Pokemon Go: a New Tool for Gaining Power in Society?

A few months ago I wrote in this blog about the way augmented reality games will transform the face of the gaming industry: they’ll turn the entire physical world into a gaming arena, so that players would have to actually walk around streets and cities to take part in games. I also made a forecast that players in such games will be divided into factions in order to create and legitimize rivalries and interesting conflicts. Now Pokemon Go has been released, and both forecasts have been proven true immediately.

By combining the elements of augmented reality and creating factions, Pokemon Go has become an incredibly successful phenomenon. It is now the biggest mobile game in U.S. history, with more users than Twitter, and more daily usage time than social media apps like WhatsApp, Instagram or Snapchat. One picture is worth a thousand words, and I especially like this one of a man capturing a wild Pidgey pokemon while his wife is busy giving birth.

But is the game here to stay? And what will its impact be on society?

 

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Pokemon birth. Source: imgur

 

Pokemon Go in the Long Haul

It’s no wonder Pokemon Go has reached such heights of virality. Because of the game’s interactions with the physical world, people are being seen playing it everywhere, and in effect become walking commercials for the game. Pokemon Go also builds on the long history – almost twenty years – of pokemon hunting which ensures that anyone who’s ever hunted pokemon just had to download the app.

Will the game maintain its hype for long? That’s difficult to answer. Dan Porter, one of the creators of Draw Something – a game that garnered 50 million downloads in just 50 days – wrote a great piece on the subject. He believes, in short, that the game is a temporary fad. It may take a year for most people to fall off the bandwagon, so that only a few millions of the hardcore gamers will remain. That’s still an impressive number, but it’s far from the current hype. As he says –

“For the casual Pokemon Go player, the joy of early play I believe will eventually be replaced by gyms that are too competitive and Pokemon that are too hard to find.”

I agree with his analysis, but it does depend on one important parameter: that the game does not undergo evolution itself, and continually readapt itself to different groups of users. Other social games, like World of Warcraft, have successfully undergone this transition to maintain a large user base for more than a decade. Niantic may be able to do that, or it may not. In the long haul it doesn’t matter: other, more successful, AR games will take over.

Pokemon Go is bringing in a lot of revenues right now, with the estimates ranging from $1 to $2.3 million a day. Some analysts believe that the game could pull in a billion dollars a year once it is launched worldwide. That’s a lot of money, and every half-decent gaming company is going to join the race for AR very soon. It could be Blizzard that will recreate Starcraft’s fame in an AR fashion, with teams running around buildings, collecting virtual resources and ambushing each other. Or maybe Magic the Gathering or Hearthstone, with players who can collect thousands of different cards in Hearthstops around the world much like Pokemon Go, and use them to build decks and fight each other. Heck, I’d play those, and I bet so would the tens of millions of gamers whose childhood was shaped by these games. The dam gates, in short, have been broken open. AR games are here to stay.

And so we must understand the consequences of such games on society.

 

A Whole New World

Pokemon Go is already starting to change the way people interact with each other. I took the following picture from my house’s window a few days ago, depicting several people walking together, eyes on their phones, without talking with each other – and yet all collaborating and being coordinated with each other. They were connected via the layer of augmented reality. In effect, they were in a world of their own, which is only tenuously connected to the physical world.

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People coordinate via Pokemon Go.

In Australia, a hastily advertised Pokemon Go meeting has brought together 2,000 players to a single park, where they all hunted pokemon together. And coffee shops-turned-gyms around the world have suddenly found themselves buzzing with customers who came for the win – and stayed for the latte. And of course, the White House has been turned into a gym, with all three Pokemon Go teams competing over it.

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The game has made people to go to places they would not ordinarily go to, in their search for pokemon. As a result, at least two dead bodies have been discovered so far by players. If you watch players walking on the streets, you’ll also notice their peculiar pattern of movement: instead of following the road, they’ll periodically stop, check their smartphones and change course – sometimes making a U-turn. They’re not following the infrastructure in the physical world, but rather obeying a virtual infrastructure and entities: pokestops and pokemon.

