Robert Bartholomew Ph.D.

It's Catching

'Pokemon Go' Fad Will Be Gone by Christmas

Pokemon Go! The latest in a long history of fads

Posted Jul 12, 2016

Within days of its release, Pokemon Go has taken the world by storm.  While there have been other GPS games, it marks the beginning of hugely popular augmented-reality games on a global scale.  It’s exciting to see, and is unlike anything we have seen before, but mark my words; if the history of fads and crazes is anything to go by, Pokemon Go will not last long.  While 2016 may turn out to be the American Summer of Pokemon Go, it will likely be gone by the year’s end.  Why?  Because when ‘everyone’ begins engaging in fads, they soon cease to be novel and lose their appeal. The novelty of this new form of the game is that you can go around with your GPS, but the basis of the game is nostalgia: kids grew up watching Pokemon TV shows and playing the games – all wanting to become Pokemon trainers.  This new game allows them to live out their dream and to work with others in teams to accrue points and develop stronger Pokemon for battle.  But for most people, it is a trivial pursuit.  This is not meant to marginalize the participants as trivial people:  at some time, everyone engages in fads.  

A number of media outlets have described Pokemon Go as a craze.  It is not.  Crazes are widespread, short-lived preoccupations or obsessions.  Some writers use the words ‘fad’ and ‘crazes’ interchangeably, which creates confusion, but there is a clear distinction.  Fads are short-lived infatuations – be it with a Frisbee, miniature golf, or the hula hoop.  It is a ‘puppy love’ that soon wanes, and while these activities are still around, interest has dropped off dramatically.  Take Miniature Golf, for example.  In 1929, Garnet Carter built hundreds of miniature courses in Florida to boost the popularity of his hotels; they soon began popping up across the US.  By the Fall of 1930, four million people a day were playing on any one of 40,000 courses employing 200,000 people.  Half Pint Golf grew from the Great Depression, allowing the average person to play what was seen as a rich man’s game for a mere 30 cents.  It’s the same reason why Monopoly became popular during the mid-1930s:  poor people got a chance to play a successful real estate mogul.  In addition to being inexpensive, miniature golf was novel and could be played by both sexes.  Yet, by winter 1931, the tiny golf courses were going bankrupt across the country as interest plummeted.  While it continues today, interest is nowhere near its glory days.  Interest in miniature golf peaked in the US in 2001, with an estimated 6,000 courses, a fraction of what it was during the Depression. 

Crazes are far more serious love affairs with an object, idea or person.  They involve fewer people, persist longer, and are more intense than fads.  They often have life-altering consequences.  Crazes require a greater commitment and may result in participants quitting their jobs, selling their homes or divorcing.  Few people have life-changing experiences playing video games.  Yes, there are world championships, but we are talking about the average person on the street.  When was the last time someone had a life altering experience with a yo-yo?  With the possible exception of accidentally neutering oneself during the heat of competition, one would be hard-pressed to think of one.  The Klondike Gold Rush of the 1890s was a craze as people sold their houses and headed for the icy confines of Canada’s Yukon territory to seek their fortunes.  Some religious sects are forms of crazes as people may give up their worldly possessions and forego all contact with the outside world, including family and friends.  

So why is Pokemon Go destined to decline?  Like Miniature Golf, as interesting as they can be for short periods, participants soon grow tired.  Fads often originate as symbols of prestige that are engaged in by those of high status such as professional athletes and film stars, only to quickly wane as the novelty wears off and “everyone” seems to be doing it.  Sometimes youngsters will take up a fad to rebel against authority.  In other instances, it is a way of gaining attention. Some psychologists suggest that fads become more common in times of crisis as a way of diverting attention from more serious issues of the day.  

Pokemon Go is clearly a fad.  My advice to players is to ‘catch ‘em all’ while you can, and enjoy the ride while it lasts.  Pokemon Go will likely go down in history as the game that started the new augmented-reality movement on a global scale, in the same way that Pong and Pac-Man ushered in new eras in video games.  But as influential as they were for their time, they too were short-lived.  In a new century marked by rapid changes in technology, and short attention spans, Pokemon Go’s days are numbered.  

My hope is that Pokemon Go will morph into a game that has as its goal, more significant and less trivial pursuits.  Too often in the Internet Age, technology pulls people apart.  We've all seen a group of teens at the mall sitting together but no one is interacting as they are all on their mobile phones.  Communicating over technology is very different than interacting face to face.  Studies show that over half of all communication involves nonverbal signals that are lost in texts, blogs and e-mails.  At a time when Americans are more divided than ever, augmented-reality could bridge the current social, cultural and racial divide both domestically and globally.  That's a legacy that's certainly not trivial.