Pokémon Go: How it won the popular vote

Pokémon Go: How it won the popular vote

Gotta catch ‘em all: Deconstructing the popularity of Pokémon Go

Unless you’ve been living in a Pokéball of your own, you've probably seen how Pokémon Go took the world by storm this past week. Quickly surpassing both the total users of Netflix and the daily active users of Twitter, this augmented reality game has done the impossible: that is, encouraged digitally obsessed people of all ages to get off the couch and leave the house.

But why is this game in particular so popular? Augmented reality is not exactly new. In fact, Niantic, the company responsible for Pokémon Go, has built most of the game on a previous game called Ingress. But despite the technology and similar games being available, Pokémon Go has blown them all out of the water, and I think three important characteristics of the game have led to its current supremacy.

Gamification: Gamification is the application of game elements or mechanics to non-game situations. On its surface, Pokémon Go is a game, but deconstructed a little, Pokémon Go is gamifying the world around the player. This is a secret sauce that keeps people playing the game, and that which companies like Facebook and Google have to date unsuccessfully been able to harness. Every time a Pokémon shows up, dopamine is activated in the brain – games, generally speaking, activate the brain’s pleasure circuits.  In this way, Pokémon Go rewards the player for keeping the game open all the time as they move through the real world. This serves to capture players’ attention and hold it for a long period of time, even as they move through the real world, capturing a large amount of valuable data in the process.

The power of cute: Studies have shown that just as game-based achievements release dopamine in the brain, so too does viewing images of cute animals or babies. This in-brain response evolved to help us care for our helpless young, but also could keep people returning to catch or level up Pokémon. The Pokémon creatures are nothing if not cute. They are cartoonish, with bright colours and big eyes. Their characteristics alone may be enough to keep people coming back to “catch ‘em all”.

Nostalgia: McLuhan wrote about the role of nostalgia in the global village long before mobile devices or apps were invented, and his words still ring true today. He said that in a world where close connections between disparate people result in a loss of identity, nostalgia becomes a way to reassert our sense of self. This explains many current trends towards revival in popular culture, fashion, music and of course, games. My previous research has shown a link between popularity in video gaming and nostalgic content. Now, an analysis of Twitter and Instagram buzz about #PokemonGo shows similar trends – a large number of people commenting on the game online talk about reliving their childhoods, or achieving a childhood dream when they catch Pokémon in the game.

By gamifying our offline life, harnessing our inherent attachment to cute, and reminding us of the past, Pokémon Go exhibits a triad of characteristics that explain why people have signed up in droves and keep coming back for more. I expect to see more popular media attempt to take advantage of this in the future, as media producers and game developers alike attempt to “catch [us] all”, or at the very least, catch all our attention.

For more information contact Jaigris Hodson.