Pokèmon Go has been quite the phenomenon.
It is the newest craze that has managed to garner more followers in the 5 days since its initial release than Twitter managed to in the 5 years since its inception.
People are spending over 43 minutes a day playing Pokèmon Go, which is higher than Facebook, Whatsapp, Instagram, Snapchat, or Messenger.
People even shunned Justin Bieber in favour of collecting a rare Pokèmon…
But make no mistake – Pokèmon Go has been built on the shoulder of giants.
But it’s not the overnight success people first thought it was.
Niantic, the developer of Pokèmon Go, made a previous game about finding cool places in the real world called Ingress.
Ingress players would submit their favourite locations to the game and Pokèmon Go uses some of these landmarks.
Downloaded around 12 million times, it was the ideal training ground for Niantic to experiment with the core game mechanics that we’ve come to enjoy in Pokèmon Go – the #1 most downloaded app in the App Store.
In addition, Niantic was a Google Company which explains the innovative Augmented Reality (AR) feature and rich geolocation data that makes Pokèmon Go so unique.
But what makes Pokèmon Go so addictive?
The game has been built on the foundation of some the most basic psychological core principles.
It has been engineered to hook you.
And it’s hooked millions of players.
In this post, you will find out how they did it.
By playing this game you are transported back to a time when you were a child who fell in love with Pokèmon.
When I downloaded Pokèmon Go I was back in the mind of my young self, joyous at catching my first Pokèmon.
I was transported back to a time when I was throwing Zubat Pokèmon cards around my room just because they were flying-type Pokèmon.
Back to a time where I was imagining the most detailed of battlegrounds when all I had was the edge of my bed, a stack of Pokèmon cards, and a child’s vivid imagination.
The game’s developers are now capitalising on whatever emotional attachment we had with these lovable creatures in the past.
It’s a bit like a sequel to a beloved first film, where most of the marketing has already been done before.
After all, the Pokèmon brand enjoys an unparalleled legacy.
Nobody had to persuade you too much to download the game – your buying temperature is already high.
This is in great part thanks to nostalgia.
The New Oxford Dictionary of English (1998) defines nostalgia as “a sentimental longing for the past.”
Indeed, nostalgia is a bittersweet emotion.
Nostalgia combines the pleasant memory of the past with the cold realisation that a desirable aspect of that past is irredeemably lost.
When experiencing nostalgia, we experience both joy and a sense of loss as the past can no longer be recreated.
But the beautiful thing about Pokèmon Go is that we can relive our childhood memories and our childhood fantasies of becoming a real Pokèmon trainer.
What was once lost has been found.
Though our childhood years may be long gone, a big part of it is back.
The inner child in all of us couldn’t be any happier.
Think of buying temperature as your loyalty to the Pokèmon brand and any prior investment in it, whether it be financial, emotional, or otherwise.
You’ve made so much prior personal investment into the Pokèmon brand when you were a child.
You had all the cards, played the Game Boy games, collected stickers for the sticker albums, and maybe even had a few Pokèmon key rings.
Pokèmon Go is an extension of all of that; a new spin on the whole thing.
It makes sense that you and I will want to play Pokèmon Go.
In the same vein, WWE – the world’s most prestigious wrestling and sports entertainment promotion – signs old wrestlers from 10 years ago to wrestle for the promotion once again so that they bring back old audiences that used to watch the product.
Rightfully so, fans around the world call these wrestlers nostalgia acts.
From the get go, you and I will be heavily invested in Pokèmon Go as we get to relive our childhoods and witness Pokèmon jump out of nostalgic reverie and back into the real world.
Music and SFX as Positive Affect
The Gameboy-like music and sound effects in Pokèmon Go play on our nostalgia, transporting us to a time where we used to play Pokèmon on our Gameboy.
Just listening to the music and sounds allows us to experience feelings of joy and elation.
But also it brings back fond memories, positive emotions, and feelings of immersion associated with the Pokèmon games we used to play on Game Boy.
