On Pokémon GO and the Social Implications of Alternate Reality

Try as I might to contain my excitement about the upcoming Alternate Reality (AR) game from Niantic and The Pokémon Company, I just can’t stop thinking about it. I already know the game itself will leave a lot up to the imagination – it’s most likely going to be similar to Ingress, and likely won’t live up to the high expectations players have – but its attempt to integrate different technologies into a single, usable product is virtually unprecedented in the gaming industry. To be sure, we’re seeing more interest in alternate reality. The Oculus Rift and similar technology has been generating a lot of buzz for the last few years, and Magic Leap has the power to revolutionize the way we see AR. But these technologies have been inaccessible to the world at large. They are prohibitively expensive, awkwardly bulky, and nausea inducing, and as such they haven’t been much more than a novelty to try at your local library, or a curiosity to be dabbled in by rich development geeks.

Pokémon GO is different. It almost assuredly won’t have the kind of alternate reality everyone thinks of when they hear the words alternate reality – visible objects scattered in the real world, interactive environments, manipulation of digital objects – but it will have integration in different respects. Perhaps not the most glamorous of respects, but those just as necessary for a full alternate reality experience. And, most important of all, it will be available to everyone with a cell phone, a massive user base to be sure. With that said, I’m giddy to talk about the future. Pokémon GO probably won’t be the game everyone is expecting it to be, but it might just lay the groundwork for games in the future that will live up to those expectations. Without wishing to sound too anxious or futuristic, it seems that alternate reality will be a reality in as few as 10 years, and we just might have reason to believe that Pokémon could become a reality in the not-too-distant future.

With that said, I think that alternate reality presents a fascinating vehicle to study what the future of social interaction might look like, and how alternate reality gaming could radically alter our interactions in the future.

The Future of Pokémon

It seems that alternate reality must be the ultimate goal for the Pokémon universe. Everything about the world of Pokémon screams for a fully integrated alternate reality experience. This technology is coming, and while it may seem that acting out Pokémon battles is nothing more than a technology induced fever dream, the technology is not far off. For example, the following technologies already exist and are in use today:

  • Pokémon GO is set to bring GPS to the forefront of a Pokémon game, placing Pokémon into the real world for the first time.
  • There is speculation that the types of Pokémon you encounter will change based on the time of day and the weather. Even if this functionality is not brought to GO, it is not difficult to see how it could be integrated in the future.
  • Voice Recognition is no longer a thing of the past. If I can tell Google to “Set a timer for 10 minutes,” it isn’t a far cry for my voice recognition to interpret commands like “OK, Pikachu, use thundershock!”
  • Pokégear is already a reality, in fact, we’ve got something better than Pokégear, we’ve got a mobile phone with unlimited access to the entire Pokémon database.
  • We’ve got the technology to hear our Pokémon talk back to us, with 3D sound technology (like QSound) and a regular pair of headphones we can mimic sounds to come from different geographical locations.

And the only necessary ingredient left, placing virtual objects in the environment, is soon to come with the use of alternate reality goggles. So while Pokémon GO might not be the perfect alternate reality game it’s being hyped up to be, it points to an important step along the way towards true alternate reality. If we want to be able to play Pokémon in the real world, GPS, weather, and voice recognition will all need to be integrated into the experience.

Are We Ready for Alternate Reality?

All this talk of alternate reality and Pokémon in the real world presents a fascinating social question. Are we ready for alternate reality? One of the most important characteristics of a Pokémon game, for example, is the battle. When watching the Anime series, Pokémon battles get incredibly intense. Trainers meet each other, suggest a battle, and then yell out orders for their Pokémon to follow. Pokémon battles are very interactive and personal. It remains to be seen, however, if this world of battling in the Anime can translate into the real world. For the sake of the arguments following, assume we are not talking about Pokémon GO, but about some future version in which all the AR elements are fully realized, making the experience as close to a real battle as you can get (though GO may have a lot of these problems, too).

