Released in July at an optimum time that coincided with French school holidays, Pokémon Go is a global phenomenon that is gaining more fans daily.
In just two months since its initial release in Australia, New Zealand and the U.S, the game has been downloaded 130 million-plus times worldwide and is generating millions in revenue a day as players try to speed up their quest of exploring the world to collect animated characters.
Pokémon Go went viral impressively fast and was the most downloaded app in the App Store in its first week than any other app in history.
I have been following the hype around the game – my own kids are too young to play it – and wanted to look into what has made the game so hugely successful.
Many of the online articles are written by tech or gaming sites, so this article is my effort as a parent to do some research into the marketing and technology behind what is being used by a number of my friends and their kids.
Please read, share and comment on my post below – I’d love to hear feedback.
What is the aim of Pokémon Go?
Pokémon Go is an augmented reality smartphone geocaching game. For parents that may be unfamiliar with these terms, augmented reality uses the real world and enhances experiences by the use of computer-generated components such as sound, digital images, video or GPS. Geocaching to explain simply is treasure hunting using GPS-enabled devices.
Pokémon Go sends players into the real world to collect a variety of animated creatures called Pokémon (virtual pocket monsters) placed at various locations, represented in the game as Pokéstops and gyms where you can gather supplies such as Pokéballs, eggs and potions.
Players use their smartphone cameras to see around them, with the animated Pokémon creatures overlapped on their screen as if they existed in the real world. The idea is to get the Pokémon in the game to capture them for training, improve them and use them to do battle.
Pokémon Go is free to download, easy to master and it’s a mixture of ‘seek-and-capture’, ‘treasure hunt’ and ‘being a human Pacman’ with the augmented reality giving it accessibility to a whole range of players including those who perhaps have never had an interest or big participation in gaming before.
Who are the developers?
Pokémon itself isn’t new. Launched in 1996 by a Japanese consortium between Nintendo, Game Freak and Creatures, Pokémon found huge success with a virtual world of powerful creatures and their human trainers.
Like Nintendo’s Mario franchise, its popularity on Nintendo’s Game Boy kickstarted a wave of game-related merchandise and marketing – there’s been film releases, comics, trading cards, soft toys, video games, cartoons and even a soundtrack, musical and theme park. More Pokémon games (for Nintendo’s 3DS handheld console) are due for release in November, and a live action film in 2017.
Pokémon Go is developed by Niantic Labs, a spin-off from Google. Niantic was founded by John Hanke, who was a Cofounder of Keyhole (a software company that provided satellite imagery).
Eventually, he launched Google Earth and played a major part in Google Maps being used on iPhones. Interestingly, Niantic was named after a ship that had taken miners to the Bay Area during the 1849 gold rush and now they have their own modern-day gold rush with Pokémon Go bringing in massive revenue.
Benefits of playing Pokémon Go
The game is highly social, it stimulates strategic thinking and players are working together to find Pokéstops and meeting face-to-face.
Families are exploring more of their home regions (and abroad) and discovering new places together. Pokémon Go has helped people learn more about the historical and cultural landmarks that are Pokéstops via the digital signposts describing their significance in the real world.
Players get more exercise than usual gaming options and extend their walk or take detours from home, work, school, the bus stop etc to find Pokéstops. I agree that it is an incredible achievement for a mobile game to get so many people outdoors and active more.
There have been a lot of comments about Pokémon Go being THE saviour for childhood obesity and I disagree with this in essence – eradicating childhood obesity has far more factors that are issues (healthy food choices, regular exercise, junk food advertising etc) that playing this game won’t solve.
What’s more, when you have Pokémon Go partnering with companies who have huge advertising budgets including fast food giants McDonalds as they just confirmed in Japan that their restaurants will be gyms, directed marketing becomes part of the game in a way most players won’t recognise until they’re there on the premises trading Pokécoins for a burger.
Sponsors and Income Channels of Pokémon GO
Pokémon Go has in-app purchasing which enhances the player experience, for example, you can buy Poke Balls – virtual storage containers for the characters – which saves you time having to walk around to collect them for free.
About 20% of players are buying loot, compared with 3% for many mobile games. The viral popularity of the game has excited investors, who pushed up the price of Nintendo shares as high as 50% in the initial weeks following release. Despite Nintendo only owning about a third of the Pokémon franchise and an undisclosed stake in Niantic, their market value increased by US$17.6 billion within 2 weeks of Pokémon Go going live.
Pokémon Go has used augmented reality to change mobile marketing and mobile commerce because it has integrated a connection to real world products and services.
Businesses can buy a virtual item known as a Lure Module for $0.99 that briefly swarms the stop with Pokémon, giving players additional incentive to visit them – it is a powerful marketing channel for local companies though there is no data I could find for businesses on the French Riviera who have purchased a Lure Module already and whether an increase in foot traffic actually translated to increased spending in store.