That’s very smart multi-sensory stimulation from Niantic.
It’s a nice touch.
You get to be Ash Ketchum
By playing Pokèmon Go, you are the Pokèmon trainer.
You are the main actor in this Pokèmon world and your phone is your Pokèdex.
Essentially you are Ash Ketchum – a childhood dream come true.
The ease of performing an action
The gameplay is so simple.
All you have to do is flick at your screen to throw a Pokèball and v’oila – you’ve just caught a Pokèmon.
As Nir Eyal in his book Hooked writes:
“Companies leverage two basic pulleys of human behaviour to increase the likelihood of an action occurring: the ease of performing an action and the psychological motivation to do it.”
As you’ve read already, the psychological motivation to play is centred around feelings of nostalgia.
The ease of performing the action (i.e. playing the game) facilitates the process of making playing this game a habit. Also, the learning curve is super low so anyone of any age can play.
The path of least resistance
But this simplicity is important for another reason.
It’s effortless to start playing and you can immerse yourself in the action quickly. In other words, you don’t have to think too much to start playing.
As Nir puts it:
“Reducing the thinking required to take the next action increases the likelihood of the desired behaviour occurring unconsciously.”
The game mechanics embrace the idea of the path of least resistance.
All you have to do is walk and when prompted – just flick at the screen to catch a Pokèmon.
What this means for your brain is that your rational part of the brain (i.e. you don’t have time to play now) and your impulsive side of the brain (i.e. I want to play now, now, now!) have very little time to talk to each other.
Just like using Paypal, contactless cards, or reaching your hand out to grab a little snack from a basket in front of the cash tills at Starbucks – the ease to act in Pokèmon Go shortens the information relay time between System 1 (i.e. impulsive) and System 2 (i.e. rational).
A direct consequence of that means that there is a greater likelihood that you will give into your impulsive side!
The difference with Paypal or contactless is that once you’ve given into your impulsive side, all you have done is bought something on an impulse.
With Pokèmon Go – once you’ve started playing, the game is quick to immerse you in it.
Within seconds, you catch a Pokèmon. Within 5 minutes, I caught around 10 Pokèmon in my flat, it was crazy.
Awash with this new experience and reward, the game got me into a focused state which – in the words of Nir Eyal – “suppresses the areas of the brain associated with judgment and reason while activating the parts associated with wanting and desire.”
Pokèmon Go helps your impulsive side win.
A Play on Our Emotions
If curiosity is supposed to get you through the door, then novelty and salience are meant to keep you inside the room.
The game uses novel, cutting-edge technology in the form of Augmented Reality (AR) which allows to enjoy the thrill of catching Pokèmon that are directly in front of you – either in your room or your favourite pub or coffee shop – as if they were real life creatures.
But it’s not just the technology that inspires this novelty.
It’s the fact that you constantly discover and capture new Pokèmon.
This novelty plays on our natural reflexes as humans.
That is, we exhibit a novelty bias to unfamiliar, novel things around us.
Novelty captures our attention.
And this is why we’ll always notice shiny objects in the corner of our eye.
Millenia ago, this bias served our predecessors well as it predisposed them to notice things that were out of the ordinary in their immediate environment, for better (e.g. animals as a potential meal) or for worse (e.g. danger).
For this reason, novelty can be quite gripping. That’s why whenever we encounter something new, whether that is a first Sudoku puzzle or a shiny diamond ring in a shop, our cognitive processes are enhanced, especially in learning contexts.
But the most important thing about new things is that they’re simply very rewarding.
In fact, a paper by Bianca Wittman and colleagues found that “novelty stimulates explorative behaviour in humans as a potential mechanism to predict reward.”
In other words, by focusing our attention at novels things in the environment, we’re bound to find something rewarding.
And when we do, the novelty- and reward-seeking centres of the brain (i.e. our impulsive parts of the brain) become activated, causing a burst of endogenous opioids.
Obviously, we’ll continue to chase that high – we’re only human.
Salient things (i.e. things that stand out) capture our attention, too.
