Pokémon Go Is Only The Beginning

You’ve seen them in your own neighborhood, and if you’re of a certain age or temperament, the odds are that you’ve joined them: mobs of people roaming the streets, smartphones in hand, hunting creatures named Bulbasaur and Squirtle and Pidgeot.

It’s Niantic Labs’ Pokémon Go, and it’s taken over the world. The game is spurring real-world camaraderie, distracting people from work and school, and generating more impromptu exercise than any Internet phenomenon in history, as tens of thousands of people take to the street in pursuit of the rarest and most elusive of Pokémon. Indeed, as of yesterday, Pokémon Go is seeing more daily users than Twitter and more engagement than Facebook.

It’s a phenomenon, all right. But will it last?

Gaming entrepreneur Dan Porter, who created the super-popular social drawing game Draw Something (iOS/Android) in 2012, has weighed in on LinkedIn. As the developer of something that has reached and engaged tens of millions of people—generating over 100 million downloads to date—Porter has some credibility on the subject.

Porter outlines some of the reasons the game has taken off: it lends itself to social activity, it’s nostalgic even for relatively young people, and it incorporates levels and achievements to aim for. But then he says it’s ripe “to see a big bang and then a slow fizzle.”

Obviously nobody knows what will happen, but I think Porter’s being too conservative.

What’s notable about Pokémon Go is not that people are cooperating and competing to play it—there are hundreds of online games that people play together. It’s that Pokémon Go creates an opportunity for a light, low-stakes shared activity in the public realm at any time, by groups of people with all degrees of closeness, and we mean all degrees. That includes romantic couples and school friends and coworkers, but also complete strangers who meet out in public thanks to the game.

Pokémon Go also creates genuine opportunities for people to engage with community institutions like parks, libraries, schools, churches, and neighborhood nonprofits. Don’t get us wrong: obviously for-profit companies, too, are doing everything they can to get in on the action, and there’s probably a pizzeria near you that’s seen its business spike because people are stopping in for Pokémon and staying for pizza as they run around town. But in less than a week the world has already seen hundreds of Facebook posts like this:

For institutions of all kinds, Pokémon Go encourages them to open their doors. Certainly there will be opportunities for businesses to make money by participating in the Pokémon Go economy directly (e.g., by paying to have their locations become gyms and Pokespots, where users are incentivized to gather and will presumably spend money). But we think the organic, socially driven interaction between institutions and game players is more interesting, and as users swarm into parks, libraries and bookstores, and businesses of all kinds, the smart places are welcoming them warmly, the way the U.S. National Park Service has done in this short video. Some of those visitors will stay and explore, and some will come back again next week.

Finally, this is our moment to realize that augmented reality, and other types of virtual reality, are here to stay. Especially for many of us who were a little skeptical, this game has helped us to “get” VR, to feel how it works organically—in a context that’s familiar and safe—and to begin to understand how it will change our daily lives 5 and 10 and 50 years from now. We’re at the very beginning of the intersection of our digital and physical worlds, and if there’s one thing Pokémon Go has shown, it’s that as VR rolls out into all parts of our lives, the social aspect of VR will be even more meaningful than people realize.