Internationally, attractions and amenities are already adapting to the phenomenon and I have seen marketing from museums, restaurants, bars, rental car companies, zoos, and clothing stores. Local tourism is also getting involved in the craze with Éstérels Tourism publicly posting maps of Pokéstops in Fréjus and Saint Raphael.
It’s clear that there is a Pokémon trading system in the pipeline for in-app purchasing, and I expect as player numbers plateau the developers will jolt things up to maintain engagement – you’ll see more options for players doing battle against other players, more companies purchasing Lures at Pokéstops, the introduction of Buddy Pokémon and more partnerships with big brands to drive foot traffic to businesses, possibly with the introduction of virtual currency to be redeemed only at select locations.
How are Pokéstops chosen?
As a parent, I was particularly interested in how Pokéstops and gyms are chosen/selected for the game and my research has revealed some interesting information.
Pokémon Go’s developer Niantic have stated that Pokéstops and gyms that appear in the game are ‘special points of interest found throughout the world’. They are correct. This is why you’ll find many at monuments, fountains, libraries, town halls, public art, sports stadiums – those type of prominent landmarks.
However, since the game’s release I have learned about the technical aspects behind how Pokéstops were chosen and my research shows there is a distinct lack of checking and localised safety procedures when approving a Pokéstop location for the game. I highly recommend if you have children who are already playing this game that it is not played without adult supervision at all times.
What many parents are unaware of are the technicalities of how the game developers came to choose ‘those’ special points of interest.
Do you know exactly where your children are going with this game?
From here, things get very interesting so I will break down the 3 main methods that Niantic used/uses to choose Pokéstops:
1) The majority of Pokéstop locations have come from a database from another Niantic augmented reality game called Ingress. Ingress is a multi-player geolocation game and was released in November 2012 and features 2 teams – the Enlightened who embrace the power, and the Resistance who fight the power.
As in Pokémon Go, players go on missions to ‘portals’ which are actual physical landmarks in the real world and they get ‘energy’ by visiting these locations and checking in. Extra energy is available by travelling on specific paths (in some instances, players have to photograph locations or objects along the routes).
Major global sites with historical or cultural significance are used as portals such as the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben, the Washington Monument etc
In Ingress, the players have also followed pedestrian-accessible routes that Google Maps didn’t cover well and by using their smartphones with camera and accelerometer it reported their position, speed etc back to Google’s database.
2) In local search ranking, Google has used PlaceRank as part of its algorithm. PlaceRank is the concept that locations may be popular and distinct by themselves, effectively they can exist alongside other things at those locations such as businesses.
A location’s popularity can be indicated by the volume of photos or videos of that location, how frequently it is searched for or how often it is mentioned via social media.
So if lots of tourists take a photo of a landmark or location, geotag it and upload it to Google it was a prime choice for use as a Pokéstop.
3) A big chunk of the Pokéstops were suggested by Ingress players. John Hanke, Niantic’s founder, told Mashable that 15 million Pokéstops were suggested by Ingress players based on where they wanted to play the game; of these 5 million were approved and the most popular of those became gyms.
Questionable Pokéstops and Safety
Google is a data Goliath.
They have made billions from watching, collecting and analysing the world’s data – search history, map usage, GPS data, email correspondence, photos, product purchases. How many kids playing this game have read the terms of service agreements and are aware of the information they are providing in using this app?
By releasing Pokémon Go to a broader player spectrum outside the Ingress demographics, Niantic/Google has created a mobile game that has convinced millions of people to share far more location and behaviour data with them than has ever been possible before and actively direct people to desired locations.
Pokémon Go has changed parenting.
I agree that teens playing Pokémon Go with a group of teenage friends, or younger children playing the game with adult supervision has brought families and friends together and they have bonded.
However, where once we could give children an Atari, Wii, Xbox, Playstation or Gameboy and they played within the confines of the game framework – and often within our sight (at home, at restaurants, in the car etc) – Pokémon Go has fast-tracked augmented reality out onto the streets whereby children play alongside adults in a real-world gaming environment.
The ability to teach our kids about stranger danger and internet safety has now been taken to a whole new level.
Globally, players are contacting or arriving at police stations, fire stations, maritime rescue centres and hospitals asking if there are any Pokémons. The calls are impeding emergency operations.
Here in France, army bases have installed signage to state Pokémon hunting is banned on the grounds. The French Education Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem held a press conference this week ahead of the start of the French academic year that they are requesting Niantic removes rare pocket monsters from educational institutions.
