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Some Thoughts on Pokemon Go

Some Thoughts on Pokemon Go

Over the course of the last week, a huge chunk of the world seems to have been swept up by the meteoric rise of Pokemon Go. You can barely scroll through a website or a social feed without coming across a story or an anecdote relating to the app. From one friends boyfriend stealing his Drowzee to the images of local neighbourhoods filled with creatures from childhood TV viewing, it's certainly been a strange experience.

My bewildered initial Facebook take on the whole thing. There's been a lot of marriage and kids in my world lately

For those of you unfamiliar with the game, Pokemon Go is a location based game that utilises Augmented Reality layers to place Pokemon into the real world. Players explore their local environment through their GPS enabled smartphones and can capture Pokemon they come across, viewing them through the screen of their device.

Screenshot of Pokemon Go, showing a Meowth through the Augmented Reality Layer. Image Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:NFCC#4

Strange it may seem but the craze to "Catch 'em all" has caught on like wildfire, particularly with two demographics:

  • The smartphone savvy digital natives: comfortable with mobile games and emergent technologies
  • The millennials: my generation who are retreating in their droves into the app; seizing a piece of their childhood with a fresh modern twist.

It is one of those rare digital phenomenons that is engaging masses of users at great speed and naturally everyone wants a piece of the action.


The heritage sector is no different and the prospect of leveraging a craze to get millennials through the door is highly attractive - they are one of the most coveted audiences for the culture sector to capture (pun intended). Furthermore, with Pokestops and Pokegyms being sited in "*interesting places, such as public art installations, historical markers and monuments*" [(Pokemon Go Press Release)](http://www.pokemon.com/us/pokemon-video-games/pokemon-go/) it's likely that Pokemon Go and its band of enthusiastic users may very well fall on our doorsteps and into our galleries, as is happening already over in the US.

Pokemon related Instagram Post from the Frick Collection

However... there are caveats that have to be considered before getting involved with and investing time around digital products such as this, some of which have been highlighted by other people already. Here are the three that I consider to be key.

Dont Be a Keeno##

It might be tempting to fire out lots of social media messages and plan marketing activity around the platform. In fact Pokemon Go has anticipated such activity, selling 'Lures' which attract Pokemon (and by logic visitors) to your site for a 30 minute period, some great foresight on their part for monetisation of their product. It's kind of like those special boost offers you get on dating sites. However, cynical advertising to get people through the door is easy to spot and the idea of 'Coming for the Pokemon, but staying for the collection' is a conversion unlikely to take root.

That's not to say that any involvement with Pokemon Go is inherently bad, just that you should only take it up so far as it fits with who you are. For example in the National Galleries, I think it would work well in the outdoor areas and parts of the permanent collection displays but not so much within our temporary exhibitions. Although having said that I now expect someone to photoshop a Squirtle into a Daubigny just to prove a point.

Sometimes, It's Just a No-No##

Examples of this have already been reported in the media, with criticism of the app placing Pokemon within sites such as the US Holocaust Museum in Washington, the Arlington National Cemetery and horrifyingly, the Auschwitz-Birkenau museum. This is an appalling lack of foresight from the game developers; as it should be easy enough to map exclusion zones in the GIS databases which the app works from. Museums should be aware that this unintended invasion into inappropriate spaces can occur and determine where the boundaries for such games need to be drawn.

One example I can think of is up at Edinburgh Castle, where Pokemon hunting would be fine in the grounds and apartments but not within the military museums, the barracks that are still in use and the Scottish National War Memorial. Staff need to be aware that there is a risk this may happen and be able to confidently inform and dissuade visitors in a positive manner; avoiding falling into that old trap of 'policing the museum' and creating that image of the museum being a place of no fun.

Similarly, this issue presents a concern which could be a major issue in future; where AR layers become unwanted guests inside the museum. Albeit still far off, I can envisage when Augmented Reality evolves to support new use cases (e.g advertising) that we may start to find our virtual spaces clogged with random detrius and digital noise that makes no contribution to the visitor experience. While content is still siloed off into individual apps this wont be a problem but if/when common standards start to be used and AR properly goes mainstream there could be a fight to control what people can see in our museums.

The Tech Is Not the Gold Here##

I've caught myself thinking since this all kicked off "Wouldn't an app like this work well for collection x, lots of people would be interested in that!" before promptly stopping myself. I've noticed others doing it as well.

Augmented Reality has been used by museums before in really clever ways (I adore StreetMuseum's use of AR for instance and that was back in 2014). Yes, there is nothing stopping you building a similar app to work with your museum (you could have a lot of fun with Natural History collections in this way), but it's unlikely to develop a large user base and certainly nothing like what Pokemon Go is seeing just now.

It is the brand that is driving the demand for this product, as it has done on and off for the last twenty years. Very few museums in the world have such a high profile and well developed brand to work with so we have to think and approach AR in slightly different/creative ways to make this work for us.

I'd still be very keen to see AR make a bigger impact in museums though - an digital artist intervention in a gallery space perhaps or something that lets you see artworks in a different way. The best thing about the sudden Pokemon craze colliding with museums though is that it's got everybody thinking and talking about the impact that augmented reality and our newly gamified world will have on the heritage sector and more importantly, the opportunities it will present.

There are a number of other blogs that have covered this subject that I recommend checking out. These are: