3Qs: How Pokémon Go is ‘evolving the game genre’

July 11, 2016 – BOSTON, MA. – A students plays PokŽmon GO at Northeastern University on July 11, 2016. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Susan Gold says playing Pokémon Go has “expanded her world” and triggered her journey to discover much more about her neighborhood and the city of Boston as she walks around capturing Pokémon. The mobile game has become a global phenomenon, amassing 30 million users—among them Gold (who is level 7 and team Mystic, in case you’re wondering). Gold, professor of the practice in the College of Arts, Media and Design’s game design program, is also fascinated with the game on a professional level. She is the founder of Global Game Jam, a worldwide hackathon focused on game development that takes place in locations across the globe—including at Northeastern.

“I have been one of the biggest cheerleaders of mixed reality,” she says. “The idea of a mixed reality game seems so much more fun and realistic for wider adoption than virtual reality. It’s something I’ve been excited about for the past couple of years, and it’s where I see the future of games. The first one has to be a breakout success, otherwise others are doomed to failure. But people are adopting and adapting to Pokémon so quickly. It’s really exciting.”

We asked Gold to discuss the Pokémon Go phenomenon and predict where the technology is headed.

Pokémon Go is being called an augmented reality game, while others argue that it’s a location-based game. What do you call it—and what’s the difference between augmented, virtual, and mixed reality?

It’s a combination of both mixed reality and location-based gaming. You have to go to specific places, though you don’t have to have your camera open to capture the Pokémon. It’s actually easier to capture with the camera closed, and that helps preserve your phone’s battery life. But with the camera open, it’s what I would call a mixed reality game. This is a first attempt at one, and there will be bigger things to come. I think we’ll even move away from using our phones to using a visor or glasses, like Magic Leap or Microsoft HoloLens.

In terms of the differences, an example of augmented reality is being at the beach and wearing glasses and seeing a huge whale emerge from the ocean. The whale isn’t really there—it is being projected there by the glasses. Virtual reality is an all-immersive experience. The sights and sounds of the real world are cut off. Mixed reality is very much an interactive feeling, and people interchange mixed and augmented reality. Currently, they aren’t much different.

Pokémon Go has quickly become a global phenomenon. Do you think this game will have a major influence on the gaming industry, or is it more of a flash-in-the-pan?

Oh, no, I think Pokémon Go is really evolving the game genre and the entertainment market as a whole. There are so many places we can go with the technology and so many hypotheticals of what we can do. It will open the door to opportunities. Imagine role-playing. Imagine games in which people interact with others and play games outside, where it’s something like playing tag. The game has led users to create social meet-ups. And beyond the opportunities to entertain us, this technology can also be used to educate us and augment the learning process in areas such as science and health interventions. In virtual reality, these things are possible but you’re not interacting with anyone else. With augmented and mixed reality, you have that opportunity to interact with the world.

Speaking of interacting with the world, the game has been heralded for getting people outside and keeping them active while gaming. Will Pokémon Go usher in a new wave of such games?

Two years ago, people were asking about eSports—where you’re sitting and watching people playing a game in front of a computer. Now it’s an enormous business, it would have been a hard sell in 2006. So where things are going with games, it’s hard to guess. In 2006, I gave a talk on games as theater. People thought I was crazy to want to sit and watch people play a game. Now it’s huge. You can fill up the Staples Center in Los Angeles with people watching others play League of Legends. There’s an entire television channel, Twitch, that is devoted to people playing games while others watch. So now that we have a phenomenon in which people are getting up and being interactive, it’s great. There should be more of them.

In 2009, I worked on a project with Michelle Obama called Apps for Healthy Kids. The goal was to create games that got kids moving. The challenge is finding something that will grab their attention. Pokémon has the branding, the lore, the nostalgia, and the appeal. People are having fun, but who knows how long it will last. Right now it’s summer and it’s great weather. How many people will be playing when it’s December and it’s cold outside? But the game has broken the mold, and people are always looking for something that disrupts.