Colin Ellard Ph.D.

Mind Wandering

Pokémon Go and the Failure of Urban Design

Why do we need augmented reality to encourage us to take a walk?

Posted Jul 31, 2016

Colin Ellard
Source: Colin Ellard

Pokémon Go, the augmented reality game that has players hunt the physical world for cute creatures that can be collected, sent into battle, or even transferred to The Professor to be ground up into candy (or so the rumor has it) is still going strong.  Our public places are teeming with young and old alike, wandering around with expressions of rapt fascination.  We’re bumping into one another, wandering in front of cars sometimes, or occasionally even falling off of cliffs in our quest for Pokémon.  There has been an avalanche of news coverage about the game, some of it filled with glowing accounts of how we are getting healthier through all of the exercise, pulled off of our couches into a strange new universe of fantasy that seems to be all around us.  There have been the naysayers as well, complaining that the game is another form of distraction from the here and now or perhaps yet another tool that clever marketers (or even criminals) can use to lure us into their dens.  I had my own curmudgeonly neuroscientist bash at the game here, speculating about the brain systems that might be invoked by a game that can be a weird combination of a refreshing walk in the woods and a sweaty first-person shooter, depending I suppose in part on your attitude towards game play.

Some of the discussion has focused on the reasons for the rampant popularity of the game.  It seemed to come almost out of nowhere (though there are lots of precedents for augmented reality apps).  The nostalgia value of the Pokémon franchise has certainly played a role, and the novelty of a well-designed game that taps into the possibilities of augmented reality applications using GPS and a new generation of powerful smart phones doesn’t hurt either.

But as an urban psychologist, I have other thoughts.  When people talk about how great it is that we finally have a reason to get off the couch and to launch ourselves into the world, I wonder what was missing before the game came along.  I argued in the curmudgeonly Quartz piece that if the objective of the game was to lead people out of their homes to engage with their surroundings, then we all might be far better off just slipping into our shoes and going out the door without our technology.  Much of the work of my laboratory focuses on explorations of the effects on mind and body of doing exactly that.

So why don’t we do it?

One possibility is that, for one reason or another, we find the real world wanting.  It isn’t enough for us.  Almost every city has some attractive landmarks, parks and commodious public spaces.  But we all know that in many cities those kinds of destinations are in short supply.  We still have too many blank, boring building facades.  Many of our cities are still far too centered on the automobile to make life pleasant for the urban pedestrian.  There are still far too many places in far too many cities where people just don’t want to be.  The psychological health of our cities has a great deal of room for improvement.  So what if a part of the reason for the popularity of Pokémon Go is that it offers us an escape of sorts from the places in our cities that are otherwise too dreary? 

To be sure, many of the most exciting hubs of game play (the “gyms” where we can take our Pokémon to enter into battle) coincide with parts of the city that are already very interesting—that’s the way the game has been set up.  But this certainly isn’t always true.  The Pokéstops where players can collect the Poké Balls and other gear that they need for successful gameplay are often set in much less interesting locations.  And the critters can be found almost anywhere, it seems.

None of this, by the way, is meant to be a criticism of the game itself.  I’m a Pokémon Go player (full disclosure: rookie level 8) and I enjoy playing it with my wife and my children.  I’m skeptical that the breathless excitement of those who say they’re learning all kinds of new things about their cities can be completely correct.  In my own experience, one does spend a great deal of time focusing on the phone screen and I’ve even had moments when I’ve become disoriented and slightly lost in places that I know really well.  But what really interests me is the possibility that the popularity of this game (and the many others that will surely follow) is really a commentary on the impoverished psychological state of the city.  If the naysayers really want people to pour into the streets as technologically unencumbered flaneurs, finding delight in their real-world surroundings, then perhaps we need to work a little harder to make sure that delight is there to be found.

If you'd like to know more about the psychology of urban design, check out my recent book Places of the Heart: The Psychogeography of Everyday Life.

You can follow me on Twitter @whereaminow

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