Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

Behavioural science and Pokémon Go

Pokmon Go runs on the curiosity of players' willingness to go outdoors and explore what's out there to be caught

Don’t be surprised if you are caught unaware by people on the street paying more attention to their phones than to their surroundings—they are most likely engaged in a desperate bid to catch a (potentially rare) Pokémon at a local chowk.

A paradox of augmented reality, Pokémon Go is the latest mobile game offering from Niantic Inc., a company owned by Alphabet (formerly Google), The Pokémon Company and Nintendo, the Japanese video game giant responsible for everything from popular consoles (Game Boy for old-timers, Wii for newbies) to iconic games (Mario, The Legend of Zelda).

Pokémon Go is yet to release in India, but has been released in Australia, New Zealand, the US, the UK and Japan on iOS and Android. Not ones to be left behind in the Internet mania over the game, Indians have downloaded and installed it nonetheless.

The genesis of Pokémon (the concept, not the fictional creatures) came originally from Game Freak and what is now known as the Pokémon Company in 1995, and centres around a quest known to this writer: research.

Indeed, the primary purpose of Pokémon Go is to assist researchers in Pokémon (Pokémon Studies, if you will) by catching as many varieties as possible. Rewards can be gained through battles with other Pokémon (at gyms run by powerful trainers), in which the victorious Pokémon gains “experience points" and eventually evolves into a higher version of itself with greater combat ability.

To that effect, the universe of Pokémon Go does not differ much from older games, except in one crucial aspect: augmented reality. Instead of immersing the player in an artificial environment, Pokémon Go uses real-time geospatial data to place Pokémon in the players’ immediate environments—this could either be your house, a grocery shop, your office or any other place.

This brings us back to the augmented reality paradox that can be ascribed to Pokémon Go. People have been found to pay less attention to their immediate surroundings (the real ones) and more to the “reality" that is created within the game.

For example, Pokémon Go players in the US have been found roaming obscure areas and have been at the receiving end of consternation from law enforcement to “not Pokémon and drive". Given that the game has high realism and has become transcendentally popular (more active time used than WhatsApp, Instagram and Tinder), it would be only natural to view the behaviour of Pokémon Go players from the lens of behavioural science.

First, what might be an underlying “human" factor behind the success of Pokémon Go even before a global launch? The theory of human motivation suggests that innate curiosity is parallel to basic physiological needs (such as hunger, thirst, sex and sleep). Such curiosity has foundations in evolutionary theory, which encourages (or perhaps compels) us to explore a little further than what we already know.

Pokémon Go runs on the curiosity of players’ willingness to go outdoors and explore what’s out there to be caught. The interface further informs users about nearby Pokémon, but does not signal the precise location—implying that you would have to physically travel for yourself to find out. The augmented reality only amplifies this innate curiosity to facilitate and encourage players’ new discovery of Pokémon.

To be sure, the process of finding Pokémon itself is costly (in the real world). It requires time (set aside to discover), effort (to physically travel) and money to purchase a viable data plan and/or means of travel (e.g., petrol or otherwise).

Before deciding to hunt for Pokémon outside your workplace or house, one might weigh the costs and benefits—given that the likelihood of finding Pokémon varies on the basis of location as well as travel. If you are risk-averse, you are more likely to play it safe and not go on too many Pokéwalks; if you are risk-seeking, then chances are that you will go well beyond any organized Pokémon-finding expeditions to find that Charmander.

Recent studies in economics have suggested that risk levels are more likely to be along a spectrum than concentrated at either end of the curve, so being aware of your own risk preferences will help find that rare Pokémon.

Further, the “Nearby" feature allows a user to discover which Pokémon are lurking around your area and local place of worship (and these are commonly designated as Poké Stops, where one can recharge their supply of Poké Balls and other resources).

Interestingly, the feature does not provide approximate distances to these Pokémon (except which Pokémon is the closest), but will only notify the player once she has found it within her immediate radius. This highlights the ambiguity surrounding the decision to look for Pokémon—studies have shown that individuals may be ambiguity averse when precise probabilities of outcomes are not known.

For example, a player has no clue how far she would need to walk or travel to find the nearest Pokémon, or even any other in the “Nearby" tab. If you are anything like the author, you are just likely to stay put if you are neither risk-seeking nor overtly curious/excited about that Weedle.

Lastly, the Pokémon franchise has been around for the past two decades, continually churning out new interfaces and merchandise. This may lead to high subjectivity in valuations of Pokémon, where the worth of catching a particular Pokémon may go well beyond the objective characteristics supplied by the game (such as combat power or “family").

Indeed, older players (such as those in their late 20s) might differ in their accomplishments as trainers depending on their Pokédex—sentimental attachments to trading-card days might play a crucial role in determining who catches what in Pokémon Go.

Even as eager fans await the official release of Pokémon Go in India, there is little that can stop the onslaught of success that the game has achieved thus far. Nostalgia aside, Pokémon Go has also been lauded for placing Poké Stops in public places that are part of a city’s fabric, and also encouraged younger players to venture outdoors on foot more frequently.

With such wild popularity come wildly speculative conspiracy theories, but we all know now that there’s only one purpose to life: we gotta catch ’em all!

Anirudh Tagat is a research author at the department of economics, Monk Prayogshala, Mumbai.

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