Pokémon Go – love it or hate it, the mobile game has been a smash hit since its launch two months ago. And unlike nearly all other video games, its popularity has had significant effect on non-gamers. The game requires players to track down virtual monsters in the real world and visit real-world landmarks (called “PokéStops”) to stock up on valuable items. Tens of millions of people play the game, and large crowds of them are out walking places they never used to go.
It’s been fascinating to watch how different institutions react to these new patterns of human movement. Most see opportunities, but others see only threats.
Many businesses have used the phenomenon to increase sales. Businesses at or near PokéStops are experiencing a new influx of customers to cater to. Wise businesses are recognizing that opportunity and finding ways to cater to a new clientele. Even wiser businesses have realized that a small in-game investment can attract even more customers. By purchasing “lures,” players can attract significantly greater numbers of wild Pokémon to PokéStops. Businesses have taken to buying and installing lures at nearby stops in order to encourage players to hang out – often for hours. A coffee shop, for just a little more than a dollar an hour, could encourage dozens of players to hang around for hours.
Churches are often identified as PokéStops, or even gyms – locations where the three teams of Pokémon trainers (red, blue, and yellow) can battle each other for control. Churches, too, have made the most of this opportunity with varying levels of evangelism – or just a cool drink on a warm summer day. In another example of nonprofits creatively using Pokémon, an animal shelter has billed walking its dogs as a way of putting on more steps – the only way to hatch Pokémon eggs to obtain certain rare Pokémon.
While private organizations have figured out ways to make the most of the Pokémon Go phenomenon, government entities have more frequently reacted like the clichéd old man waving his cane at kids and shouting at them to “get off my lawn!” Complaining that – no, really – too many people are using the park, Milwaukee County bureaucrats contacted Pokémon Go’s developer and insisted that they get a geocaching permit or immediately remove their game from County parks. Elsewhere, more solemn government locations – museums and cemeteries, for example – don’t want people playing the game there at all. (Never mind that they don’t seem to care if people use their smartphones for any number of tens of thousands of other, equally “disrespectful” things.)
The difference in attitudes is significant, although predictable. Government bureaucrats simply don’t have the same incentives to serve constituents well as private organizations do to serve customers well. Instead of seeing Pokémon Go as an opportunity to do more good, they see it as a threat to the status quo – an annoying distraction to be harshly eliminated.
I would suggest that people in charge of parks and memorials and the like find ways to reach out to new patrons instead of turning them away. Why not put out a sign, along the lines of “Welcome, Pokémon Go players! Please respect the somber nature of this place and our other patrons. Any of our docents would be happy to answer your questions or give you a tour.” Really, there’s no reason to believe that Pokémon Go will be any more disruptive – or its players any less respectful – than anything else people might do with their phones.