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A year of Pokemon GO

Pokemon Go turned one year old earlier this month, and today marks the one year mark in which I’ve been playing it.

Pokemon GO is a multi-game, a collection of interconnected games with interdependent success metrics; e.g., you spin spinners at Pokestops to collect items, and those items are useful for catching Pokemon, which are useful in fighting in gyms, and so on. The objects and locations in the game correspond to actual locations, so a Pokestop may be at a church and a gym at a restaurant.  One core idea is that people walk more so they can be successful at the game. Another core idea is that people connect with friends, as these connections can help with game success.

As with many games, there are many ways to “game the game”. The common one I see is cars full of kids who drive from gym to gym and collecting as many points as possible, avoiding the pesky exercise component. And they often drive at low speeds so they don’t trigger a “driving” warning and also accumulate steps. I’ve also seen a few people with multiple phones, playing as two characters at once.  And of course, there’s ways to fake your location and set up bots to play the game for you.

I’ve played on and off for a year now. I played for a while but gave it up–I was bothered by missing the scenery when walking and the way-too-long gym battles. And I found I walked slower than my normal pace when walking with the app open, even if I wasn’t stopping to catch and battle. I only like a few aspects of the game, those related to tracking and rewarding distance that is covered. You can’t play the game unless your phone is on and the game is active, so it’s hard to just put it in your pocket and walk around (though I occasionally do, even though it burns through the battery).

I’d stopped playing for several months, but then when my son got a phone and mobile service, we started playing together. (And I started on my own, since collecting things on your own is helpful in the game.) Also, they improved the gym feature to make it faster and more fair.  It’s nice to have another way to connect with my teenage son, though it increases the screen usage for both of us at times when we might be better suited to pay attention to other things! I’ve also been lured back into the game thanks to changes in the way they run gyms, the number of Pokemon, and the colleagues and friends I’ve found who play it (and like to talk about it). Other academics have written about their own experiences related to Pokemon GO, including a great writeup about Pokemon GO and work-life balance by Amy Bruckman.

In a similar exercise-related vein, I’ve carried a Fitbit for over five years now, a wearable accelerometer-based device worn on the wrist or placed on/in clothing that counts steps by noting changes in acceleration along multiple dimensions. You can set goals, identify friends, take part in competitions, and even traverse virtual hikes (the last of which only makes me long for real hikes). Again, there are ways to cheat to accumulate steps, by shaking the step counter, or putting it in the dryer, or attaching it to the dog. And there are glitches: sometimes riding in a car along a slow and bumpy road can accumulate “steps”. My Android smartwatch and mobile phone do a lot of the same things as my Fitbit One, but I enjoy its simple interface and the connection to Fitbit friends.

The game matches some of my research and teaching initiatives, specifically toward encouraging better fitness through the apps you use. Monika Monk’s MS thesis focused on mobile exergaming among children. She and a number of undergrads developed mobile exergames that were used by nearby Boys and Girls Clubs to encourage exercise through games with tag and capture-the-flag themes.  And Andrey Esakia’s Ph.D. work, recently featured in a VT News article, examined how smartwatches can leverage small group cohesion toward encouraging more exercise. And a senior capstone project by my students, Marmallapic, resulted in an app that encouraged students to take pictures around campus on a different theme each day.


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