Pokèmon appearing in front of you is so unusual and so out of the ordinary that it is bound to do so.
But there is a lot of salience in local pubs, bars, coffee shops being Pokèstops or Gyms where you can battle with other Pokèmon.
A place in the area you live is a Pokèstop?
It’s so out of the ordinary that it sticks in our mind.
Both novel and salient stimuli are placed in the forefront of our mind as they are prioritised in our psychological processing.
As I mentioned before, finding a Pokèmon you haven’t in the game seen before is a novelty and is very rewarding to our brain.
At the same time, we view this novel Pokèmon as scarce.
According to Commodity theory by Brock (1968) – scarcity enhances value.
You and I experience this when we run into a new Pokèmon we haven’t caught before.
Because it is scarce, it is more valuable and as a result more desirable.
Uncertainty is potent when trying to catch it, especially if it’s a strong Pokèmon.
If it’s a strong scarce Pokèmon, it will most likely resist being caught by jumping out of the Pokèballs you throw at it.
Worst case scenario – it will run away.
This is what we fear.
Uncertainty creeps in when you throw the Pokèball at the Pokèmon and wait until it is caught or jumps out again.
While you wait as the Pokèball rolls around, trying to secure the newly caught Pokèmon, you experience short-term pain.
As humans, we are fundamentally motivated to seek pleasure and avoid pain.
Indeed, uncertainty is uncomfortable because it registers as pain in the brain, according to Olivia Fox Cabane, author of The Charisma Myth.
“[Uncertainty] registers almost like physical pain in the brain. There is a tension, a gap where the brain is not easy again until it is resolved.”
This places you under minor psychological strain and discomfort.
Because we are naturally averse to uncertainty, we strive to eliminate it as well as escape the uncomfortable sensation of discomfort it produces as soon as possible.
That is, we seek to achieve cognitive closure (i.e. the need for psychological relief resulting from a definite conclusion as opposed to confusion or ambiguity; Kruglanski & Webster, 1996).
“Two highly related tendencies are assumed to underlie this need, namely ‘urgency’, that is the need to arrive at closure quickly, and ‘permanency’, that is the need to remain at closure once it has been achieved.”
-Hewstone, Stroebe, and Jonas (2012)
Whenever a strong, scarce, and challenging Pokèmon appears, we feel pressured by a limited time frame to successfully catch it. We fear it might run away and we feel motivated to act swiftly.
And when we finally manage to catch that scarce, valuable, challenging Pokèmon – “Gotcha!” only accentuates the relief it by dramatising the catch.
The Power of Familiarity and Resonance
Sure, there’s a lot of novelty to Pokèmon Go.
With novelty comes the element of surprise when catching new Pokèmon, especially the ones you really liked as a kid.
For instance, I was actually genuinely happy to have caught a Machop. It was one of my favourite Pokèmon growing up.
Indeed, the more emotionally or energetically connected we feel to a Pokèmon, the deeper the resonance when catching them.
There’s a magnetic quality to this, which only further draws you into the game.
Psychologically, this is quite interesting.
There’s the novelty of catching Pokèmon which breeds excitement and there’s a familiarity with all of them that breeds regard.
By now, I’m sure you realise that Pokèmon Go elicits a lot of complex emotions.
As an aside – we humans inherently like familiarity.
In a world full of strangers we know nothing about, it’s a nice feeling to comes across a familiar face that we know is welcoming and harmless (Zajonc, 1968).
Plus – familiar faces require less neural resources to process by the brain, allowing for them to be more fluently processed.
If something is easily processed by the brain, the brain rewards us for it.
The Endowment Effect
As Barry Schwartz writes in The Paradox of Choice:
“Once something is given to you, it’s yours. Once it becomes part of your endowment, even after a few minutes, giving it up will entail a loss.”
This is called the endowment effect.
When we are given things, buy them, or catch them like in Pokèmon Go, we become invested in them. In Pokèmon Go, we derive a sense of ownership over whatever Pokèmon we catch.
