July 14, 2016

The Secret Sauce in Pokémon Go: Big Data

Categories: Edtech, New Trends
Pokemon Go screen shots

Unless you’ve been holed-up in a cave playing Minecraft, you’ve heard about (and possibly even played) the new augmented reality (AR) mobile game sweeping the globe, Pokémon Go. For sure, AR can be exciting and compelling, when properly designed, offering us an experience of co-presence with a virtual character or object. And, it’d be understandable if you attributed Nintendo’s success to its use of the AR camera. But, you’d be wrong. The game’s AR succeeds, in fact, because it turned big data into a game.Pokemon Go fish at the beach

With Pokémon Go, we are offered the opportunity to pretend our world is filled with cuddly (or fierce) little creatures just waiting for us to capture and train for battle. When discussed in the press or social media, credit tends to lean toward the AR camera — the experience of viewing a cartoonish animation of a Pokémon layered through live video (through the Smartphone’s camera) of the world around us. We have the option, however, to turn off that AR camera (and preserve our precious battery power). If you try this, and capture your creatures in front of a cartoon background, my bet is your sense of co-presence will barely be affected. How can that be?

It turns out the AR camera is not at the heart of Pokémon Go’s ability to generate a sense of co-presence. In fact, its success lies in Pokémon’s gamification of big data. As way of illustration, let me share with you some highlights from my first 24 hours playing Pokémon Go.

Pokemon Go at fountain in New YorkThe main entrance to my apartment building features a semi-circular driveway surrounding a lovely water fountain. Down the block, the neighbor’s have an ugly lawn jockey. Between the two, our local park offers both a playground and a grassy overlook. All of these are featured in Pokémon Go, as Pokéstops, locations to visit to collect tools for playing the game, along with photos of each with descriptive text. This playground, in fact, also features a Pokémon Gym, a location for sending my Pokémon into battle. And, as I walk around from one location to another, hidden Pokémon are revealed, not just any Pokémon but ones which tend to relate to my location and its environment. They are only outdoors, for example, as why would I find a wild animal in my house? So, I find water-type Pokémon by water: traveling south on the East River by ferry, every other dock contained a duck-like Pokémon while at the beach, I found a carp-like Pokémon.

The levels of specificity, of personalization, of seamless integration with the real world around me… all combine to make me feel that the game designers at Niantic, hired by Nintendo to develop the game, MUST have sent someone to my town to select each of these locations, finding the most interesting landmarks (or, as in the case of that damn lawn jockey, notorious) to place in the game, scouting locations to custom-place each Pokémon. But, when we consider the game can be played all over the world, it becomes clear there’s only one way to generate such a massive level of personalized and localized information: big data. And, who wants to have the best data set about the world and what’s in it (spoiler: it’s Google) and what could they possibly have to do with a 20-year-old Japanese card game?

mapIn 2012, a division of Google launched a mobile game called Ingress. Ingress pitted teams of players in a challenge to dominate the world or, more specifically, the map of the world. It leveraged the power of Google and the geolocative datasets we have come to take for granted: street photographs, knowledge of terrain, text descriptions of local landmarks, the ability to add crowdsourced data, and more. Before long, Ingress left Google to become the focus of a new company, Niantic. And, according to the New York Times, Niantic reports about 15 million users have downloaded Ingress with a little more than a million active players a month.

I played with Ingress a few years back. And, guess what? It also directed me to the fountain at the entrance to my building (and to that infernal lawn jockey from down the street). And, this is no coincidence. Niantic built Pokémon Go.

In 2013, Nintendo teamed with Google to launch an April Fools joke. A YouTube video explained that a new position was opening at Google Maps — Pokémon Master — and to apply, all you had to do was… (drum roll please)… use Google Maps to capture hidden Pokémon around the world. Jump forward three years and what began as a joke turned into reality. The engine behind Ingress was re-skinned with Nintendo’s star brand and turned into Pokémon Go.

In other words, when you play Pokémon Go, you are playing Google Maps. And, the augmented reality that makes the gameplay so compelling, the tool behind the experience of co-presence, is big data.

So, what can we interested in digital learning take from this latest development in augmented reality, big data, and social gameplay? A few jump out to me:

  1. AR is awesome, but with so much reliance on AR cameras (and the accompanying toll taken on both battery power and project budgets) big data can compete in its ability to create co-presence. So, what datasets do we have that we can leverage to engage learners through a localized game mechanic?
  1. Datasets are just numbers until they are translated for the non-expert. Beautiful, interactive visualizations are one way to present data. But as Pokémon Go demonstrates, so can games. What ways can we play datasets, rather than just present them? (The American Museum of Natural History, where I work, recently launched The Tree of Life, demonstrating how data sets about cladistic relationships can be turned into a light, family-friendly game).
  1. Last winter, we launched at the American Museum of Natural History an augmented reality mobile game that shares some technical similarities with Pokémon Go. With MicroRangers, rather than capture augmented creatures and fight others in battle, museum visitors collaborate with augmented scientists and fight threats to global biodiversity. After playing Pokémon Go for less than an hour, and losing all of my phone’s power in the process, I felt a sense of satisfaction that Nintendo did no better solving the AR-camera power-sucking dilemma than we. It felt good knowing we, working in museums, had pushed existing technology as far as possible.
  1. Blaire Moskowitz published a lovely blog post about how museums are already taking advantage of the game to connect with their visitors. For example, someone posted a Facebook event to get people to walk together through the Sydney Royal Botanic Gardens (near the Opera House), attracting 1,000 people. What could other civic and cultural institutions do to leverage the fact that our important locations are often central to the game experience? And, what can museums do when they DON’T want players in their spaces? “Playing Pokémon Go in a memorial dedicated to the victims of Nazism is extremely inappropriate,” a spokesman for the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. told the New York Times. “Technology can be an important learning tool, but this game falls far outside of our educational and memorial mission.

These are just my initial thoughts. I want to hear from you, about your own thoughts on the topic: what is Pokémon Go teaching YOU about digital learning?

Images by Barry Joseph