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Pokémon Go

July 29, 2016

Late to the party, I have some thoughts about Pokémon Go:

  1. The statement I’ve heard the most about Pokémon Go is that it just showed the world what augmented reality is. For those who already knew what AR is, Pokémon Go shows us what it actually looks like when it becomes relevant—not a sci-fi transformation to a world where we all stagger around with headsets (although we might still get that) but a world in which we all stare at our phones a little bit more than we did before. Too many of our predictions about the technological future assume visually stunning outcomes driven by advanced hardware (an industrial age bias), but those changes are almost always outpaced by the faster progress of software, running on devices we already have. The near future rarely looks different than the present.

Acknowledging that smartphones are how AR first goes mainstream—now a fact not a prediction—it isn’t a stretch to also acknowledge that reality has already been augmented for a long time via smartphones, just spatially rather than visually. Pokémon Go, because it’s a game, offers a more immersive and totalizing example, a more literal example of AR. Every smartphone app that already takes your location as input or interacts with your environment —Instagram, Yelp, Google Maps, Shazam, to name a few on my home screen—already read the physical world we inhabit and write to their digital representation of that world (not to mention Snapchat, whose filters are AR by any definition). Looking at your phone, gathering metadata about your surroundings from Instagram or Yelp, and then looking back up with a new perspective: That sequence is only one level of abstraction away from what Pokémon Go does.

I always imagined AR as the technology that would finally get us past the iPhone, enabling us to look straight ahead instead of staring at screens constantly. Eventually we might get the killer app for some Google Glass successor that gets us all wearing headsets, but until then we have to spend more time staring down at our phones in even more awkward ways. That bent posture—not shiny new hardware—is the visual manifestation of AR today. At least Pokémon Go is getting people out of their houses.


  1. There’s another sense in which Pokémon Go is only a change in degree from the recent past, not a change in kind. As pointed out on a recent a16z podcast, Pokémon Go is an “appified game” instead of the more familiar “gamified app.” Everything from Foursquare to Snapchat to any social media platform that scores a user’s content by number of likes operates according to game logic and reinscribes that game on real life. Pokemon Go inverts this dynamic by making the fantasy the end instead of the means, and the reality the means instead of the end: Rather than looking for a bar to hang out at and incidentally becoming the mayor, we’re hunting for Vaporeon and incidentally hanging out in a park. Amazingly, the latter seems to motivate people more than the former.

Gamification has demonstrated its ability to simplify reality and compel behavior that would otherwise lack sufficient motivation. Pokémon Go suggests that games themselves might compel us even more than merely gamified things. Long before apps or gamification existed as ideas, society was full of more concrete but similarly playful (and powerful) game-like dynamics. Following this thread backward from the present, we can only conclude that it’s games all the way down.