However, not all Pokèmon were created equal – some are better, some are worse, and some of them get preferential treatment because they were the ones that we loved most as kids.
In Pokèmon Go, the endowment effect is most pronounced for Pokèmon we invest in via power ups and upgrades (e.g. evolving them), the ones we’ve had the longest, and the ones we are most emotionally invested in, for whatever reason.
Here’s Barry once again:
“The endowment effect helps explain why companies can afford to offer money-back guarantees on their products. Once people own them, the products are worth more to their owners than the mere cash value, because giving up the products would entail a loss.”
So if Niantic were to introduce a “trade my Pokèmon” option with other Pokèmon trainers, I don’t think it would work well and now you know why.
The value of the Pokèmon you would want to trade would be skewed in the same way that house owners overvalue houses they are looking to sell.
Generally speaking, house owners want to sell their houses for more than market value because they inflate it with their own sentiment and emotional attachment to them.
But also, trading in a Pokèmon you own for a Pokèmon owned by another person would be experienced as a loss (holding Combat Power equal).
This is called loss aversion. That is, we dislike losses more than we enjoy gains.
Perhaps it would work if a trading system were put in place beforehand.
Niantic would have to shy away from the general metric of Combat Power (CP) and weight the Pokèmon trading system a la currency exchange rates. For example, a single Hypno could be worth 3 Raticates.
Humans have an innate need to experience a sense of progress.
In Pokèmon Go, you are constantly advancing, always progressing.
You’re always gaining Experience Points (XP), always finding new Pokèmon and items etc.
At every part of the game – you feel a sense of progress and are rewarded for it.
Even when you are flicking a Pokèball to catch a Pokèmon, you are getting positive reinforcement in the form of words like “Great!”, “Nice!” or “Excellent!”
But sometimes there are lulls in the game where you’re just walking and not finding or catching anything.
If you were just sitting around and waiting to catch something, you’d become frustrated. That’s because we’re naturally averse to idleness (more on that later).
But by being idle, we open ourselves to rumination.
“Why aren’t I catching anything?” or “What’s going on?”
Here’s the fascinating part.
By walking, we feel that we are progressing, that we are in control of the situation, and are taking necessary steps (literally) to reach the end goal of catching a Pokèmon.
We don’t open ourselves to much rumination because we know that we just need to keep walking.
For this very reason, people at the airport prefer to walk to distant carousels to collect their luggage rather than wait at nearer carousels.
In the same vein, people are idle when waiting and because of an aversion to idleness, they start ruminating “why are we waiting so long”, “what if something happened to my luggage”, and so on.
Just like in Pokèmon Go, by walking – they feel that they are progressing.
You could even argue that people ruminate and use their imagination to conjure up potential scenarios and solutions to subconsciously feel a sense of progress in a situation when there isn’t any.
After all – when you ruminate, it’s like your mind is spinning.
Spinning is movement.
Movement is progress.
Sunk cost fallacy
Once we open a tub of ice cream, it’s easy to just finish to whole thing.
“I opened it – might as well just finish it off.”
If you were thinking of quitting smoking and you smoke a cigarette after a period of abstinence – you smoke another, and then another, and next thing you know it, you’re chain smoking.
“If I already broke my promise and smoked a cigarette – might as well smoke more.”
Such rationalisations can lead you into a behavioural downward spiral, whether it be overeating or chain smoking.
By opening a tub or smoking a cigarette, in our minds, we’ve made a mental commitment to either eating or smoking.
Once we’ve had a bit of ice cream, we’ve started a bit of momentum and the default state is to just go with the flow, and keep building that momentum until the tub is gone.
This behaviour is called the sunk cost fallacy. That is, we convince ourselves to continue a behaviour just because of our prior investment in that behaviour.
In Pokèmon Go, our default state is to just keep walking. We’ve made a mental commitment to go for a walk to catch some Pokèmon so we just keep on walking and keep on catching them.