And that’s just a sign of what’s coming, and of how power – the power to influence people and their choices – is starting to shift from governments to private hands.

The Power Shift

What is power? While many philosophers believed that governments had power over their citizens because of their ability to mobilize policemen, the French philosophers Louis Althusser and Michel Foucault realized that the power control mechanisms are inherent in society itself. Whenever two people in a society exchange words with each other, they also implicitly make clear how each should behave.

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Infrastructure has the same effect over people. And has been used since time immemorial as a mechanism for directing the populace. For a very long time now, governments used to control the infrastructure in urban places. Governments paved roads, installed traffic lights and added signs with streets names. This control over infrastructure arose partly because some projects, like road paving, are so expensive but also because things like traffic lights and signs have an immense influence over people’s behavior. They tell us where we’re allowed to go and when, and essentially make the government’s decisions manifest and understandable for everyone. There’s a very good reason that I couldn’t erect a new traffic sign even if I wanted to.

But now, with Pokemon Go, the gaming industry is doing just that: it’s creating an alternative virtual reality that has new rules and different kinds of infrastructures, and merges that virtual reality with our physical one so that people can choose which to obey.

Is it any wonder that authorities everywhere are less than happy with the game? It has fatwas being issued against it, religious leaders wanting to ban it, Russian politicians speaking against it, and police and fire explaining to citizens that they can’t just walk into jails and fire stations in their search for pokemon.

In the long run, Pokemon Go and AR in general symbolizes a new kind of freedom: a freedom from the physical infrastructure that could only be created and controlled by centralized governments. And at the very same time, the power to create virtual infrastructure and direct people’s movement is shifting to the industry.

What does that mean?

In the short term, we’re bound to see this power being put to good use. In the coming decade we’ll see Pokemon Go and other AR games being used to direct people where they could bring the most good. When a kid will get lost in the wilderness, Niantic will populate the area with rare pokemon so that hundreds and thousands of people will come search for them – and for the child too. Certain dangerous areas will bear virtual signs, or even deduct points from players who enter them. Special ‘diet’ pokemon will be found at the healthy food sections in stores.

In the long run, the real risk is that the power will shift over to the industry, which unlike the elected government does not have any built-in mechanisms for mitigating that power. That power could be used to send people to junk food stores like McDonald’s, which as it turns out is already in partnership with Pokemon Go. But more than that, AR games could be used to encourage people to take part in rallies, in political demonstrations, or even simply to control their movement in the streets.

This power shift does not necessarily have to be a bad thing, but we need to be aware of it and constantly ask what kind of hidden agendas do these AR games hold, so that the public can exercise some measure of control over the industry as well. Does Pokemon Go encourage us to visit McDonald’s, even though it ultimately damages our health? Well, a public outcry may put a stop to that kind of collaboration.

We’ve already realized that firms that control the virtual medium, like Facebook, gain power to influence people’s thinking and knowledge. We’ve also learned that Facebook has been using that power to influence politics – although in a bumbling, good-natured way, and seemingly without really meaning to. Now that the physical world and the virtual world become adjoined, we need to understand that the companies who control the virtual layer gain power that needs to be scrutinized and monitored carefully.

 

Conclusions

Pokemon Go is not going to change the world on its own, but it’s one of the first indicators that can tell us how things are about to change when physical reality is augmented by virtual ones. The critical question we must ask is who controls those added layers of reality, and how can we put constraints on the power they gain over us. Because we may end up controlling all the pokemon, but who will gain control over us?

 

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Do You Want to Understand the future? World of Warcraft Holds the Answers

Players of World of Warcraft love to complain. There’s nothing new to that. Blizzard largely seems to ignore the players’ pleas, yells and moans, and yet recently one of the executives has decided to answer the community. In a response to a forum thread, assistant game director Ion Hazzikostas explained how World of Warcraft is actually working right now. His response tells us a lot about the inner works of a world of abundance – where everyone have their basic needs fulfilled.

