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What the Public Humanities Might Learn from Pokémon Go


Pokémon Go has taken the world by storm, getting people off their sofas and into the streets of their neighborhoods in order to catch the ever illusive pocket monsters that everyone wants to have in their personal collection. Amongst the various articles exploring the economic and safety impacts of the game, another surprising trend has arisen from Pokémon Go’s titanic popularity. The AP recently reported that players are beginning to discover the history of their own communities through the various Pokéstops incorporated into the game. The genius way by which Niantic, the game’s creator, included various historical markers and buildings into Pokémon Go’s gameplay raises an interesting question about how mobile gaming and technology can help increase public interest in and support for the humanities.

Although not every Pokémon Go aficionado pays any attention to the historical significance of the Pokéstops where they resupply important items along their journey to ‘catch them all,’ a significant number of players do. In an article published in the Portland Press Herald, the AP reported that those playing in Chancellorsville, Virginia have the opportunity to learn about their community’s involvement in the Civil War. Players in Providence, Rhode Island stumble across the seminal Baptist church founded by Roger Williams after he was exiled from Massachusetts as a Protestant dissenter in the seventeenth century. Others discover the storefront where Elvis Presley bought his first guitar. For many players, two things as disparate as digital pocket monsters and early American history come together in a surprising and exciting partnership between play and education.

Although the use of historical landmarks is not integral to Pokémon Go, the success and interest Niantic received by incorporating them into their game provides an exciting model for future mobile game design. The fact that people who walk four miles out of their way in order to catch a digital bat in a free video game on their iPhones may actually stop to learn about their shared history shows that, despite the difficulties the humanities face today, the public are inherently interested in engaging with the past. The partnership between games like Pokémon Go and history could provide opportunities for the public humanities and popular culture to team-up in the future. An increased partnership between educators and game designers in the private sector could breathe a new, relevant life into the humanities that might renew a long-term interest in the humanities amongst the broader public. That partnership could, in turn, help improve public and financial support for the humanities, both inside and outside of academia.

Pokémon Go and Education: A New Thing Altogether?

Pokémon Go is not the first mobile game or platform to incorporate shared history into its gameplay. Play the Past is a mobile game platform that educators can build around museum exhibits in order to make student experiences at museums richer and more engaging. Students use the platform on iPhones or iPod Touches while at the museum. According to Education Week, the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium adopted TaleBlazer in order to help young visitors learn about poaching and the illegal wildlife trade, and The University of Wisconsin-Madison developed a project called Mentira in order to create an immersive history and murder-mystery field trip for college students.

See an explanation of Play the Past in the video below.

Although apps and technology like Play the Past, TaleBlazer, and Mentira are excellent tools for educators seeking to bring education alive for young, twenty-first-century students, the brilliance in the case of Pokémon Go is how organically integrated the idea and marketability of shared history is with a product that exists entirely outside of education altogether. As the apps and platforms mentioned above showcase, developers have built an entire movement around the use of technology in schools. Few, however, have been able to build a movement around the inverse. The way by which education has informed the efforts of a private development firm like Niantic to make a truly marketable game totally independent of educational interests represents something far more organic and transformative than the introduction of video games, mobile platforms, and iPhones into the classroom. Pokémon Go has tapped into something much deeper: an inherent marketable interest that the public has in engaging with its past that exits entirely independent of secondary or higher education.

Leaders in the public humanities should explore what Pokémon Go can tell us about the interest individuals outside of academia have for their shared history, and they should look for opportunities to recapture the type of relationship between education and the private sector that Pokémon Go has stumbled upon. How that might be possible is yet to be determined. The first step in the process, however, is for educators to look carefully at the organic nature of the relationship between history and mobile gaming that Niantic has integrated so seamlessly into its game development as well as to determine why such an organic relationship has been so popular amongst Pokémon gamers. After determining those two things, the next challenge will be to replicate the experience in a similarly organic fashion across different media and platforms. By doing so, leaders in the public humanities may be able to partner with the private sector in a way not truly done prior to Pokémon Go.

For those educators who would like to incorporate Pokémon Go into the classroom, see the International Society for Technology in Education‘s tips on how to do so.

What other examples of shared history and mobile gaming do you know of? What do you think leaders in the public humanities can learn from Pokémon Go? Share your thoughts online and in the comments section below.

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Personal well-being cannot be understood abstractly, without reference to the tradition, culture, and history of the collectivity in which persons live and function.

J. P. Daughton, An Empire Divided

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