When the invention of Smartphone technology and the rise in popularity of social media created fears of zombie generations, eyes glued to their phone screens everywhere they went and forgetting how to spell simple words like “you”, some rather unexpected things happened instead.
Rather than becoming completely vacuous hermits, the Smartphone has arguably made people more mobile, by making it easier to travel anywhere in the world that has a wifi hotspot. Younger generations are more politically aware, too, as Twitter and Facebook spread big news stories or mobilise new political and social movements like Black Lives Matter.
Anything, it seems, is possible in this new age of social media. So while everyone was wondering what the next big hashtag was going to be or agonising over which filter to use for their latest holiday snap, technology company Niantic threw us a curveball by getting millions of people of all ages out into the streets to throw virtual balls.
The explosion of Pokémon Go had a lot of people outside the gaming world confused and frantically googling what a Jigglypuff was. The “adults” were worried that young people were not only literally walking off cliffs, but metaphorically into the abyss of a scary virtual future, when in fact they were possibly just trying to escape post-Brexit reality for a while, or the sound of Donald Trump’s voice.
The reality is, Pokémon Go would not have exploded in popularity if it wasn’t for the huge subculture that has been building around this game since 1996. Originally a pair of Game Boy games released in Japan by Nintendo in February 1996, the games hit Europe in 1999. They subsequently extended into comics, cartoons and a trading card game, the last of which was possibly more popular than the computer games themselves.
Location-based games are not a new phenomenon. Niantic’s first major product was a location-based social game in which players compete for control of points located at physical landmarks in their neighbourhood and was created as far back as 2012. Similarly, a game-type app called Foursquare, which lets users check in to locations to earn points and meet friends, was launched in 2009.
Although the term Augmented Reality (AR) was first coined in the early 90s, and Google launched a line of wearable technology that implemented AR principles in 2013, the idea had not taken off on a mass consumer scale until last month, and even then it has not taken off with non-gamers.
According to Rami Ismail, founder of game development studio Vlambeer, AR only seems to work for games like Pokémon, because the game involves trying to catch things. If the game involved fighting opponents, a popular concept in gaming, it wouldn’t work as a location-based Augmented Reality game, for obvious reasons. Given the cult following of Pokémon, it would be hard for a similar game to follow its success.
Nonetheless, Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook, believes AR is going to be “huge” and the company is investing in the requisite technology. Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg, has talked of his hopes of using artificial intelligence to enhance our interactions in an augmented future in which you can hold your phone up to your friend’s face to find out what they really think of you.
These ideas are still the stuff of science-fiction fantasy compared to the here and now. With more than 1.6 billion users at least once a month, Facebook is still no more than a message board, essentially, in which people use a very small range of emojis to express opinions on topics as far-ranging as funny cats and the refugee crisis. It is only as interesting as the real-life connections and events it enables.
Similarly, Pokémon Go had the long-standing cult of Pokémon behind it already, which goes a long way in explaining the new app’s success.
The technology required to implement the game is far from ground-breaking. The crudely animated creatures superimposed on world-famous landmarks are not adding to the reality of being in that location. A new dimension has simply been added to a game that will continue to be played regardless.