Pokémon GoVernment: How Augmented Reality Can Bring the Public to the Public Sector

Hand holding cellphone displaying Pokemon Go game

Pokémon Go, the mobile monster-catching game that three weeks ago took over the phone screens and attention spans of millions of people seemingly overnight, is the first digital sensation that has bridged the gap between the traditional, mostly private domain of video games and mobile technologies and the “real” world — known in the tech community as “augmented reality” games. Both public and private entities found themselves suddenly having to grapple with hordes of people playing a game that required them to move about in physical space to “catch ‘em all,” some exploring, some invading.

The response from many government agencies has been uncharacteristically speedy, some embracing visitors with success and others finding their messaging missing the mark. There have also been widely publicized hiccups due to the game’s map, which encouraged players to visit certain hotspots to find items to aid their quest to become Pokémon masters. The in-game map and its points of interest relied largely on data from a previous game from parent company Niantic, which then automatically generated stops without consideration for their emotional or historical significance, leading players to check in at sites like the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, or the Arlington National Cemetery.

As the hype reached a fever pitch and the stories that came from all over the world became stranger and stranger, many were left wondering what to make of this: was it a fad that could be ignored by those inclined to hunker down until the worst of it was over? Or did this represent a sea change, only the first of its kind in a trend that would have far-reaching implications even after the last player had given up? And if the latter, how might government agencies make it work for them?

Taking advantage of the trend, making the most of the madness

While the game initially launched without monetization options, Niantic was quick to add opportunities for advertising that integrated into the gameplay without relying on traditional pop-up banners. Along with allowing users to flag inappropriate locations for their “Pokéstops,” the game is testing out corporate sponsorship, putting stops at thousands of McDonald’s restaurants across Japan, with rumors that they will also be expanding to Starbucks locations in the US and abroad soon. Banking on the expectation that the foot traffic brought in by players looking to stock up on key items will translate into increased sales, these companies haven’t just made the most of happy coincidences; instead they are being proactive in forging partnerships and driving traffic where it would best serve their interests.

Could government agencies do the same thing? Creating programming around happy accidents, like in-game check-ins that coincide with national parks is one thing, but what if agencies took a page out of the private sector’s playbook and found a way to make this game enhance civic engagement and service delivery? Possibilities include the National Park System forging partnerships with developers to move stops to hidden gems and under-visited locations to encourage traffic flow or the Smithsonian writing more in-depth descriptions of historical points of interest that show up in the game’s map, turning passing interest into real opportunities for education and engagement. These scenarios are worth exploring although they would require, perhaps, a great shift in thinking to see the value in such opportunities that would allow resources and funding to follow.

Is augmented reality the new reality?

For all of the hype, profit, and conversation it has generated, Pokémon Go is already showing signs of wear, especially as recent changes to the game’s interface have caused unrest in the community of players, and lingering technical problems have caused others to give up altogether. What was white hot two weeks ago may be nothing but a footnote for 2016 a year from now — so why should government agencies, or anyone for that matter, spend time contemplating how they might benefit from changing their relationship with this game or others like it?

Like it or not, even as the end of the Pokémon fad becomes more of a question of when than one of if, augmented reality itself is only just beginning. Apple and Facebook have already begun to take steps toward incorporating augmented reality into their products, and Google is working on a new version of its Google Glass prototype, hoping to expand on the lessons learned from their initial launch (coincidentally, Ingress, the Niantic game that helped develop the maps now used in Pokémon Go, had Google Glass integration). Augmented reality is quickly becoming the next horizon, a lucrative market for companies eager to cash in on the saturation of mobile phones that see a future in virtual reality systems but recognize that the initial cost of investment is too much for the average player. The success of Pokémon Go and the millions the game made in such a short period of time are only going to serve to bolster this market, enabling other companies to not only learn from the successes and failures of the game, but to take advantage of consumers suddenly familiar with the augmented reality experience who might have been much harder to entice with their products before. By adopting an open mind now, and changing policies and practices to allow for building relationships with developers, government agencies could find themselves shaping the next hot game from the ground floor, seeing their best interests reflected in the world it builds. By creating an environment that not only welcomes players and scrambles to catch up with demand, agencies could turn these players into lifelong patrons and customers in a mutually beneficial partnership.

The views expressed in the Government Innovators Network blog are those of the individual author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, the John F. Kennedy School of Government, or of Harvard University.

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