Most of the cities that incorporated Pokémon GO hoped for social interaction in public space. Did their social mixing work?
Below, report co-author Aubrey Hill outlines a few of the opportunities for social mixing we observed in our research.
Philly punks help visiting father and son
After the opening ceremony at the Philadelphia Free Streets event, players dispersed for the scavenger hunt. This custom hunt had been developed by the city with Niantic staff. The hunt included locations that could be visited in the game (PokéStops), often with special text written for the event.
A little uncertainty can be a good thing. There was confusion as players tried to orient themselves to the paper map for the hunt that was being handed out. Some tried to match the map with their local knowledge of Philly, while others compared it to the map in the Pokémon GO app. This confusion proved a perfect opportunity to see social mixing in action.
Across the street from me stood four Pokémon GO players. They all had their phones and scavenger hunt maps out. On my left stood a man with his young son. On my right stood two local young adult punks (for lack of better wording). As I listened in on their conversation, it became clear that the father and son were from out of town and the punks were locals. A fair bit of social information was exchanged as the group discussed the Pokémon they hoped to catch that day and helped the father and son to interpret the map, including:
- Where they were from
- Who they usually raid with
- Details about the neighborhoods along the route
- How long they had been playing
- Insights on specific PokéStops
The group finished by taking a picture together, wishing each other luck, and heading off separately. This incident showed some of the potential for meaningful interaction between players of differing age, race, and cultural demographics. It also showed some of the mixing between locals and visitors, especially when an unfamiliar element is overlaid onto an activity familiar to all parties.
Not five minutes later I overheard a group of five out-of-own teenagers encounter two local players. The visiting players were all confused about how the paper map related to the game, and how to identify landmarks. Immediately the two local players offered to go with the out-of-town group along the route to help them out. They went and locked up their bikes and headed out. Almost no information was traded before this arrangement was made.
This second incident is similar to the first in its evidence of mixing between locals and visitors but presents the extra element of concrete long-term action. The shared activity of Pokémon GO and the goal of completing the scavenger hunt provided a context for trust between strangers.
Raid/Post Raid conversations
In Philly, about halfway through both the route and the event, I encountered about 200 people at a large impromptu raid. (Raids are when groups of players must come together to battle a Boss Pokémon at a specific location.) Players stood in the street and sat along curbs, stoops and in the community garden and tennis court space along a one-block stretch. There was an air of excitement and many players were intensely focused on the battle. The crowd itself appeared diverse along lines of ethnicity, language, and age.
As the raid was happening, players swapped stories with the people standing near them. Some had come with large Discord-organized groups while others had come with a few friends or family members. They talked about how far away they had come from, what they had caught that day and what they planned to do for the rest of the event. They shared frustrations about attempts to catch legendaries (particularly difficult and rare Boss Pokémon) and swapped restaurant recommendations.
Even some non-players got in on the conversation. Some were residents sitting on the stoops in front of houses, watching with amusement and interest. Initiation of conversation went both ways, including residents asking questions about the game and players asking for directions or just about how the residents felt about the event.
Both cases in Philadelphia show the potential of Pokémon GO to provide structure and opportunity to encourage social mixing, especially when layered with the right elements. Some of the keys to this social mixing include:
- A safe and familiar structure to interact with strangers through
- Gathering people together in a critical mass
- Creating a need and opportunity for information sharing
- Creating a need and opportunity for collaboration between strangers
- Creating a need and opportunity to explore unfamiliar locations
Several of these underlying features of Pokémon GO were enhanced by the open street festival context, which created more opportunities for interaction with non-players.
More social mixing is discussed in our full report.
<< Back to the list of discussion probes on Pokémon GO and Playful Cities