By Daniel Strawhun, Opinions Editor


“What’s Current Wednesday,” the tri-semesterly discussion forum co-sponsored by The Current and the New York Times, met September 7 in the SGA Chamber of the Millennium Student Center to discuss the mobile app phenomenon, Pokémon Go.

Dr. Maureen Quigley, Chair of Art and Art History, and local video game developer Malcolm Pierce led the discussion.

Quigley began by asking students about their own Pokémon Go habits. Some reported a very casual engagement with the game, as well as the predictably low experience levels that come with it; others, however, were more dedicated trainers and had invested significant portions of their time in an attempt to “catch ‘em all.” Pierce, who develops what he termed “visual novels” for the Steam gaming platform, was a middling level 12—not terrible, but certainly nothing spectacular, as he openly confessed to the group. He expressed a common frustration with the game’s design, saying, “We’ve got a gym somewhat near where I live, but unfortunately since I’m such a low level, I haven’t been able to get anything done there… For someone like me, the gym battles are kind of locked-out now.” He followed by asking students whether they thought this was a good design because it rewards loyal players who have been playing the game since its inception, or if it was a poor design because it excludes newcomers who might have just started.

Responses were mixed; however, one aspect of the game that the group praised unanimously was the social dimension brought to it through the creative use of augmented reality technology. For those who still do not know, the Pokémon Go app uses the onscreen camera display of a smartphone in conjunction with GPS tracking data powered by Google Maps in order to create a kind of primitive virtual reality in which Pokémon spawn randomly, waiting to be captured. Players wander around real locations, such as Forest Park or the Missouri Botanical Gardens, in search of the digital monsters, and swipe Pokéballs at those that appear onscreen.

Thus, in addition to providing players with an occasion to explore and interact together in public spaces, the game also satisfies two of the most basic needs of any modern American: the need to feel productive, and the compulsive desire to swipe idly at a glowing touchscreen. Its immense popularity, then, is really no wonder.

But how does a game that can be downloaded gratis from the App Store translate such immense popularity into commensurate profit? Pierce explained the strategy with the kind of unapologetic candor typical of an industry insider.

He said, “The end game of a free game is to get somebody really into it and really into the progress that they can make, and then put them into a situation where they can’t make progress without spending money—without paying. . . When you look at something like Candy Crush, the process is like, ‘Oh, these first few levels are easy, it feels really good to beat them.’ And then there’s always that level that you can’t beat—without getting constant retries. Any free-to-play game has this coded into it. You sort of have to know that going in.”

Students were quick to corroborate Pierce’s assertion. Kat Riddler, Editor-in-Chief of The Current and MBA candidate, said, “Once you hit level 20, it was almost impossible to even catch a Pidgey. The rates were just ridiculous, whether you used an Ultra Ball or a Great Ball or a Pokéball.”

But it is not clear whether hitting this kind of hidden paywall within the game will in fact induce players to pay. “It REALLY dissuaded a lot of people from leveling up,” Riddler opined.

Regardless of whether the app manages to continue making a profit, it has already made history. With over 100 million downloads as of August 1, it is one of the most successful games to date. And with such a large user base, it is no surprise to see the game crossing traditional market divides that have stopped other games in their tracks. Men and women, both young and old, are downloading and playing Pokémon Go. Quigley said, “I’m noticing that it’s families—a lot of parents with kids, younger kids. I did notice a lot of women playing as well.”

Michael Plumb, Advertising Director for The Current and MBA candidate, pointed out that playing the game only requires a smartphone, a device that has become ubiquitous in recent years, rather than an expensive, dedicated system like other games require. Thus, Pokémon Go attracts a more casual customer, along with the usual devoted fans and self-proclaimed “serious gamers.”

The group also discussed other ways in which the game is being used. “My friend uses it as a fitness app,” Quigley said. Others mentioned businesses that pay to be included as Pokéstops on the app—a sort of integrated form of advertisement. New possibilities seem to keep cropping up as the app evolves, and, as Riddler reminded the group, only around 10 percent of the game has been released.

The topic of the next “What’s Current Wednesday” discussion will be global censorship on October 5 at 2 p.m. in Century Room C.