 

Catering to Minorities

The first thing we need to understand, according to Hazzikostas, is that World of Warcraft is composed of many minority groups. As he says –

“A minority of players raid. A minority of players participate in PvP. A tiny minority touch Mythic raiding. A tiny minority of players do rated PvP. A minority of players have several max-level alts. A minority of players do pet battles, roleplay, list things for sale on the auction house, do Challenge Mode dungeons, and the list goes on.”

The result is that Blizzard – the omnipotent lord and god of World of Warcraft – is catering to minorities. In fact –

“…almost every facet of WoW is an activity that caters to a minority of the playerbase.”

This is what happens when you have a world of abundance. When people know that all of their basic needs will be taken care of, they feel free to do whatever they like. A minority will create art. A minority will sail boats. A minority will focus on re-engineering their bodies, roleplay or do robot battles.

And the government will need to cater to all of these minorities.

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World of Warcraft: a future of minorities. Credit: Polygon

The Self-Focused Minorities

Another point made by Hazzikostas is that the minorities are extremely self-focused. As he puts it –

“…due to the cooperative nature of the game, players tend to make connections with others who favor a similar playstyle. I’m generalizing a bit here, and there are certainly exceptions, but I’d guess that a typical Gladiator-level player probably doesn’t have a WoW social group that consists of people who mostly solo-level alts and explore the world. And most small friends-and-family guilds don’t spend a lot of time talking to competitive Mythic raiders. So when there’s a change, or a feature, that is aimed at a portion of the game that isn’t your personal playstyle, it’s easy and in fact natural to have the sense that “everyone” dislikes it.”

Hazzikostas is essentially talking about group polarization – a phenomenon that occurs in groups in which people agree with each other. Their views resonate between each other, and the group member become more polarized in their opinions. In a way, they become detached from the complex reality of each situation, and become unable to consider things from other points of view.

Group polarization is happening in the real world too, and it’s gaining speed. Ezra Klein recently wrote about political polarization and how it’s becoming an issue in the United States. People are becoming more polarized in their political views, and part of it has to do with the virtual world. In the past, you would’ve needed to interact with people from other factions everywhere you went. Today, Facebook automatically makes sure via its algorithms that most of your interactions are with the people who think the same as you do. As a result, people are essentially segregating themselves willingly into self-selecting groups, and their views become more polarized, so that each group finds it more difficult to agree with the other groups than ever before.

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World of Warcraft: a future of group and minority polarization

A Mirror for the Future

In those two aspects at least, World of Warcraft is a mirror of our future. As we reach a state of abundance in food and shelter, we will start identifying ourselves according to our hobbies and our interests. A world of abundance would therefore also be a world of minorities. And due to the virtual nature of much of that world, those minorities would find it more difficult to agree with each other than ever before.

It just might be the in the long-term, the only viable solution would be to essentially create a different world for every kind of minority. This proposition is, of course, impossible in the physical world where resources are limited by their nature. It can be achieved, though, in the interaction between the physical and the virtual worlds.

In the case of World of Warcraft, the virtual environment ensures that funds are essentially unlimited. Blizzard sets the challenges and the rewards, which are virtual in nature. Luckily for us, many aspects of our lives in the future are going to be virtual as well. As virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) become part of our lives, we will receive highly personalized and individualized information from physical reality. In many cases, the virtual layer of reality will allow us to transcend the physical bottom layer.

To understand that, consider that in twenty years at most, many of us are likely to walk around with augmented reality goggles over our eyes. These will provide an additional virtual layer over everything that we see. In that way, a signpost on the street can consist of just a white background and a QR code in the physical world. The AR goggles, however, will translate the QR code into a personal ad that will fit specifically for the individual using the goggles. Similarly, every house can be virtually transformed into a palace, by wearing an AR device. A palace, or a cave, or a torture dungeon, or a boat. To each minority – their own.

 

Conclusions

World of Warcraft is a virtual world, in which players enjoy a state of abundance. In a way, it serves as a social or political studies lab, and the insights we gain from it can be valuable. Those insights can help us better understand the future of a world of abundance, and of a world in which the virtual and the physical layers become intermixed. If you want to know what the future holds in store for us – you probably want to keep on watching how World of Warcraft evolves.

