Thursday, August 4, 2016

Pokémon... it's not cute by accident.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll have heard of Pokémon Go.  You’ve probably seen people playing it in the streets too – hunting and capturing cute bug-eyed creatures, and collecting potions, eggs and balls from the Pokéstops that dot our parks and streets.  15 million people downloaded the augmented reality game in the first week of its release last month.   Thanks in part to the media frenzy, the game has achieved almost mythical status.  Naysayers like to quote the car crashes by distracted gamers, muggings at Pokéstops, and people falling over objects, walking off cliffs etc. etc. The pro camp cites the number of people getting out into the world, away from the couch and the telly (although from personal experience, if you sit on the couch long enough the Pokémons come to you). Friendships flourish among the hunters, who bond over the shared goal of seeking and collecting digital creatures. 

Proof that you don’t have to leave the couch.  The Pokémons will come to you. Originally posted on Instagram @stealthpooch 
Obviously, I’m not a hater, but I’m not obsessed either.  Call me a semi-enthusiastic dabbler.  I like the thrill of the hunt, and I’m a user of other geo-location activities, like the games Ingress and Munzee, as well as the more grounded Geocaching, orienteering and rogaining.  With the exception of Munzee, I’d say that these other platforms are just as, if not more, enjoyable than Pokémon Go.  So why has Pokémon Go received so much more attention? 

One obvious answer is that Pokémon is a well-known franchise. Pikachu appears on our cereal boxes, on our TV screens, and even on the sides of planes.  Pokémon cards have been traded in Australian schoolyards since the 1990s, which means gen Y is not only familiar with Pokémon characters, but have a great deal affection for these cute creatures.   The original Gameboy game from the mid-90s had a similar basic premise: hunt the Pokémons for points (although in the original there’s an endgame: you train your captured Pokémons for the ultimate battle with the Elite Four - but that’s another article).  The Gameboy Pokémons were pixelated and black and white - far from the brightly-coloured creatures of today’s game - but it appealed to the part of us that likes to collect, explore, collect and collect some more.

However, Pokémon Go’s popularity cannot be explained brand saturation alone.  Nor is it solely due to the novelty of having our surrounding environment turned into magical hubs, or the human urge to collect and classify.  Collecting and problem solving is a key part of Munzee, but its interface is based on scanning boring old QR codes. Similarly, Ingress turns our surrounding environment into a web of portals: sites of battle and exchange. Ingress has a dedicated community, but its mass appeal is limited by the complexity of the game and the rather hostile machine-aesthetic graphics (I always think of the 90s movie Hackers when I open Ingress). 

Essentially, I think the popularity of Pokémon Go is largely about aesthetics.  Pokémon is cute and humans like cute.  This isn’t just a learned-in-the-schoolyard-over-obsessive-card-swapping thing either.  Humans are naturally attracted to and want to care for animals with juvenile features - ‘cute’ features - such as large eyes, large foreheads and retreating chins.  Within the Pokémon universe, even the most hostile animals are manipulated for appeal.  The snake, Ekans, for instance, has an unusually stunted snout, making it appear cuter than a snake ever should.  And don’t get me started on the mouse, Pikachu.  Pokémon Go therefore has hit on a winning combo, appealing to our biological attraction to cute, our urge to collect and classify, the novelty of augmented reality gaming on a widely used platform, existing brand awareness, and, of course, a significant leg up from the media. 

"Humans feel affection for animals with juvenile features: large eyes, bulging craniums, retreating chins (left column). 
Small-eyed, long-snouted animals (right column) do not elicit the same response." 
Drawn by Ephert from a diagram diagram in "Studies in Animal and Human Behavior, vol. II" by Konrad Lorenz. 
Downloaded from Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 4.0

We have also convinced ourselves that Pokémon Go is somehow a healthy game, a morally acceptable game.  I don’t know how many friendships or social encounters have really been facilitated by the game, but my dog has definitely benefited.  The dog park and oval at the end of my street seems to be quite a hub for all things Pokémon.  There’s a ‘gym’ at the seniors centre (no joke), and multiple Pokéstops.   There are few lights in the park and, at this time of the year when our nights are long and cold, there are also very few people.  Since Pokémon was released, however, the park is filled with ‘fairy lights’, as groups of people (and their dogs) chase elusive Pokémon, phone screens glowing.  For the first time in memory, I’ve been happy to take the dog there at night, rather than sticking to the safe, brightly lit streets.   Whatever the reason for its popularity, I hope it lasts if only for my big-eyed dog’s sake.

This article was originally published in the August edition of Warp Magazine, 2016.

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