The augmented reality of Pokémon Go

Research shows that the game taps directly into the brain’s reward centres

Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

There is something about magical realism that appeals to our innermost human emotions. Literature has many examples where magical elements exist as part of the real world. Consider the ordinary wooden cupboard which opens up to Narnia in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; or platform 9¾ of London’s King’s Cross station, the secret entrance to board a train to Hogwarts in the Harry Potter series; or the town of Macondo in One Hundred Years of Solitude, where the surreal is the normal.

The success of Pokémon Go is also in the realm of magical realism—as augmented reality brings magical pocket monsters to our real world.

It is no secret that the Pokémon Go craze has swept across the world. It has players in the US, Australia, New Zealand and major parts of Europe hooked. Terms such as PokéStops, Pokémon gyms and Pokéballs have already become common parlance.

The first home video game console—a device that outputs a video signal or visual image to display a video game—was manufactured as early as 1972, much before the days of Nintendo’s Super Mario and The Legend of Zelda. This bulky ensemble of a black, white and brown box called the Odyssey, manufactured by Magnavox, pales in comparison to the sophisticated modern-day versions of Sony’s PlayStation and Microsoft’s Xbox. Nevertheless, it marked the beginning of a new mode of entertainment.

Today, according to statistics published by the Entertainment Software Association, a majority of frequent gamers find that consoles hold more value for money than DVDs, movies and music. Four out of five US households own a device used to play video games with the average age of a player being 35 years.

Thus, it is not surprising that Pokémon Go did well in a region which has been addicted to gaming for decades. Augmented reality via a smartphone as opposed to the virtual world created within the confines of homes by consoles offers something of a fresh perspective to the ordinarily sedentary gamer. It lets an individual walk about his locality, represented by an avatar guided by his phone’s GPS, and catch, train and battle with virtual creatures superimposed on the real world. Even if one accounts for the incidents of falling off cliffs and mugging, or the claims that video games decrease the grey area of the brain, the game has a charm to it and an unreal one at that.

The video game mania of the modern-day world is not however, restricted to its fetish for the unreal. It is also the huge level of self-actualization and gratification that a gamer feels when he ‘catches them all’ as the catch phrase for any Pokémon game reminds us. Within the human brain is the reward system which is responsible for desire, pleasure and positive reinforcement. When rewarded—say with virtual monsters or other awards—the brain releases a compound called dopamine which encodes information about the salience, value, and context of a reward. This reward system is the one which induces appetitive or consummatory behaviour. Psychological theories like operant conditioning say that the frequency of a behaviour will increase if rewarded and decrease if penalized. Other theories such as the one given by Wolfram Schultz propounds that unexpected rewards or rewards greater than expected can also increase dopamine levels.

The most popular video games of the past few years such as Diablo and World of Warcraft have been known to capitalize on this reward-seeking mentality of the human brain. Pokémon Go provides all the key ingredients responsible for activating the reward system—gratification, fast pace and unpredictability. The key towards maintaining the public interest in the game in future will also lie in these very ingredients.

Meanwhile, another game—to monetize Pokémon Go—is already emerging in the backdrop. Ad agencies are already neck-deep in research to find out ways to ‘lure’ customers to nearby shops and restaurants from PokéStops. According to an article in the Financial Times, Niantic’s previous release Ingress which also involved virtual portals mapped on streets had found good commercial footing owing to the willingness of retailers and service providers to pay for promotions in the game. Pokémon Go too shows similar, if not higher potential. The trick is to reap the benefits before the crescendo dies. They—the programmers, the advertisers and entrepreneurs—have just one motto too: “Gotta Catch ’Em All”.

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