If you haven’t heard the buzz about Pokémon Go—the new augmented reality game taking the world by storm—well, you must have been locked in collections storage, with no internet access, for the last few weeks.
This new game was born from the collision of numerous trends, notably increasing sophistication of augmented reality, the ubiquity of internet connected hand-held devices, and continued growth of gaming—especially so called “serious games” with real world objectives. (The “serious” objectives for Pokémon Go and its sister game, Ingress, are encouraging people to be physically active, to get to know their neighborhoods and to socialize with other players.)
There have been dozens of articles and blog posts on Pokémon Go, already (I link to a few particularly interesting examples below), so I’m not going to go over the basics of the game. I do want to point your attention to how Pokémon Go illustrates the transformative power of another trend I’ve written about: how entrepreneurs are making use of museum resources to build their own products and services.
The digital landscapes of Pokémon Go and its older sibling, Ingress are built around real world landmarks—including historic markers, public art, museums, zoos, botanic gardens and historic houses. Niantic Labs, the creator of both games, started with Google Maps data (Niantic itself was born inside Google) and pulled in public data sets to prepopulate Ingress with “portals,” including public buildings like libraries, police and fire stations. In the early years of the game, it also encouraged players to nominate and annotate additional portals, encouraging them to focus on public art, historic buildings and notable community landmarks. Niantic imported many of the Ingress sites into Pokémon Go, as well as using geodata from crowdsourced sites such as the Historical Marker Data Base.
Hence the crowds of people huddled over their smart phones in museum buildings and on museum grounds.
Now, scavenger hunts in and around museums are nothing new. Nor are apps that introduce virtual elements into our galleries even without permission. But the growth of open data sets and social media facilitate taking such use to scale. Estimates range from 9.5 million to 21 million active users of Pokémon Go per day in the US (which would put it well ahead of the ubiquitous Candy Crush). Though the app is free, players can buy virtual items to improve their game play. At that scale, even these micro-purchases add up to real money. Last month Forbes reported that the app, which is a free download, was bringing in $1.6 million a day through the Apple store alone (and the game also plays on Android devices). Pokémon Go is also credited with boosting the stock price of Nintendo, co-owner of Niantic Labs, by over 50%. Ingress offers in-app purchases, too, and has partnered with various companies to incorporate their brands into the game. So these games, built in and around public data and public space, are generating considerable private profit.
Maybe museums can profit from the mania for this game as well. Indeed there have been some reports of increased attendance: a 50% bump at the McNay Art Museum San Antonio (8 Pokéstops, 4 gyms); 30% at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas—not counting increase in foot traffic on their grounds; a 25% increase at the Morikami Museum & Japanese Gardens Boca Raton (25 Pokéstops) on one day.
Skrelp is a Weedy sea dragon! Courtesy Ocean Portal
And some organizations are tying the game to their mission. One blogger, noting that Pokémon drives people to explore historic sites and markers, coined the term “archaeogaming” and hails it as a boon to public archaeology. Ocean Portal parses the real-life taxonomic analogs to Pokémon creatures, and I imagine many aquariums could incorporate that into their interpretation. The attendance figures I quoted above are from a Bloomberg News article which also notes how appropriate it is for there to be Pokéstops at the British Museum, given its extensive collection of Japanese netsuke carvings—direct antecedents of the digital “pocket monsters.”
But the game isn’t always museum-compatible. The Worcester Art Museum, while celebrating their two Pokéstops, gently offers safety tips (i.e., please don’t run into collections objects while you’re staring at your phone.) There have been protests over the impropriety of playing the game at all in places like cemeteries, memorials and, here in DC, at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Echoes of the past—when Ingress launched it included portals in historic sites of German concentration camps, prompting a similar outcry. Google apologized and removed the offending portals from the Ingress landscape. If your museum has similar concerns you may be relieved to hear that Niantic does provide a way to request removal of a Pokéstop or Gym. (I haven’t heard how many such requests are granted, or how fast. If your museum does opt out, and it works, please share the news?)
This last point—what entities can opt in or out of being used in the game—raises an interesting legal issue. In the future, who will be able to control what augmented reality (AR) gets layered over “your” space? As the Guardian asked in a thoughtful commentary, “I can’t put a billboard on your house without asking you; but is it so obvious that I should be allowed to put a virtual billboard ’on‘ your house without giving you any say in the matter?” That story suggests that just as airplanes created the need for laws governing airspace, augmented reality games like Pokémon Go may result in laws concerning “AR” space. Add this to the list of emerging concerns for museums as we struggle to control, adapt to or partner with people who make us part of their digital worlds.