by Martin Knöll, Junior Professor at Technische Universität Darmstadt Department of Architecture in Germany, and head of the Urban Health Games Research Group, and Jenny Roe, Professor of Design and Health and the Director of the Center of Design and Health at the School of Architecture, University of Virginia in the US.
“Hey, what’s going on here?”
A pop-up Pokemon Go event on a street corner in Edinburgh was causing a real buzz last week among young people on a hot summer day, stopping to chat and take in a glass of ice-cold lemonade. The success of Pokemon Go is gigantic and it is good news for health and urban design. Specifically, if we - users, developers and urban designers /researchers - begin to collaborate on how we can use AR (augmented reality) gaming to design our cities for active engagement amongst our sedentary populations, particularly young people.
Young people playing at a Pokemon Go Gym in Darmstadt’s central park Herrngarten.
Source: Martin Knoll.
It seems obvious that there is an immediate effect of gaming on many players’ daily activity, social interactions and mental wellbeing. Many of the tweets at #PokemonGo testify how this is happening in synergy.
More research will be needed to show how intense the physical activity really is, how it is determined by players’ age, gender, health disposition and usual activity patterns, and the strength of the social and mental wellbeing benefits. Also, it will be interesting to see how the hype and the intense usage will translate to change long term health behaviours and motivations.
But the Pokemon hype is really good news as it helps to change peoples’ attitude towards the quality of physical places and (potentially) offers potential to use digital technology to plan, design and maintain our cities for health and wellbeing outcomes.
People spend more time outside gaming, not only watching on the smartphone screen, but also interacting with their surroundings off-screen. We have found that players interact in various ways with their smartphones and physical surroundings while playing an AR game:
Participants of the AR game Stadtflucht while following a breathing exercise on the River Main harbour (a,b,c) running a slalom (d,e,f) and finding objects to capture. (Source: Knöll, 2016).
After playing the game prototype for 30 min, users reported they were more aware of their environments, and had discovered new features in the environment, prompting excitement and curiosity (Knöll 2016 & Halblaub Miranda and Knöll 2016). Curiosity is an integral component of mental wellbeing linked with motivation and meaning in life. Learning to see places differently, being curious as we navigate our everyday environments, ‘taking notice’ can all help catalyse mental wellbeing .
In order to make the most out of this hype for health, though, how best can developers, users and researchers collaborate to analyse how people use and interact with their physical environment in game? Where do they enjoy playing? Where are the challenges? What places are people hesitant to visit and pick up a Pokemon? Where do people fear? What do the they think of the places? The game developer, Niantic’s first game Ingress motivated players to exercise in their every day life by combining the history and accessibility of urban environments with a virtual story. It was the first commercial success of games, in what may be called an “urban exergame”(Knöll, Dutz, et al. 2014). It was already known to generate much data on where people move and spent time. It was hypothesised that this information was also used to optimize the functionality of Google maps (Purdy 2014)
We have used tools such as apps and location based games to gain data on how users perceive their places and how they engage with the urban environment. These prototypes were experimental, but still showed potential to gain more spatially detailed, age specific data from users that would usually participate in co-design events (Knöll 2016 & Halblaub Miranda and Knöll 2016). Can you imagine what we could do, if we could develop these tools together and analyse the data that is being collected by millions of users in cities world wide?
Pokemon Go has made a huge step from Ingress in this respect. Players seem to spend more time with a Pokemon while being in a real physical space. It has also been reported that a lot of the social interaction around Pokemon Go takes place informally outside of the game and in physical sites (Webber und Brewster 2016).
Such a process, of course, would have to include users in a participatory design process. Also, it would have to balance game experience with the real world planning content. But, there is first approaches that show how this may work. What is missing is new collaboration between research and IT companies. This success story of Pokemon Go is to bring people out and about, as witnessed on our street corners this summer. In order to make it more sustainable – for both game engagement and positive health and wellbeing outcomes, there needs to be a discussion on how users may allow research to access data to identify and visualize how the physical environment can be improved to boost walkability, stress recovery, social interaction and playing smartphone games in public spaces.
Whilst the media is flagging cautionary tales about Pokemon Go, does the game really pose any more risk than texting whilst walking? Is allowing our young people to adventure forth into adventurous space really posing a threat to their wellbeing? Surely – whilst urging sensible precautions – we need to allow our young people the right to roam as ‘free rangers’ in our cities?
Key references for further reading
Halblaub Miranda, Marianne, und Martin Knöll. „Stadtflucht - Learning about healthy places with a location-based game.“ Navigationen - Zeitschrift für Medien und Kulturwissenschaften, 2016. http://dokumentix.ub.uni-siegen.de/opus/volltexte/2016/1004/pdf/Navigationen_Playin_the_city.pdf
Knöll, Martin. Bewertung von Aufenthaltsqualität durch Location-Based-Games - Altersspezifische Anforderungen in der Studie "Stadtflucht" in Frankfurt am Main.“ Herausgeber: Gesine Marquardt. MATI Mensch - Architektur - Technik - Interaktion für demografische Nachhaltigkeit. Dresden: Fraunhofer IRB, 2016. 266-77. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/284725664_Bewertung_von_Aufenthaltsqualitat_durch_Location-Based-Games_-_Altersspezifische_Anforderungen_in_der_Studie_Stadtflucht_in_Frankfurt_am_Main
Knöll, Martin, Tim Dutz, Sandro Hardy, und Stefan Göbel. „Urban Exergames – How Architects and Serious Gaming Researchers Collaborate on the Design of Digital Games that make you move.“ In Virtual and Augmented Reality in Healthcare 1, Herausgeber: Minhua Ma, Lakhmi Jain, Anthony Withehead und Paul Anderson, 191-207. London: Springer, 2014. http://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007%2F978-3-642-54816-1_11
Webber, Jordan Erica, und Kate Brewster. The Guardian. 18. July 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/jul/18/pokemon-go-uk-developers-augmented-reality (Zugriff am 25. July 2016).
About the Authors
Sanity and Urbanity: