I ran into an old friend last week. Actually, he ran in to me. We were both walking around an upscale strip mall near my house. I was watching where I was going. Unfortunately, he was not.
His attention was focused with laser-like intensity on the screen of his smartphone. While I was focused on walking in a straight line, he was busy hunting a rare Poke'mon. Maybe it was a Scyther. Or a Pinsir. Or perhaps an AlGore (I made that one up). All I know is that while I’m sure I was on his screen somewhere, he didn’t seem to notice. There was a digital creature he had to “capture.”
Poke'mon Go is Everywhere.
While I don’t fully understand it, Poke'mon Go is a downright phenomenon. In just a week it became the most popular app on every platform. Nintendo’s stock has skyrocketed. Businesses, public spaces, and even churches are getting in on the action, luring people through their doors with Pokemon-based incentives. Children, teenagers, and adults alike are all playing.
A Step in the Wrong Direction?
We should all stand in awe of the power of Poke'mon Go. I have heard plenty of stories of it bringing families together and getting kids moving in the real world. I hesitate to say anything critical about it as I don’t want the millions of people who are playing it (including one of my kids) to hate me. But I’m still not sure if it’s a good thing.
What troubles me most is that smartphones and tablets (and screens in general) have been the go-to vice for stagnant people indoors. The average adolescent sitting on the couch or in their bed probably has a device in his or her hands. But outside was outside. Not any more. Poke'mon Go’s “augmented reality” (that has digital characters showing up in the real world via a smartphone screen) has changed everything.
It used to be that a kid could go outside and have the chance to appreciate outside: the trees, the sky, the air, and all the beautiful intricacies of God’s creation. No more. That kid can now take a walk through the woods and look for a “Squirtle” (a water Pokemon) in a babbling brook. He no longer appreciates the simple beauty of the babbling brook.
It used to be that you could walk the streets of a city and take in the beautiful diversity of humanity. You could talk to people and interact with friends and strangers. Even if you were just people-watching for entertainment, at least you were looking at real people. Now, you’re looking past the people to a potential Poke'mon to catch. (A stranger caught one on my nose the other day. Awkward.)
The overwhelming success of Poke'mon Go means that we will certainly be seeing more “augmented reality” games in the near future. That means our kids will grow up in a world where technology allows more of the real world to be hijacked by fantasy. While that might sound cool to our kids, I don’t think it’s a good thing.
Can We Get a Version of Poke'mon Go That Really Helps Families?
One key component of Pokemon Go is the way rewards are used. Players can hatch their eggs and improve the strength of their Poke'mon by walking, visiting a "Poke'stop," collecting incentives, and competing with others. These rewards are big-time motivators for players' behaviors. As a parent, this got me thinking.
As more versions of Poke'mon Go are developed, I would love for someone to roll out a version that gives rewards to kids for behaviors that parents want to see in their kids. For all the Nintento programmers who are reading this, here are a few suggestions of how you might change things up a bit in the 2.0 version:
1. Better Poke'stop Locations
Poke'stops are a critical part of the game, where players stock up on Poke'balls and other elements they need to play the game. I think we have enough of these at churches and parks. How about they put a Poke'stop in my kids' bathroom. And make it so that the only way that he can collect Poke'balls is if he takes a shower. That would be nice.
2. More Effective Lures
Lures can be purchased by players to attract hard-to-find Poke'mon characters. This is one way Nintendo makes money off the game. I'm pretty certain they could make a fortune if moms could tap into the game and purchase lures to attract their kids to the dinner table. "Hey kids, there's a hard-to-find "Snorlax" in the dining room...why don't you have some of your mom's delicious pot roast while you're here!?"
3. Real-World Capturing Activities
Currently, players catch Poke'mon characters by tossing a little beach ball at them. Not too complicated. Wouldn't it be awesome if the most valuable characters were only found under my kids' beds or in their closets? And before they could toss a "Poke'ball" at them, they were required to "de-clutter" so that they could have a good shot at it? Or at least clean their room? Get to work on that, Nintendo!
4. An Improved Egg-Hatching Process
My son has walked several miles in our neighborhood over the past few weeks trying to "incubate" his eggs and grow them into fully-grown Poke'mon. While I appreciate the cardio he's getting, wouldn't it be awesome if the only means for a teenager to hatch his eggs was to have a meaningful conversation with his parents? The more he shares with us, the faster his eggs mature. Bring it on.
5. Poke'mon Character Development that Actually Develops Character
As players walk, compete, collect stuff and visit key locations, their Poke'mon characters develop. But wouldn't it be incredible if our kids had to do actual character-building activities in order to develop their Poke'mon characters? Stick with me on this.
If you do something selfless for someone else, your Poke'dude gets an upgrade. If you happily play with your younger sibling, you get another upgrade. If you do your chores without being reminded, an upgrade. There is an endless list of possibilities here. Our Poke'mon playing kids want everything in the game from coins to incense to valuable lures. Let's build them into the game as rewards for growing into the right kind of people, not just for walking around the neighborhood and throwing a digital beach ball at cartoons.
Before you start sending me hate mail, know that I recognize the value of the exercise that many people are getting through Poke'mon Go. Getting our kids off the couch is a good thing. But I can't help thinking of the words of the Apostle Paul when he said that "physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come." (I Timothy 4:8) I'll take what I can get, but I wish there was something better.
For now, we'll have to creatively use Poke'mon Go as an incentive to encourage the right behaviors in our kids. We can use the "you can't play until you do your homework" approach. But my dream is that version 2.0 will build in some new features that actually require my kids to do the right things in life and relationships in order for them to be successful in the game.
I'm not holding my breath.