“I’ll catch one more Pokèmon and then I’ll go home,” you might think. But then you catch it and then want to catch another, and then another…
Although Pokèmon Go has been designed to cater to our impulsive and irrational need for instant gratification but embedded in the game’s mechanics is a trigger that is designed to make you want to delay gratification.
Here are a few examples of how the game incentivises a delay of gratification:
Pokèmon eggs and incubators
For example, you place Pokèmon eggs in incubators. To hatch them and receive a new Pokèmon to your collection – all you have to do is walk.
Depending on the egg, it will hatch when you’ve covered a certain distance (e.g. 2 km).
But the incubator incentives you to cover more distance if you want to get a better Pokèmon.
In other words, hatching “5km” eggs will yield you a better Pokèmon that a hatching a “2km” egg.
Walk more – get a better Pokèmon.
There is incentive to delay gratification when catching Pokèmon.
You have to collect a lot the same Pokèmon (e.g. a Pidgey) if you want to evolve that same Pokèmon.
So you wait and build up until you achieve that long-term goal.
Evolving your Pokèmon while using a Lucky Egg
You might catch enough of the same Pokèmon and choose to wait to evolve them until you have many Pokèmon to evolve.
You might delay gratification by saving up such Pokèmon until you feel it’s time to use your Lucky Egg to double the Experience Points (XP) you gain from evolving them.
This way, you put off the smaller-sooner reward of evolving one Pokèmon for the benefit of experiencing a larger-later reward of evolving many Pokèmon under much more enjoyable circumstances.
Let’s face it – Magikarp is a crappy Pokèmon.
But there is some incentive to practice delayed gratification.
If you catch 400 Magikarps and substitute them for 400 candy – then you’ll be able to evolve a Magikarp into a Gyarados, which is a rare and powerful Pokèmon.
Delayed gratification and goal-setting
The important thing to note about delayed gratification is that this is how our commitment to and investment in the game is enhanced.
We’re goal-oriented creatures and the game has no short supply of hurdles for us to jump over, rewarding us with medals, upgrades, items, and new Pokèmon once we manage to.
A game component that rewards delayed gratification is important because it plays on our Symbolic Self Awareness (Sedikides and Skowronski, 1997).
That is, it plays upon our ability to imagine future behaviours and their possible outcomes (like evolving a Pokèmon or catching rare on) before we can act them out in real life.
We will make projections into the future to see what we can achieve and immerse ourselves in present actions to reach those goals.
In a sense, we bounce back and forth between imagining our future self and immersing ourselves in the present to achieve that vision (Carver and Scheier, 1982) called this behaviour a discrepancy-reducing feedback loop.)
This is one of those things that will keep us heavily invested in the game by occupying our imagination and thoughts – even when we’re not playing.
I’m sure some kids are dreaming of Pokèmon while they are fast asleep after a long day of trying to catch ’em all.
These future projections also build our anticipatory pleasure when we’re away from the game.
Anticipation of doing something is part of the experience.
It can be enjoyable in of itself.
In fact, you experience a surge of dopamine in the brain just by anticipating all the Pokèmon you’ll catch and manage to evolve!
The anticipation of the experience in itself is an experience (take that, Emmanuel Kant).
As behavioural economist Dan Ariely puts it:
“Holidays are not just about the two weeks you are away from work; they’re also about the time you spend anticipating and imagining your trip, as well as the time after the trip when you get to replay special moments from it in your mind.
Among these three ways of appreciating your holidays – anticipations, the trip itself, and enjoying the memories afterwards – the shortest amount of time is spent on the holiday itself.”
-Dan Ariely, Behavioural Economics Saved My Dog
Anticipatory pleasure comes from looking forward to that little hit.
The hit that will stimulate your brain to produce dopamine – a neurochemical that will make you feel good.
By playing Pokèmon Go, you’re getting a little hit here, a little hit there.
This is called intermittent schedules of reinforcement (a.k.a variable reward).
This concept takes root in the behavioural approach to psychology (i.e. behaviourism) and was coined by world-renowned American psychologist/behaviourist B. F. Skinner way back in the 1950’s.