 

Virtual Reality Will Take Gaming Outside

Featured image by Phil Whitehouse on Flickr

One of the complaints I hear most often from concerned parents, is that their kids spend most of their time in the virtual world. Their eyes are constantly glued to their smartphone’s screen.

“How can those kids live like that?” They demand to know. “Are we raising a new generation of zombies, totally dependant on their screens?”

My answer, always, is to remind them just how recently ago smartphones appeared on the world stage. Until 2007, there were no smartphones for the public. That means that this innovation is basically eight years old – a ridiculously short period of time compared to the history of humanity, or even to disrupting innovations like trains or cars. We’re still figuring out how to use the smartphones, well, smartly, and how to engineer our gates into the virtual world. And I tell those concerned parents that in ten years time, their children won’t look into their smartphones to find the virtual world, but will find the virtual world coming to them instead, unbidden.

To understand what I’m talking about, you just need to take a look at one of the hottest scenes in technology today: the virtual and augmented realities (VR and AR). Devices like Oculus Rift, Vive and Samsung Gear VR are coming to the consumer market in this year and the next, and the experience they provide is like nothing we’ve seen before. Trust me on this one: I’ve tried both the Rift and the Gear VR, and found myself swimming in the ocean with whales, visiting Venice, and running from real-life monsters in a temple… without actually getting up from my chair.

A trailer sample of the new generation of VR headsets: the HTC Vive, created by HTC and Valve

The forecasts for the virtual reality are incredibly optimistic, with Business Insider estimating that shipments of VR headsets will double in number every year, and will create a $2.8 billion hardware market by 2020. The Kzero consulting firm has forecast that annual revenues for VR software will reach $4.6 billion by 2018. This growth rate leaves the iPhone’s far behind, and will mean that – if those forecasts are anywhere near accurate – VR is about to take the world by storm in the next three years.

A forecast by Business Insider for the near future of VR devices. Notice the 99% cumulative annual growth rate - which essentially means a doubling of the number of shipments every year.
A forecast by Business Insider for the near future of VR devices. Notice the 99% cumulative annual growth rate – which essentially means a doubling of the number of shipments every year.

For myself, I’m still hesitant to believe that the VR market can rise so rapidly to prominence. The VR devices, while creating beautiful sceneries for the users to explore, are still cumbersome to wear on the face, and leave you disconnected from your immediate surroundings. So I prefer to stick to the old adage (allegedly by Arthur C. Clarke, and later proven by research in foresight) – “Experts are too optimistic in the near future, and too pessimistic in the long-run.”

These limitations will change in the future, and will most probably lead to the creation of augmented reality (AR) devices, which will look more like a normal pair of glasses, but with the pictures being displayed on the glasses themselves. In that way, the user will be able to see the physical world, along with the virtual world being overlaid on it.

Such AR glasses as described are already in existence, though they are still quite limited in capabilities. The Lumus glasses do just that, as do the Meta glasses. While both are still clunky, cumbersome, and have a limited field of view, they’re the early birds in the AR-Glasses field. If we assume that technology will keep on progressing (and honestly, I can’t see a way for it to stop!), we can be sure that the next AR-Glasses will be thinner, more energy-efficient, and more usable in general.

Let’s talk a bit about the games that AR and VR could open up for us in the future.

Gaming and VR / AR

Using VR for gaming is a no brainer. In fact, that’s the main use analysts are thinking about for VR in the next five years. Imagine running in the virtual landscape of Azaroth in World of Warcraft, or climbing the virtual towers and cathedrals of Paris in Assassin’s Creed. Those are experiences that will make the hardcore gamers flock to VR.

