Pokémon Go and education: Toward answering the questions about learning that are on everyone’s mind

This article was originally published on Jeremy Riel’s Medium blog

The game that is finding its way onto the phones of everyone under 30 years old has started to find its way into the discussions of educators worldwide. Questions about whether or not Pokémon Go can be used for learning are expected as it gains popularity. Anything that is able to pull in such large numbers of players has to be beneficial for learning, right?

Although I don’t think there are good direct ways that educators could use Pokémon Go for broad learning objectives yet, I do think that there’s a lot we can learn from the Pokémon craze and find some inspiration for educational design. If we take a moment to think about the pedagogical possibilities from the types of activities in Pokémon Go, there’s some really interesting insights to be gained. What elements of Pokémon Go might be carried over to other designs and classroom activities? Let’s check it out!

What is Pokémon Go?

For the uninitiated, Pokémon Go is a game designed by Niantic Inc. and The Pokémon Company with which people play on their mobile devices while interacting in the real world. You can play Pokémon as you walk to school or work, or while you’re sitting around with friends (or while at work). It’s designed to be played for as little or as long as you want at a time and will work whenever you have a data cell signal and a working GPS.

In the game, you play the role of a Pokémon Trainer on a quest to catch small animal-like creatures called Pokémon. Many articles have been written about understanding Pokémon since 1995, so I won’t rehash old stuff here. The premise remains the same for the newest app that was released in July: players catch Pokémon and train them to become stronger. The goal of the game is to become “the best there ever was” and to catch all of the Pokémon. However, with Pokémon Go, you catch these little monsters as you interact with the real world, which is the main departure from its previous iterations that were limited to a gaming console.

The pokémon were plentiful on the day the app launched, as I am still Level 3 here. You walk around the world and catch pokémon that appear on the sidewalks. They just pop up on your map, you tap the creature when it appears, and you get a chance to catch it.

One thing that sets Pokémon Go apart is that it is an augmented reality app — in which you can “see” the pokémon that you’re catching in the real world. It’s as if you look through your phone as a special lens to see hidden things. It has been extremely popular with students of all ages: middle school, high school, and college. There are many pokéstops on college campuses and schools, which are real geographic locations at which you can restock on supplies for the game (specifically, the ever-important pokéball).

Millions of people between 15 and 45 years old have downloaded the app since its release in mid-July. You read that right — adults are playing Pokémon. The diverse age of the players has been a fascinating aspect of this phenomenon, as it seems that the Pokémon we have come to know over the last twenty years is not just a kid’s franchise anymore. The designers of Pokémon Go have gambled on the nostalgic draw to the game. Although available to children, most people using the app are members of the generation that played the original games in 1995, which is now composed of adults that have discretionary spending. It seems the gamble has paid off, as some news outlets reporting that the app has generated over $250 million in revenue since its launch.

I’ve been playing since the day that it came out — everything about this game is just too fascinating. I’ve played in multiple states (IL, CA, and OR) and everywhere I go I have seen the same excitement for the game. The geographic differences and varying play strategies based on city type (i.e., between urban, suburban, and rural) are making headlines and deserve further study. This will be especially important if we are to best understand the digital lives of K-12 and college students, as they have integrated Pokémon as a key component of their daily entertainment and social lives…at least for now.

A Spearow on my street on the first day of the app’s launch — as seen through the augmented reality lens. The Pokémon can just be “sitting there” in real life. It’s up to you to catch them all and be the best there ever was.
Another Spearow appearing in my game the day it was released, this time on my desk

There’s no indication yet on how long people will play or whether or not this trend will die. All we know is that people love it right now. Some popular social apps explode in their use in the first months and then die immediate deaths…only some games find the magic formula for sustained use over time. There are a lot of pokémon to catch and many new game elements that Niantic wants to implement in the coming months. Educators should keep an eye on Pokémon’s growth and changes in interest from the younger generations.

Can Pokémon Go be used for learning?

