couch and into the great outdoors – teenagers and tweens. It may be easy to encourage a toddler or kindergartener to get outside and play at the park, ride their scooter or bike around the neighbourhood or go for a nature or bush walk, but prying older kids off the couch and away from gaming consoles or computers can seem like a mammoth task. Pokemon Go has them leaping out of bed, downing their breakfast and diving out the door in the coldest of Winter mornings, without so much as a peep from a parent.
We ‘re also reading reports that kids with anxiety, Aspergers and depression are finding it a useful tool in motivating them to get outside and get physically active, giving them something to focus on when dealing with potentially stressful situations.
People are encouraged and rewarded for exploring places that aren’t part of their regular daily plans – the wider you roam the greater variety of Pokemon you come across, the further you walk the quicker your eggs incubate and become Pokemon. It’s a great way to explore new parks, playgrounds and public spaces.
It’s still a game on a device. Another device-based “game”, geocaching, brings together the use of a GPS-device with actual real-world hunting. Depending on how small the canister is, and where it’s located, you could have some really interesting adventures while actually finding a geocache, whereas if you walk in the general vicinity of a Pokemon, you’ll easily find it and catch it. The game itself can also distract players from the natural world around them, rather than engaging them in it. Players may be outdoors and being physically active, but so many of the important benefits associated with being outside involves actually immersing yourself in and interacting with nature.
It will drain your phone battery like nothing else! Geocaching can put some pressure on your device in this way too, but Pokemon Go seems to just eat your battery. Have a charger ready!
The access the game wants to your Gmail account (on the iOS version) is surprising. If you use your Gmail account to login in (which is the easiest way to sign up and play) you need to give full access to your account, including your email and contacts. We’re not sure why the developers need this much access to allow you to play the game, but we’d recommend setting up a “burner” Gmail (one you only use for this game) to avoid giving access to your actual account. (*Update: July 18th: The developers have now closed the loophole that allowed/required full access to your Gmail account, but still important to be mindful of what information you're providing when downloading games via email or social media accounts.)
Also, it’s collecting your data while you play: where you are, how long you’re there for, where you travel to and places you most frequent. All of this is simply to enable you to play the game (it needs to know where you are to show you the Pokemon near you) but is something to be aware of.
Pokemon Go is certainly getting some people outdoors and more active than they would have been without the game. And it’s an exciting new way to engage with a phenomenon that a lot of people have grown up with, but ultimately, without something deeper behind it, it’s not going to foster a love of the outdoors or an excitement for spending time in nature.
We’ve seen some interesting social media posts from people hunting for Pokemon who stumbled across real animals (or pretty/funky-looking plants) in nature and shared their experience, so the possibility of gaining something beyond the game is there, it just requires a little effort.
As a parent, you can use Pokemon Go as a tool to get kids outside, but have something planned to take things a step further. Maybe schedule a Pokemon Go session at a new playground, nature reserve or national park you’ve never been to before. Start the visit out with augmented reality, but then put the devices away and explore some actual reality! Talk about the real animals that the Pokemon are based on, and have the kids research some interesting facts about them, so they know more than just Pokemon stats and XP.
Once the initial flush of excitement about Pokemon Go has faded you’ll have some new places to explore, new adventures to have, and new memories to create!