Thursday, July 21, 2016

On the Recent Phenomenon of Pokémon Go

Pokémon has demonstrated unambiguous and lasting appeal across cultures and generations. Since it took the world by storm in the mid-1990s, the franchise has dominated multiple forms of media - television cartoons, film, card games, video games, and a great number of others. The premise is simple: there are several hundred monsters, each with unique characteristics and powers, that can be captured, trained, and battled. To attain supremacy in the eyes of your peers, you must capture all of the monsters and train them to be the strongest.

Pokémon Go! is the latest iteration of this phenomenon. It is a video game that employs a relatively new and unusual technique: augmented reality. Using the mobile device’s GPS and camera, the game allows the player to locate and capture Pokémon in “real life.” That is, you can detect Pokémon in your vicinity and, by physically walking to the area in which the Pokémon reside, “see” them (on the mobile device’s screen) and capture them. Players can form virtual communities and interact similarly. If there are a great number of people flocking to a park or other public area only to stand and stare at their phones, then there probably is a “gym” or similar draw of significance at that location.

The success of a video game depends largely on how “immersible” it is – that is, the degree to which it can draw in a player and make him or her feel like they are actually there. The experience is identical to that which defines good film: the viewer is able to “suspend his/her disbelief” and feel like they are actually there.

Augmented reality is the latest tool, and possibly the next step, in enhancing the “immersibility” of media. But it may be instructive to consider how older media was able to achieve the same effect.
The oldest games may no longer be interesting to young gamers today, but at the time, they were no less immersive – despite the absence of any “reality” or “realism.” Nevertheless, players were able to suspend their disbelief because the games could still appeal to key senses – namely, sight, touch, and hearing. The content of the screen captures the rapt attention of the player, who must focus in order to avoid missing important visual cues. The controller becomes an extension of the player – the player’s movements become those of the character they control. No less important are audio cues that alert the player when danger is nearby.

Most gamers would not hesitate to add: music is also critical. Good music sets the tone, defines the atmosphere, and provides additional audio cues in many cases. Inappropriate or poor music detracts considerably from what may otherwise be a great game. Good music is key to immersibility. And, in fact, music can be so strong a factor that even years later, merely listening to music from a video game can instantly draw a player back into that experience. It may very well be the ultimate component of immersibility.

What do you think? Share with us your experience!

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