In the past few weeks, if you’ve seen people roaming around, staring at their phones and spontaneously shouting with glee, or crowds of people inexplicably congregating in parks, there’s a good chance you’ve witnessed someone playing Pokémon Go. Since its release on July 6th, Pokémon Go has taken over cities around the world. With an estimated 26 million players in the United States, it’s the biggest mobile game in U.S. history. In fact, on a daily basis, more people have used Pokémon Go maps than Google Maps—the developer for the maps in the game.
In contrast to its strictly visual predecessor, Pokémon Go requires a more active gaming lifestyle. The smartphone app utilizes GPS, geotagging, cameras and maps to integrate the gaming experience into a semi-virtual reality. Like the original Pokémon, the objective of the game is to catch different Pokémon creatures. However, in the new version, players must leave the confines of their homes and roam city streets, parks and popular landmarks to find Pokémon. Some Pokémon prefer certain environments over others, inspiring players to visit nearby bodies of water and recreational areas. Users visit “Pokéstops,” which are mapped to real-world public spaces, to collect Pokémon and assorted items, encouraging the use of public transit and walking over private vehicles.
Urban developers and city officials have been trying to inspire smart city planning for years, underscoring the environmental, health and economic benefits of a walkable city. What planners have continuously struggled with, Pokémon Go has achieved overnight. Pokémon Go has enhanced urban exploration and engagement, leaving us to wonder if the cartoon has uncovered the secret to effective urban planning.
Encouraging Urban Exploration to ‘Catch Em All’
Pokémon Go goes against the grain of indoor and sedentary videogames, as it promotes active exploration and engagement with people and places around the city. It pushes people out of their homes to enjoy sunshine and fresh air. Players get to explore new neighborhoods, restaurants, parks and landmarks, developing a newfound appreciation for their city and breathing life into public spaces that were previously empty. Gamers are even meeting new neighbors and talking to strangers about how many Pokémon they’ve caught.
This dynamic gaming experience is introducing exercise to a previously motionless activity. Many have reported sore legs from walking and running miles at a time. In the game, players collect eggs that will hatch only after they’ve walked two, five or ten kilometers (one, three or six miles). The game may also incentivize use of public transit due to the large number of Pokémon on and near transit stops. The Metro in Los Angeles created a Twitter account for gaming riders, tweeting tips on where to capture the cartoon creatures.
Pokémon Go is even impacting local business by attracting Pokémon, as well as humans, to their businesses. Signage promoting the game, as well as a purchasable “Lure Mode,” which attracts Pokémon for 30 minutes at a time, is helping business owners increase their revenue.
An Innovative and Powerful Tool for Civic Engagement
With greater pedestrian activity and exploration comes enhanced awareness. Players are not only developing a greater sense of what their city has to offer, but some people are also becoming more aware of mobility and environmental issues. Many are now noticing their neighborhoods do not promote walking, detecting flaws in transit infrastructure and discovering unhealthy, urban ecosystems.
This newfound awareness has triggered dialogue between gamers and city leaders, heightening civilian engagement. Pokémon Go’s popularity has inspired some city officials and stakeholders to play into the game culture. Some are using the app as a platform to shed awareness to local issues, promote political events and incentivize visits to landmarks. By sparking conversation with players, leaders are harnessing the interactive power of Pokémon to awaken a new generation of urban stakeholders and activists.
But is this engagement always civil? There is a fine line between genuine interest in visiting landmarks and inappropriate, even dangerous behavior. Some players are capturing Pokémon in the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC, Arlington National Cemetery, the 9/11 Memorial in New York and Auschwitz in Poland. For some, merging the game world with reality has proven quite dangerous, even resulting in robberies and getting hit by a car.
Future Urban Planning in a Pokémon World
Pokémon Go has exhibited successful aspects of urban planning that cities may learn from. The mobile game integrated cities, pedestrians and local officials to form a more cohesive, lively and well planned urban system. Through aligning city programs with interactive incentive, leaders may be able to expand upon the success of Pokémon Go to promote smart and sustainable cities while enhancing civilian awareness and respect.