Pokémon Go more than just looking at your phone, UW researcher says

Betsy Brey of the Games Institute at the University of Waterloo says Pokémon Go may have people looking down at their phones, but it is taking gaming out of a person's home and onto the streets where they're interacting with people and their community.

'There’s been a lot of high fives on the bus,' gaming researcher Betsy Brey says

Betsy Brey is a researcher at the Games Institute at the University of Waterloo. She said the game Pokémon Go has become wildly popular in less than a week because it's a new and different way to play a fan favourite. (Kate Bueckert/CBC News)

It may be a game that has you looking down at your phone and not watching where you're going, but Pokémon Go is also bringing people together.

"It's really fun to be walking down the street and see five, six other people doing the exact same thing as you and I've had so many casual conversations with people about the game and about what we're doing and there's been a lot of high fives on the bus and things like that. So it's very, very communal," said Betsy Brey, a researcher at the Games Institute at the University of Waterloo.

Brey is already playing the game, which she downloaded legally using a U.S. Google Play account. She was walking around the area of King Street and University Avenue in Waterloo on the weekend and "everybody I saw was playing."

'Cool and different'

Pokémon Go was released in the United States on July 6 and the game quickly spread. It's not legally available in Canada yet, but many people downloaded it off websites offering an alternative way to get it.

People are eager to get the game because it is so new and unlike any other game, Brey said.

"I like that it's kind of bringing this thing from my childhood back into my life in a way that's cool and different. It's fun to walk around and see these sort of childhood familiar faces all over. And the way that I can interact with them is different than it was before," she said.

It also helps that since it's a smartphone-based game, people already have the hardware to play the game – all it takes is a download. There's no waiting outside of a store waiting for the release or concerns about it selling out.

Gets gaming off the couch

But while some praise the game's ability to get gamers off and onto the streets, exercise, see other people and interact with the community at large; others are less impressed. 

Mother Amy Biebrich of Winnipeg and her family were touring the sites in Ottawa earlier this week.

"Instead of actually seeing what we're supposed to see, we're now looking for little creatures and hatching eggs," she told CBC News. "I wish that they'd be more focused on seeing the history that's sitting here in front of us."

But Brey said this new approach doesn't mean people aren't taking in their surroundings.

"It is looking at your phone but it's looking at your phone and seeing that there's more to it than just your phone," she said.

"You're using the phone as kind of a lens to look at the rest of the world in this augmented reality way and it gives you some very common ground to talk about with complete strangers, which, that can be dangerous, but for the most part, it's been so incredibly friendly."

As well, some tourist destinations are quickly capitalizing on the popularity of the game. The Palm Beach Zoo in Flordia, tweeted to followers that it was a "huge hotspot" for the Pokémon creatures players need to catch.

Brey said right now, Nintendo, which owns the Pokémon company, makes money off the game by selling in-app purchases and a device that alerts people to nearby creatures without them having to keep the app running on their phones. But she wouldn't be surprised if in the near future, businesses and destinations could pay to make them a Pokémon hotspot.

Pokémon Go more personal

In her research, Brey focuses on social media. She said since Pokémon Go is an augmented reality game and a form of social media, she plans to assign the game to her students in a course she's teaching in the fall – if the game becomes legally available in Canada. 

I've had so many casual conversations with people about the game and about what we're doing and there's been a lot of high fives on the bus and things like that.- Betsy Brey, researcher at the Games Institute at University of Waterloo 

"It's adding a new level of personal narrative to Pokémon that we haven't really seen before. It's a little bit easier to identify with stuff that you're seeing through your phone than it is to look at the little Gameboy and see the little guy and the little gal on the screen," said Brey, who caught a Drowzee as she sat down for an interview with The Morning Edition host Craig Norris.

She said it's also easy to see how popular the game is, compared to other smartphone gaming favourites like Candy Crush and Angry Birds, because it's easy to spot Pokémon Go players on the street.

"This is much more visible in how popular it is because we have people walking down the street running into things," she said. "It's not somebody standing in line at the bank playing Angry Birds, it's somebody running down the street to the local 'gym' which is actually the 7-11."

with files from the CBC's Ashley Burke


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