In his research, Skinner would place rats in a box and reward them with a food pellet whenever they’d press the lever.
The rat would realise that every time it pressed the lever, it would be sweetly rewarded for its efforts. They’d get the same hit we’re getting whenever we capture a Pokèmon.
Whenever the rat was rewarded for its behaviour (i.e. pressing the lever) with tasty food, the rat would press the lever again and again. This is called positive reinforcement.
In contrast however, if the rat were to be shocked every time it pressed the lever – this would decrease the frequency of behaviour. This is called negative reinforcement.
But what Skinner found was that the rats would press the lever like crazy when they didn’t know when they were going to get their next reward. In fact, they’d press the lever compulsively when they were getting the food pellets at random.
They were endlessly chasing that hit, the high.
Robert Sapolsky, professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University, conducted similar experiments on monkeys.
When the monkeys saw a signal, they would work and shortly afterwards get a reward.
But Sapolsky says that dopamine levels would sore when the monkeys saw the signal rather than when they received the reward. Sapolsky explains:
“Dopamine is not about pleasure. It’s about the anticipation of pleasure. It’s about the pursuit of happiness rather than happiness itself.”
Sapolsky also found that by rewarding via intermittent schedules, dopamine levels would go through the roof.
For instance, if the monkeys were rewarded 50% of the time, their dopamine responses to the signal would be much greater than their dopamine responses to the signal if they knew they would be rewarded 100% of the time.
Sapolsky says that through intermittent reward:
“You’ve introduced the word maybe into the equation. And maybe is addictive like nothing else out there.”
It’s all about the uncertainty of the reward.
Sapolsky goes on to say that if you block the rise of dopamine in monkeys, they won’t do the behaviour. “It’s not just about the anticipation,” Sapolsky says, “it’s also about eliciting goal-directed behaviour.”
So the reward doesn’t only give you feelings of pleasure but it also makes you do the behaviour necessary to make sure you experience these feelings.
In Pokèmon Go, you and I also don’t know when we’re going to catch the next Pokèmon.
That’s why we keep looking. That’s why we keep pressing the lever.
In the beginning of Pokèmon Go, you are showered with various rewards (i.e. Pokèmon).
The rewards are frequent but intermittent, so you still don’t know what you’ll get, when you’ll get it.
But as you level up, have you noticed that these rewards are less and less frequent?
The reward has become sparsely distributed.
Here’s the deal.
To start the behaviour of playing in the first place, the game needs to reward us often and sweetly so that we want to keep playing it and keep enjoying the rewarding experiences it provides us with.
But once you’ve levelled up to, say, level 20, slightly different rules apply to you.
By now, playing Pokèmon Go has become somewhat of an automatic response, almost – if not already – a habit.
But also, you’ve invested so much time and effort into the game that you don’t need to be rewarded that often to keep you playing.
But remember the principle that scarcity enhances value.
Scarce rewards make them more valuable.
So even though they might be scarce, once players get the reward – it will be enough to keep them playing until the next reward appears.
Newbies play because they want the next reward.
Experienced players play because they need the reward.
Why they need the reward could be due to a combination of things.
Examples include playing out of habit, prior investment into the game (sunk cost fallacy), a sense of mastery from playing, and of course addiction to the quest for new and better Pokèmon.
Competence and Mastery
Being competent in the world around you is a core psychological need and satisfying it improves your overall well-being.
The unpredictability and variability of being rewarded for your efforts with new Pokèmon, potions, Pokè balls or other goodies directly translates into this feeling of competence.
That is, you realise that you have what it takes to do well in the game.
When you hit level 5 in the game, you can fight in gyms and you might even see that you can actually beat the powerful Pokèmon that tend to be there.
By beating them, you achieve a strong feeling of competence in the process.
Curiosity and sense-making
Humans are meaning-making creatures. According to many psychologists such as behavioural economist George Loewenstein, sense-making is a fundamental human drive.