However, I would like to consider a different sort of gaming – one that might be accomplished by means of AR. The gamer of the not-so-far-away-future may actually be the athletic sort, because many games would be played on the streets of the city. By using AR-Glasses, every player would see a different image of the street: some will see the street as a dungeon with a dragon at its end, while others will find themselves forced to evade virtual deadly robots on the prowl, and still others would chase virtual butterflies on the pavement. Admittedly, that’s one crowded street!

Ok, this idea sounds a bit silly when you consider all the human congestion and potential traffic accidents that could occur, but there is definitely a case for streets and physical infrastructures that would be used as playing ground for the hard-core gamers. Even ‘soft gamers’ like most of us could find themselves taking a walk or a jog in seemingly-ordinary streets, with the AR-Glasses in our eyes turning the jog into a run from a dragon (with extra points if you make it out safely!) or involving some interesting activity while walking, like finding and picking up virtual playing cards on the pavement.

There are tantalizing hints in the present for this sort of outdoors-gaming. The “Zombies, Run!” game for the smartphone, is all about being chased by zombies in the real world. The zombies, of course, are virtual and you can only hear them behind you as you run, with the narrator giving you missions. Also, the more you run, the more supplies you collect automatically to build up your base. Another app, by the Mobile Art Lab in Japan, lets you see butterflies through your iPhone’s camera, and swipe at them to catch them – and turn them into discount coupons for restaurants.

Perhaps the most impressive example (although it’s more of a publicity stunt than anything else) of what augmented reality could do for the gaming world has been shown recently by Magic Leap – an AR company, obviously. Take a look!

Obviously, these are only hints for the future, but they’re pointing at an amazingly colorful and fascinating future for us all. The virtual world will no longer be far away from us, or force us to take our smartphones from our pockets. Rather, it would be all around us, and we’ll be able to see and hear it via the AR-Glasses and earbuds that we carry all the time.

The Challenges

Why isn’t this future not here by now? The challenges can be divided into two sorts: technological challenges and societal ones.

The technological challenges consist mainly of battery limits, which have been the ban of smartphones and other wearable computing so far. In the case of highly-sophisticated equipment such as AR-Glasses, the size of the projectors that send pictures to your eyes or onto the glasses is also a problem, and makes for extremely unfashionable glasses. Interestingly, the computing power does not seem to be a real challenge on its own, since AR-Glasses and other wearable computing devices could use the smartphone in one’s pocket to do most of the toughest computing tasks for them… which brings us back to the need to invent more efficient and long-lasting batteries for the smartphone as well.

None of these technological challenges represents an impassable barrier. In fact, if there’s one thing we can promise, it’s that future devices will have more efficient batteries, and will have the potential to be smaller. The trends indicate clearly that batteries are rapidly making progress towards better energy density.

The growth in batteries energy density over time. Originally from "Thermodynamic analysis on energy densities of batteries"
The growth in batteries energy density over time.
Originally from the paper “Thermodynamic analysis on energy densities of batteries“, which was brought to my attention in Quora.

The other big challenge is the societal one, and this is where Google Glass crashed into a wall. People simply did not like the fact that the person they’re speaking with could take a picture or a video of them at any time, or may even watch porn during a face-to-face conversation. The design of the Google Glass itself did not do anything to ameliorate those anxieties, and thus people just stopped using the Glasses to avoid becoming social pariahs.

While many believe the Google Glass has completely failed, we must remember that every device begins as a partial failure, since nobody knows how it will be used or how people will react to it. Google Glass was an experiment in design, and Google is now working relentlessly towards Google Glass 2.0, which will fit better with people’s desires and uses.

In short, while there are still challenges to the AR scene, they will be solved sooner or later. Any other conclusion forces us to think that somehow technology will cease to evolve and that companies will stop adapting their products to the consumer market, and I don’t see that happening anytime soon.

Conclusion

There are plenty of uses for virtual and augmented realities other than gaming, and in future posts we’ll deal with them as well. For now, I hope I’ve convinced you that at least part of the gaming activity would not take place solely in front of a screen, but in the streets and the parks. It’s going to be a pretty interesting world to live in, full of colors and messages and experiences that will blend seamlessly with the physical world.

And wouldn’t you like to play such games?