As a parent, my major concern is that some of the locations in this game are in geographically more dodgy areas than others (see my ‘Pokéstops Research’ below) and with over 5 million user-generated suggestions approved for Pokéstops across the world I won’t hold my breath they have all been vetted by the developers.
Also, players can still request new Pokéstops and gyms near them (you need to give the name of the Pokéstop, coordinates, address and reason behind the request) but there is clearly no transparent process for checking original Pokéstops, accepting a new location as safe or even checking users who propose a new Pokéstop and this is a huge flaw because it allows other people to actively use the composition of this game to put people in danger.
If a child sex offender released a mass-marketed app or website detailing localities of schools or playgrounds there would be a global outcry. So, how is it that marketing has convinced some parents to allow their children to play Pokémon Go unsupervised with no idea of where the game is leading them via unchecked locations, with an incredible number that are user-generated by unvetted players? It is a warning sign we should all heed and before it is too late.
If you think Pokémon Go has your children’s safety in your best interest, here are a few of the less desirable or downright dangerous Pokéstops found on the game around the world:
- In July, a registered sex offender was arrested for playing Pokémon Go with children outside a courthouse in Indiana.
- A strip club
- In California, a Pokéstop was located outside the front entrance to Sunny Acres which is a facility for residents including sex offenders, the homeless and people struggling with mental illness and drug and alcohol addiction. The owner of the property is unsure how his facility ended up as a Pokéstop and has requested that the developers remove it from the game. He doesn’t want children visiting his property because it may expose the offenders to the possibility of being sent back to prison for violating conditions of their parole or probation.
- A marijuana supplies store
- Players found a gym along the Korean Demilitarized Zone (since removed from the game).
- In Bosnia and Herzegovina, a charity that clears land mines has publicly advised that Pokémon Go players are ignoring demarcation zones for land mines and putting themselves at serious risk. An estimated 100K+ mines remain undiscovered after the Bosnian War in the 1990’s.
Some of the Pokéstops or gyms are incredibly insensitive or disrespectful and have since been removed due to complaints or people have requested their removal from the game:
- A French World War I memorial, the Douaumont ossuary, was removed from the game
- Sheffield Hillsborough Memorial in the UK
- The World Trade Center 9/11 Memorial in New York
- Officials at The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park in Japan say the inclusion of the Memorial in a game is ‘disrespectful’ to those who perished in the atomic bomb
- The Arlington Cemetery
- The U.S Holocaust Museum in Washington successfully requested to have a Pokéstop removed
- Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum has requested it is removed from the game
In support of my research I have played the game. It’s certainly fun, but I also found myself spending a lot of time navigating with my nose in my smartphone and walked right off a pavement onto a road without looking! I can 100% understand how people have had no self-awareness or injured themselves playing this game.
In the process of writing this article, I personally checked out over 130 locations in Antibes and Juan les Pins in France (using both the Ingress portals and Pokémon Go).
As the game is GPS-guided, these Pokéstops have no restrictions on when players can visit so are accessible 24 hours a day.
Of these Pokéstops, the majority are situated at public monuments, statues, murals, fountains, significant town buildings and quite a few at graffiti walls.
There were a few questionable ones I came across – a Roman statue inside the entrance to a private apartment building (user-generated?), a railway overbridge with low lighting and frequented by beggars, a statue at a local park always frequented by drunks during the day and night; certainly not the type of places children would willingly be sent to unaccompanied by their parents.
Has Niantic vetted all of these French Pokéstops, or the other millions of Pokéstops across the world? Highly unlikely, and the transfer of portal information from Ingress, a game marketed at a different demographic range (from Medium.com 2015: 68.8% of Ingress players are aged 25-44 with 70.7% male/26.5% female/remainder gender non-specified) to Pokémon Go that is actively marketing to children and families is naïve and at worst, dangerous.
For other parents on the French Riviera or throughout France, if you have concerns about where your kids are being led by this game you can access maps via these steps below. It took me less than 5 minutes to download / sign up.
1) For a detailed map with Pokéstops and gyms, you can also go to pokemongomap.info
2) For the portals map from Ingress: Create an Ingress account by downloading the game on GooglePlay or Appstore. Once you log in to Ingress using your Google account, you can go to the online map at https://www.ingress.com/intel
This won’t give you all of the Pokéstops but a fair few of them in your local area.
3) For a collaborative map in France that Pokémon Go users update, go to: https://www.google.com/maps/d/viewer?mid=1vsj869Axn9JdWairc4xU6E_0DhE&utm_content=bufferbd578&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer
I hope this article has helped parents make a decision about safety of this game for their children.
Please share this article and/or comment below – I’d love to hear feedback.
Sources/image credits: AFP, Pixabay, Techinsider, Inc.com, Gear Diary, Wikipedia, Games Radar, TNP, Huffington Post FR, Paris Match, Var Matin