“As noted by Gilovich (1991), “We are predisposed to see order, pattern, and meaning in the world, and we find randomness, chaos, and meaninglessness unsatisfying. Human nature abhors a lack of predictability and the absence of meaning.” (p.9)”
–Exotic Preferences: Behavioural Economics and Human Motivation by George Loewenstein
When looking to make sense of something, we look for simplicity.
This is what we find in predictability.
In variability on the other hand – we find curiosity.
In Pokèmon Go, variability ranges from the Pokèmon we encounter and the items we find at Pokèstops to the different gym battles we can have with other trainers and the various potions we need to use to revive our fallen Pokèmon.
Even the schedules of reinforcement are variable to sustain curiosity.
Curiosity, the need to see what happens next, is an important feature in a game.
It is predictability’s arch-rival.
Inherently, curiosity is a mixture of uncertainty and excitement which directly translates into pleasure.
And a key human motivation is to seek pleasure. That’s why our brains are wired to keep chasing the next reward, never completely satisfied.
Hunting and Gathering
There’s something primal about ‘hunting’ for Pokèmon and basking in the glory of what you’ve been able to bring back home.
Millenia ago, our predecessors would go hunting for food and after a long day of hunting they’d bring back whatever haul they had to enjoy at the dinner table.
Pokèmon Go is hunting and gathering of the 21st century.
The game really taps into our primitive parts of the brain and masterfully plays upon our natural instincts – ones our predecessors wouldn’t have been able to survive without.
Pokèmon Go definitely cures boredom.
But what is boredom?
According to behavioural economist George Loewenstein, it is the misutilisation of cognitive resources.
Boring things usually require a small amount of attention, but require it nonetheless (so you can’t use the remaining ‘attentional’ resources on other things).
In Pokèmon Go, you’re totally engaged and locked in the game.
Novel and salient stimuli are constantly capturing our attention, skilfully managing to hold our undivided attention for extended periods of time.
As a result, Pokèmon Go doesn’t get boring quickly.
The Need for Connection
According to the Self-Determination theory, interacting and being connected to other people is one of the three most basic human psychological needs.
One example of social connectedness is the purpose of so called “Lure Modules”:
“A module that attracts Pokèmon to a Pokèstop for 30 min. The effect benefits other people nearby.”
When I went out looking for Pokèmon, I saw people sitting at lures and waiting for Pokèmon to appear.
Because Pokèmon Go is designed in a way that you can’t do other things on your phone while waiting for new Pokèmon to approach you, just waiting around and sitting on a bench and doing nothing is annoying.
After all, humans have an aversion to idleness.
That is, we hate just sitting around and doing nothing.
It’s annoying, stressful, and can ruin your mood.
By sitting around, we open ourselves to mental frustration like “why aren’t there any Pokèmon here?!” or “It’s been a while since I got a Pokèmon, what’s going on?!”
A welcome byproduct of this natural aversion is that people sitting around the lure just start talking to each other.
This is a source of in-group social belonging where you talk about the game and maybe even get to know someone new. From the get go, you already have a lot in common.
The bar for starting a conversation is extremely low and it is simple to start one that is light-hearted and easy-going.
By playing Pokèmon Go, you are becoming part of a subculture with various social norms.
In a sense, people playing Pokèmon Go are a family.
If you’re looking for Pokèmon and see someone nearby characteristically walking around with their phone in their hand, you could argue that it is okay to have a small chat.
Especially when you see other Pokèmon trainers talking to trainers they’ve just met.
If walking up to trainers and talking to them and other norm-related behaviours are well-received, people like you and I will do them do, too – and they will become more automatic and habitual for us.
But let’s not forget that people go for a walk with a friend and look for Pokèmon together.
I’ve seen children on their skateboards or scooters with smartphones in hand, exchanging their personal little victories with one another, for example.
Or people strolling around in suits together on their lunch break.
This is how the game satisfies a basic human need – the need for connectedness.
People even start building social gatherings around Pokèmon Go.