For one thing, it would require a fair bit of Live Action Role Playing. When you’re having a Pokémon battle, you’re going to have to be performing actions and yelling out commands in front of somebody else, with other people around. This might prove to be profoundly socially embarrassing, especially if the reality were only visible to the two players wearing goggles. Imagine watching two people playing an alternate reality version of Pokémon; while they would be seeing the action unfold and taking part in it, everyone else would be looking at two people standing a couple feet from each other gesticulating into space and yelling at nonexistent creatures. Perhaps there will be a social understanding when AR comes out, but my guess is that the embarrassment factor is going to be huge. Nobody wants to look like a fool in front of a crowd, even if they’re playing one of the most amazing games that has ever been created. Role playing is a very intimate and vulnerable activity, even in non-sexual situations such as Pokémon, and as such it will be a huge barrier for AR to overcome.

Another problem alternate reality games would face is the profound distrust individuals have for each other in the Western world. In the world of Pokémon, for example, you can battle any kind of trainer. Young or old, boy or girl, chef or policeman, gang member or nurse. In the real world, things aren’t so simple. While it may very well be true that the dangers surrounding adult and child interactions are perceived to be astronomically higher than they really are, as I’ve spoken about before, it nonetheless would create a huge cultural barrier for Pokémon players. If you’re a 50 year old male trainer and you see a 16 year old female trainer pop up on your radar, you won’t be able to walk up to them and have a fun fight like you could in the Pokémon universe. You’d be attacked for being creepy, or worse, a pedophile. That being said, it may be difficult for games like Pokémon to overcome social barriers. Features like “Trainer Radar” which would be necessary for a full AR experience (and which will almost assuredly be replaced with some sort of asynchronous battle system in Pokémon GO) would be difficult to get off the ground because of the fear that it would be used nefariously. Even if trainers would be made completely anonymous through the app and would have to interact in person, one could imagine the app being used for nefarious purposes (hey there, little boy, I’ll trade you a Gyarados if you get in my van) and as such these kinds of features will take a long time to be culturally accepted.

A New World of Interaction

Our outlook need not be so bleak, however. Perhaps the reason society is bad at so many of these simple interactions is that we have never truly had a vehicle to facilitate them. Pets, for example, are amazing conversation starters. One of the easiest ways to fashion yourself as a functioning social individual is the simple addition of a dog; it invites an easy, indirect transition into conversation (Hi, can I pet your dog? What breed?). Perhaps Pokémon GO and its future incarnations will have the same effect, with Trainers meeting on the streets asking for trades and battles (Hey, can I see your Magneton? Want to trade it for my Primeape?) and encouraging conversation about battle strategy and good spots for finding Pokémon.

Perhaps it will allow us all to live a little less seriously and invite elements of creativity, imagination, and role play back into our lives. Perhaps we will begin to wear clothes and hats indicating our trainer status and alliances, like we do with sports jerseys and band t-shirts. Perhaps it will become second nature to walk up to someone wearing a Pokémon shirt and ask them if they want to battle; instead of asking hey, did you see the football game? we could ask hey, you up for a quick battle after class? These kinds of cultural shifts may take time, and they may never exist outside of their enclaves (just as not everyone in the world cares about football), but Pokémon team fandom and the normalization of role playing in public settings might just allow us to take things a little less seriously – or, to put it another way, to take our games a little more seriously – and is there really any difference, at the end of the day?


On My Hiatus

I want to apologize, again, for my hiatus in blogging. I fear this sparse schedule will be fairly normal as long as school continues. I start my days at 7 AM and get home at 6 PM, with homework and social interactions filling what little time I have left. I do not plan on abandoning this blog any time soon, though my posts will unfortunately be less frequent – as they have been – until school is no longer such a time sink in my life. The good news is I graduate in May, so you can all look forward to an uptick in posts this summer. In the meantime, I hope that my work arouses enough anticipation to keep you interested.

My main goal with the content on this blog will always be quality, not quantity. I am not concerned with my number of followers, nor am I concerned with the advice given in blogging 101 courses that I should be posting every day to maintain my brand. If I know I don’t have time to make a compelling and interesting post, or I don’t have the passion required to put out quality content, I won’t put out any at all. Contributing to the glut of rehashing tired points and getting massive page views with titles like FIVE HILARIOUS NOTES WRITTEN BY CHILDREN TO JK ROWLING will never be the intention of this blog. With that said, there may come times such as these where weeks go by when I don’t put out any content. For that I apologize, but I hope you understand.

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