Of course, the question on my (and every other educator’s) mind is less of “what is Pokémon Go” and more “how can Pokémon Go be used for learning.” The allure of using this popular app is just too much to resist! Anytime popular apps are used as hooks for education, care must be taken not to make it uncool by warping the activities too far beyond what made it popular in the first place. So, that being said, I think there are two ways that we can cautiously answer the question right now.

First is the content question: what can be taught using Pokémon Go? I think this question is still a bit of a stretch for us to determine solid answers right now. The education community has only seen the app in action for a month, so we are far from seeing principled use of the game for educational objectives. There are always some content areas to be explored and learned with any authentic activity in life, so invariably players will gain skills in some of these areas just by playing. These include:

(a) map and geographic literacies, as players are required to navigate their communities and new places using maps and geographic indicators;

(b) data literacies, as players need to manage their pokémon training efforts and calculate the necessary resources for improving their status in the game;

(c) math, as players perform a lot of operations on numbers in the game, often using their heads;

(d) history, as communities are explored and landmarks are frequently visited during play.

I am not sure if Niantic specifically included these as learning objectives, but they can be seen as bonuses to playing. For teachers that are interested in history, geography, physical education, and even some math skills, Pokémon Go can actually be beneficial.

But, I’m still convinced that Pokémon Go is a bit of a stretch to say it can be used to promote learning in deep, curricular ways. We just haven’t seen any applications of the game yet in learning situations and it’s all hearsay if it works or not.

Pokémon Go’s inspiration for ed tech design

So, the second question related to applying Pokémon Go to education is“what are the special properties of Pokémon Go and how can they inspire educational design?” In my opinion, this question is more important right now, is more compelling, and frankly way more exciting. In the short time I’ve been playing, I’ve seen many elements of Pokémon Go’s design that provide some insightful lessons for education.

It’s important to preface this question with a statement on context in technology use. The act of playing Pokémon Go is the context in which these activities take place. They won’t necessarily transfer over to another context, such as a curriculum or learning environment. The combinations of activities that players do in the game are done to achieve only the goals of the game — nothing more. However, that being said, there are some lessons to be drawn from the rapid uptake and intense passion of the player communities that has formed since the launch of the app in July.

1. Place can matter. In terms of lessons, Pokémon Go’s greatest contribution is probably an argument that place can matter and can be integrated into today’s digital apps, but only as long as there’s a good reason to do so. The distance between players and gyms, the length players must walk to “hatch eggs,” and the location of pokémon spawn points, pokéstops, and gyms are all meaningful, location-based aspects of the game that get people to move their physical bodies to other places in the real world. Games are played outside, in fresh air. What we’re seeing is a weird fusion of digital gameplay superimposed on physical location (which is what we mean when we say augmented reality, right?). But people are only moving and seeing the sights because there’s a reason to do so — it’s required to advance in the game. Pokémon gives us insights into what it takes to get people to move around, get outside, and how play and learning can be reconnected to human movement instead of taking place solely behind a stationary screen.

 
Downtown Chicago is full of pokéstops. You just walk up to them and tap to get resources to play the game. Many of these stops are statues, monuments, plaques, and other community locations. You’ll invariably run into other players.

Prioritizing place in activities may actually have unanticipated consequences in some areas, though. Stampedes have occurred in dense areas like New York and, as in the video below, Taipei, Taiwan, as trainers rush to find rumored rare pokémon as they briefly appear “in the wild:”

The videos of these stampedes are a bit comical. They do show, however, that physical location can actually matter to digital activities and alter other activities (such as driving or commuting). This is important because digital gaming is a domain in which activity was thought to exist only in cyberspace — and Pokémon shows us otherwise now.

2. Social aspects also matter. The original Pokémon game was mostly a solitary endeavor — kids grinding away at finding pokémon on a Game Boy was a common sight for parents to see. But, all the way back in 1995, it was interesting that Pokémon observers could see a number of social ways to play the single-player game. Catching them all was meaningless unless you could show your friends. And show off everyone did — and continues to do with Pokémon Go. Just ask any player today and they would be happy to show you their collection of powerful pocket monsters. As such, the game is social. In the original game, you could trade your pokémon with friends or do battle with your most powerful creatures. Today, you can battle with friends at local gyms, hike together to find pokémon, or sit with some friends at a pokéstop with a lure in place to have a higher rate of finding pokémon. How Niantic has employed the social element of play is a big insight to draw from the app.