They go for long walks to the park together or just turn on a Lure Module at a local pub or bar and wait for the Pokèmon to come to them while they enjoy a cocktail or two by the river.
People rationalise playing Pokèmon Go as an opportunity to meet up and spend time with friends.
Pokèmon Go is such a habit forming product that it can easily weave itself into the fabric of our everyday lives (if we let it).
Another example of this is playing the game but rationalising it as exercise.
You bump into moms with their children who rationalise “as long as it gets them out of the house to get a bit of exercise it’s fine.”
Even I caught myself thinking “I’ll just go for a walk, because I like walking to x, and plus I like walking and it’s good for me, and its exercise and it’s…”
I’d rationalise going to the park for a peaceful stroll to enjoy nature and the fresh air. It just so happens that in parks there are usually more Pokèmon frolicking around.
I’d rationalise breaking into a job to obviously get somewhere quicker and definitely not to pile on the kilometres to hatch a Pokèmon egg and add a new Pokèmon to list…
Make no mistake, walking is an integral feature of the game but – at least in the eyes of the game’s developers – the exercise is a mere byproduct of what you are really doing and that’s giving away a lot of your data (which can be sold to third parties).
There’s definitely something special and unique about being able to play a game in which you can find and recognise familiar locations from your life.
Pubs, bars, statues, monuments, signs, bell towers, historic points of interest, old playgrounds, parks, riverside walkways.
You can go to one of these familiar places and collect a lucky egg, a revive potion, or a bunch of pokèballs.
All of a sudden, there is another layer of exploration to something that is so familiar to you. The game shows you a different world, with different laws in your real world; the world you thought couldn’t get any different.
Anchoring of emotional and mood states
Due to simple old familiarity and habit, nearby places from your home are already imbued with some sort of emotional charge stemming from the sum of all the experiences you’ve had in that particular area.
The emotions associated with the familiar places are juxtaposed with the thrill of the chase and catch of old, old friends – the Pokèmon.
“I caught a Ghastly near the Shaftesbury Memorial Fountain, lol.”
You can relive a time that you thought was long gone as well as relive all the emotions associated with that time.
In a sense, Pokèmon Go fuses both old and new versions of your identity as well as combines a melange of different emotional associations.
Whenever and wherever you gather Pokèmon, you anchor these places to certain emotional and mood states.
The lines of reality are blurred and it’s no longer a game where you sit at home and play in front of your television or computer screen but where you go outside and actively engage in your own reality and in the shared reality with other people.
It’s intricately linked with a piece of your identity.
The Paradox of Choice
In his book “The Paradox of Choice“, Barry Schwartz distinguishes between two types of people: maximizers and satisficers.
Maximizers will search for only the best things in life whereas satisficers will settle for ‘good enough’ even though they might have also have high standards.
Satisficers will play the game until they’ve done a “good enough” job.
Maximizers will play until they’ve totally maxed out the area they were looking for Pokèmon in. That is, they will leave no stone unturned to make sure they’ve done their very best to capture every last Pokèmon.
And they will be very reluctant to leave that particular area before they do.
Consequently, if you enter a park in Pokèmon Go, the effect is that much greater.
In parks, you are met with so much choice when it comes to the Pokèmon you might encounter.
You get to choose which Pokèmon you want to catch and which you might want to avoid. I remember a fellow gamer tell me that Magikarp is s**t and that he “won’t be risking a crash by trying to catch it.”
But the point I’m trying to make is that there is an abundance and a huge variety of Pokèmon to be found in parks.
In his book, Barry talks about what a wide array of options can do to people:
“It is possible that a wide array of options can turn people into maximisers. If this is true, then the proliferation of options not only makes people who are maximisers miserable, but it may also make people who are satisficers into maximisers.”
So even the casual-satisficer gamer can easily get hooked on the game just because of the abundance and wide variety of Pokèmon to catch.
I remember my thought process when I went to a park – “wow there are so many Pokèmon here! There’s so much choice and variety – I’ve just got to come back!”
After all – gotta catch ’em all.
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