The Power of Pokemon Go for Museums

Pokémon Go is an Augmented Reality (AR) mobile game released by game development company Niantic Labs on 6 July 2016 in America, after an initial release in Australia and New Zealand and an upcoming European release. The game was created through a partnership with Niantic and The Pokémon Company, who were celebrating the 20th anniversary of the popular game, card, and television franchise by the same name.

Within its first few days of release, Pokémon Go became immensely popular, sparking commentary from The New York Times and Washington Post; topped the popular social media site, Twitter, for daily users; and became a more popular search term on Google than porn. The game is primarily played by both children and young adults who grew up with the Pokémon franchise and illustrates both the power of nostalgia in gaming as well as the draw of using mobile devices to play games.

To play the game, players must walk around a physical space in search of Pokémon (different animal-like creatures), which pop up on their mobile screen that mirrors the player’s geographical position through a virtual map. This AR technology merges the virtual world with a physical one, overlaying the “real” world with digital elements that a player interacts with through their phone. In addition to catching Pokémon, which appear randomly on a map, but can be based on location (i.e. you can only catch “water” Pokemon near water sources), players can also walk to PokéStops, which are in-game locations based on actual cultural markers, public artwork, and monuments that, once accessed, can give the player items to make their gameplay easier. After reaching a certain level, players also join a team (Instinct, Mystic, or Valor), and then can challenge Gyms controlled by the other teams to earn notoriety and claim the area for their team. The “goal” of the game is to catch all 151 types of Pokémon and to claim different Gyms for the player’s team.

A screenshot of the virtual map that integrates in real time with the GPS location of the player.

A screenshot of the virtual map that integrates in real time with the GPS location of the player.

When catching a Pokemon, the creature appears through a phone screen as integrated with the physical environment.

When catching a Pokemon, the creature appears through a phone screen as integrated with the physical environment.

The game has been used to connect people and encourage socialization through a shared game experience, allows exploration of a player’s physical space, promotes exercise, and helps those with mental illness. Businesses have used in-game features, such as lures, to create a Pokémon hotspot at a specific PokéStop for thirty minutes, to draw in more customers. However, players have also been robbed through this same method and several reported accidents have occurred as a result of players paying more attention to what is on their screen than their surroundings.

Regardless of its benefits or detriments (and dangers), the popularity of the game is irrefutable. Even if the hype surrounding the game does not last past this summer, there are several takeaways that museums and educational spaces should consider. How can AR technology be utilized to add an extra layer of educational or immersive exploration? How can cultural institutions harness popular technology and fads to attract and communicate with their visitors? How can mobile technology encourage continued interest in a museum? And what are the limitations to gamifying different educational spaces?

Perhaps one of the biggest educational draws to use Pokémon Go or similar applications is its ability to encourage exploration of a physical space as well as the discovery element inherent in finding Pokémon and going to new locations and seeing common areas in a new light. Because PokéStops and Gyms are connected to physical landmarks and works of art, players are drawn to these monuments. The game draws users to features of their environment that would otherwise go unnoticed, such as a piece of artwork in a small alcove, connecting the interesting quirks and exploration of a physical space with the excitement of progressing in the game and finding new Pokémon.

Encountering a Gastly at the American Art Museum.

Encountering a gastly at the American Art Museum.

In a museum, pointing out special features of an exhibition in this manner has power. It goes beyond traditional scavenger hunts, which asks players to just find a landmark, check it off, and progress. Instead, players must actually go to that physical space and linger to catch Pokémon, battle a gym, or find items. And, the location of any specific Pokémon catch becomes linked to an experience, of exploring a new place while finding a new friend along the way.

How can this be leveraged with actual objects in a museum space? What if we thought of experiencing a museum less like a scavenger hunt, and more like a gamified space, where if visitors go to a certain location, they unlock items, get rewarded for their effort, and then can experience something new specific to that area or object? Instead of viewing visitors as passive receptacles for education, by including them in the actual experience of learning as players and not spectators, the level of engagement and memorable moments increases. The Smithsonian American Art Museum has expressed similar interest in how visitors share and remember their experience with family through social media. As they state in a recent article from their blog, “Given the nature of the PokéStops, most of which are historic markers, monuments, public buildings, and artworks, Pokémon Go encourages players to explore the world around them. At SAAM, it’s an invitation to walk inside a building full of art. Maybe it’s the new experience of a first visit, or perhaps it adds a new layer for those well familiar with our museum.”

Given that most museums have free Wi-Fi for visitors and contain several cultural markers that are likely PokéStops and Gyms, these cultural areas are ideal for Pokémon Go players. So how should museums embrace this technology and future applications that are likely to follow? Some museums, like the American Art Museum or the Albuquerque BioPark in New Mexico have embraced the use of the game in their facilities and have used social media to promote the different Pokémon available. The National Mall and National Park Service recently announced some programs utilizing the app that will include “ranger-led Pokémon hunts that will fuse information about the monuments with users’ quest to catch all the digital creatures.”

This post on the National Park Service Facebook accompanied an announcement about safety on the National Mall as well as a ranger-led Pokemon hunt that they were developing.

This post on the National Park Service Facebook accompanied an announcement about safety on the National Mall as well as a ranger-led Pokemon hunt that they were developing.

This pidgeotto, posted on the Albuquerque BioPark's social media sites, was used to announce a public event going on later that day as well as showcase some of the Pokemon that could be found by visiting the Albuquerque Zoo.

This pidgeotto, posted on the Albuquerque BioPark’s social media sites, was used to announce a public event going on later that day as well as showcase some of the Pokemon that could be found by visiting the Albuquerque Zoo.

There are some museums, however, that have asked players to refrain from playing the game while at their institution. Both the Arlington Cemetery and National Holocaust Museum requested players not to play the game out of reverence and respect. These requests are understandable given the material covered at both locations and demonstrates the disconnect players may have while invested in the game. Even if players are exploring their physical environment, sometimes the context of their location is lost through the AR layering that prioritizes catching Pokémon over “real world” awareness. This issue also brings up the question of gamification in museums and when it is not suitable to have such technological tools a space, especially ones that require a lot of physical movement to catch different creatures. VR and AR technology in a museum should never disrupt another visitor’s experience, and there is a fine line between enriching an exhibition space through AR and distracting from the physical environment completely.

Regardless, museums and similar cultural institutions should not ignore this technology or future popular culture moments. Investing in new tech and engaging with what audiences are interested in creates a dialogue that not only attracts new visitors but also encourages the continued support of regular visitors. Within the past week, Pokémon Go has attracted players to museums they may have never been to before and facilitated social interaction between players and these institutions. This level of investment and conversation fosters a relationship that is difficult to develop otherwise. By ignoring this Pokémon phenomenon, museums miss out on a crucial opportunity to engage with their visitors. Rather than fight the technology and continue to perpetuate museums as an out-of-touch, high-brow institution, museums need to embrace this moment and experience it with visitors. Using such tools and tech will not only increase who comes through a museum’s doors, but can also be leveraged to highlight collections and improve educational experiences within and outside of the exhibition space.

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