Why Pokémon GO Became An Instant Phenomenon

By posted on May 29, 2015 5:22AM

Katherine Isbister, University of California, Santa Cruz

In the last week, Pokémon GO, an augmented reality game for mobile phones, has taken off. Daily traffic for the game exceeded Twitter and Facebook use. What is driving this intense interest and involvement? One way to understand is to take a closer look at the game’s design.

First, for those who haven’t played or watched, a brief overview of how the game works. To play Pokémon GO, you download an app onto your phone, which allows you to search for and “see” virtual creatures called Pokémon that are scattered throughout the real world. You need to be physically close to a Pokémon’s location to see it on your mobile screen. Pokémon GO uses augmented reality technology — the game overlays the creature image on top of video from your phone’s camera, so it looks as if the creature is floating in the real world. When you find a Pokémon, you try to catch it by swiping an on-screen ball at it. The simplest aim of the game is to “catch ‘em all.”

To do this, you’ll have to wander outside your own real-world neighborhood, because different types of creatures are scattered throughout your town and all around the world. You can easily share snapshots of creatures you’ve collected and where you found them on social media sites like Facebook, if you want. As you get better at the game, you discover that you can train the creatures in “gyms,” which are virtual spaces accessible by visiting real world public locations (for example, the White House is a gym). When you’ve reached level 5 in the game, you get a chance to join one of three teams: Team Mystic, Team Valor or Team Instinct. These teams compete to maintain control over the gyms where Pokémon go and train. You and your friends can choose the same team, and work together if you like. You’ll also have teammates from around your community (and the world) who join in.

Several aspects of the game’s design help to make the experience so compelling. A look at gaming research shows several of the game’s elements can explain why playing Pokémon GO has been such a massive worldwide hit for players of all ages.

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