3. Nostalgia can be really powerful. As a social phenomenon, Pokémon is fascinating to me because of all the adults who play. People who grew up with Pokémon are returning to the franchise. I think this is because they are largely drawn by the nostalgia. Perhaps it’s the Pokémon app that they always wanted — to actually be the player, physically moving through the world to catch and train Pokémon on their own. It’s as if the technology finally caught up and hooked players with nostalgia. We should keep our eye on how we can use familiar pop culture and entertainment in education, as it seems on the surface to have had a powerful effect.

4. Maintaining variety and purpose among monotony can help with boring tasks (or, alternatively, catch lots of rattatas for every dratini). Another weird thing I’ve noticed is that the app has made boring, repetitive tasks doable and cool. Sure, you want to catch a rare pokémon. But for every rare one, you have to catch 100 boring ones. How did Niantic get people to willingly do these repetitive, boring, and sometimes lengthy tasks? Perhaps it was for the promise of a reward, or an achievement. I do know that you need to catch many small pokémon in order to get “stardust” to increase the combat power of your pokémon that you use to fight at gyms. These victories are mini-achievements and a strong in-game purpose that keeps people playing. Your character also can increase its level when you catch hordes of boring pokémon, so there’s probably something to these outcomes other than just for the sake of earning a badge or level. Players have a purpose with specific goals, and they do these monotonous activities to meet them.

5. Encouraging movement and getting outside is not that hard.Contemporary thinkers about kids in the digital age love to gripe about how people don’t do anything and just sit around. The level of kids’ physical activity is indeed a concern of parents, schools, health professionals, and policymakers alike. Pokémon Go demonstrates an important lesson about physical movement: we just need the right hook and a purpose to get outside. This is a good lesson of how all technologies are used for a purpose. Mobile games move us past the age of the console or desktop computer in which the only place to play was in front of a large screen. Maybe our lack of movement in our society is simply due to the extreme tethering we’ve had to the digital console, be it a computer screen, television, or mobile device. What if our activities and entertainment had purposes that were tied to place and movement? Pokémon is demonstrating some exciting things in this area.

But don’t drive and play! The app is starting to gently remind people that this isn’t cool, with popup messages whenever your GPS clocks movement that is too fast.

The app telling me I’m going too fast, but I’m just sitting in my living room. I am unable to get a stable GPS and cell tower location lock where I live, so it bounces me around. The app thinks I’m driving.

6. Listening to the players is important. Much of what Niantic and The Pokémon Company are doing here is an experiment. Could they anticipate everything that was going to happen when they launched the app? No. However, they did decide to push the envelope and try a few new things to see what would happen, much to their surprise (and benefit to their coffers). Pokémon Go was largely built on an earlier experimental framework that supported a long-running social game called Ingress. The iterative development of Ingress laid much of the foundation for Pokémon (and used a lot of its code!). The release and continued updates of Pokémon Go have created an interesting series of cause and effect between the small changes that Niantic has done and the subsequent response from the players. Although it’s a good topic for another blog post, there have been many changes and subsequent bursts of anger from the players community on these changes. The lesson for educational design is although the app developers have a basic set of goals and that they try to push participants toward those activities, changes need to be sensitive to the community of users and respond to their needs and desires in order for it to maintain its high usage.

When all else fails and nothing works — just shut the app down! This was a common screen during the launch of the game, as the servers could not handle the massive number of people who wanted to play.

What do you think?

Let me know what you’re thinking! What are your thoughts on Pokémon Go and its relationship to learning and educational design? Do you have any interesting insights that you’ve gained from playing or observing people who play? — tweet me at @jeremyriel and let me know what’s on your mind. I’m also always on the lookout for cool apps and resources, so if you’d like to drop me a line about what you use related to this post, let me know.