For the last few weeks, I’ve been playing Pokemon Go. It’s a beautifully designed game, with many charming touches drawn from the earliest games I loved – Zelda & Mario. It got me out and about in my ‘hood with my daughter, my husband, and any friend who visited. I caught critters in my car, at the coffee shop, at the park – and LOVED playing through the early levels and learning the ropes.
Early-on, our gameplay was filled with unexpected delights. One warm summer night, my daughter and I wandered down to the local park in our sleepy little suburb at 8:30 PM, drawn by the cluster of Pokestops & the majestic-looking PokeGym. At the park, we bumped (sometimes literally) into dozens of families & teen groups wandering around, staring at their phones, doing that now-familiar “PokeBall Throw” – the upward swipe – that visibly differentiates players from texters.
It felt magical – seeing our community out and about, seeing kids & parents playing together – at night – in the park. We felt like members of a secret society – the Pokemon Go game-playing tribe – who see the world not as mundane familiar roads and buildings, but as a magical ever-changing landscape, alive with possibility and cute li’l critters to catch.
I started playing whenever I could – I’d pull out the game when I was running errands or picking up the kids after camp, in order to “catch ’em all.” I liked seeing Pokestops wherever I’d go – but it started interfering with my driving, so I hid my phone in the trunk while picking up the kids to resist the pull of Poke-hunting (don’t judge, we do what we have to do)
I still felt the urge to walk around my ‘hood, so I walked to my haircut & caught some Pokemon on the way. However, the 5th time you take the same Pokewalk isn’t as fun as the 1st – BUT I had fun experimenting with incense and catching a few Pokemon during my salon visit, which helped pass the time.
Now I’m 3 weeks in, and almost to Level 9 – and the magic is wearing off. I still have a glimmer of hope when I leave the house to walk to a local destination – hoping that I’ll recapture the magic of those first few levels, the sense of discovery and urge to see what’s next.
Here’s the thing: now that I “know the ropes,” the Pokemon Go experience has devolved into a monster-chasing, object-getting grind. Yesterday, I was walking back from the local train station through the park, excited to see how a Pokewalk could liven up my walk home. I caught a few of the same ol’ Pokemon along the way – nothing new – and I half-heartedly swiped the same familiar Pokestops. I passed by the Park Gym without even bothering to check it out.
Why? Because I’m not interested in battling for supremacy – that holds no allure for me. I’m not that kind of gamer. What I LOVE is collaborating with others to reach a shared goal – and that’s how I’m playing Pokemon Go. We take family walks together — and hand the phone back and forth the share the experience – saying things like: “wanna try catching THIS one?” “Hey, which way should we go now?” “Shall we incubate an egg now?
Lots of folks who love competition & optimization (AKA min/max-ing) are playing Pokemon Go too — there’s a turf-wars battle mechanic (Pokegyms) and strategic resource management (optimizing Pokemon evolution) to satisfy those types of gamers for awhile.
But for non-zero-sum gamers like me – folks who prefer collaboration to competition – there really isn’t any system for driving sustained engagement. The Skinner Box mechanics of the loot drops (e.g. spawning & pinatas) are initially engaging – the same way a slot machine is engaging.
But without a meaningful long-term game to play – without skills to develop and deploy – the game becomes less compelling over time, once the initial thrill has worn off. I still enjoy catching a critter or two – especially while I’m waiting for something – but I’m no longer interested in having the game interrupt my real-life interactions without giving me something more meaningful to engage in.
Getting in-game objects from Pokestops I’ve visited before (AKA hitting the pinata) isn’t much fun anymore – it feels like pulling the lever on a not-very-exciting slot machine. There’s no meaning beyond the Pavlovian response to the stimulus, and the assumed desire for more, more more within the gameworld.
That’s the limitation of any Skinner Box gaming system that doesn’t include a skill-building journey in the customer experience. And it’s the core challenge for Pokemon Go – and upcoming games in that genre – that want to engage non-zero-sum players.