Pokémon GO Becomes an Unexpected Advocate for Urban Exploration


Technology is often characterized as the enemy of real experience and an obstacle to connection to the world around us. As teen hangouts continue to migrate from shopping malls to Facebook walls, does the built environment become less appreciated or less relevant? People young and old are experiencing life through screens large and small. But are they letting a whole world of wonder pass them by—even the cities in which they live, work and play?

With the launch of Pokémon GO last week, cities across the world have seen teens (and teens at heart) wandering the streets, staring at their phones and capturing virtual creatures through the augmented reality app that has received more than 15 million downloads at the time of publishing. At first glance, it may seem like yet another departure from reality into the virtual abyss. However, it may be more than meets the eye.

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Landmarks such as the New York Public Library are popular PokéStops.

Revisiting A City’s Landmarks

The app’s creators have designated physical landmarks across the world as key points throughout the game (called PokéStops) where users need to stop to replenish supplies. At each stop, the app provides interesting historical facts about the landmark. In order to find the location (in addition to following the location along the dots on a GPS-powered map), the app provides photographic clues that require users to look up and around, and match the picture to buildings and monuments. 

According to the support website for Pokémon GO, PokéStops have been placed strategically “near public art, unique architecture or public gathering places.” For example, Washington, D.C., monuments, the Sydney Opera House and London’s Big Ben have all been overrun with Pokémon-hunting players.

Retail Opportunity

Local retailers can get in on the game as well, increasing foot traffic to their locations by purchasing PokéLures, which attract Pokémon and, in turn, avid Pokémon seekers. The early evidence seems to show that this increased foot traffic may lead to increased sales. In an interview with TheStreet.com, L’Inizio Pizza Bar in Long Island City, N.Y., has increased sales by 75 percent over the last week by using PokéLures to attract more foot traffic from hungry patrons.

Other businesses simply benefit from being located close to virtual hot spots such as PokéStops or PokéGyms, which attract large groups of players. Although this uptick in business may be difficult to sustain, it does show the potential of using augmented reality to drive foot traffic, or even—if sustained over the long term—retail value. 

The Gamification of Urban Exploration

As players capture more and more Pokémon, they are, perhaps ironically, forced to learn their city’s history, landmarks and local retailers, PokéStop by PokéStop. And it’s done using the oldest trick in the book—by making it fun. 

Gamification is defined as “the application of typical elements of game playing to other areas of activity.” By assigning points to steps taken, wearables have inspired millions to get in better shape. Children are learning to code through apps that teach them the building blocks of how coding language is structured. Gamification works. So why not use it for building a better sense of awareness of the built environment around us?

In the same way that playing Guitar Hero may not be the best way to learn to play the guitar, Pokémon GO may not be the best way to learn a city’s history. However, for many who otherwise may never explore the landmarks that surround them, it is a step in the right direction.


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