On June 30, I wrote a post about my return to the old Niantic game Ingress. As I wrote that post, I was completely oblivious to the fact that Niantic was preparing a new game - its first in several years.
By July 10, I had joined that new game. It's called Pokemon Go. Perhaps you've heard of it.
One of the reasons that I joined Pokemon Go was the same reason that I returned to Ingress - to encourage myself to walk more. And Pokemon Go encourages walking even more than Ingress; it's very hard to "catch them all" from a car, and you definitely can't hatch eggs while driving around; you have to actually walk 2 kilometers, or 5 kilometers, or even more.
Yet in some respects, Pokemon Go is like many other games. It includes repetitive actions - throw the ball, walk, throw the ball, walk, spin the wheel, swipe. And to advance, you have to continue to throw the ball, walk, throw the ball, walk, spin the wheel, swipe. Although you can buy things to reduce the amount of throwing, walking, spinning, and swiping that you have to do. Because, let's face it - some people get tired of having to throw the ball, walk, throw the ball, walk, spin the wheel, swipe.
To truly advance in the game, you have to work with other members of your team. You need to train, or be trained, to defend your "gyms." You need to work together to take over gyms from the other teams.
Ah, the social obligations.
If you're wondering why the word "sociopathic" appears in the title of the post, it's in reference to a speech and article given by A. J. Patrick Liszkiewicz over six years ago. Excerpts:
The secret to Farmville’s popularity is neither gameplay nor aesthetics. Farmville is popular because in entangles users in a web of social obligations. When users log into Facebook, they are reminded that their neighbors have sent them gifts, posted bonuses on their walls, and helped with each others’ farms. In turn, they are obligated to return the courtesies. As the French sociologist Marcel Mauss tells us, gifts are never free: they bind the giver and receiver in a loop of reciprocity. It is rude to refuse a gift, and ruder still to not return the kindness. We play Farmville, then, because we are trying to be good to one another. We play Farmville because we are polite, cultivated people.
(And yes, he used the word "cultivated.") But these actions are not healthy, according to Liszkiewicz:
As cultivated citizens, we are obligated to one another. We care about one another. As Cornel West has said, democracy depends upon demophilia, or love of the people. Unfortunately, sociopathic companies such as Zynga depend upon this love as well....
[C]ultivated citizens must constantly look around and examine what they’re doing, because there is a fine line between being a cultivated citizen and being someone else’s crop.
Which raises the question - is Niantic a sociopathic company?
There has already been controversy about all of the user data that Pokemon Go was initially grabbing. (Niantic claims it was unintentional.) And as I've noted, this game uses the same repetitive actions as other games, which encourages some people to buy things so that they don't have to play the game that much.
But what of the benefits?
Unlike Farmville, which required you to sit at a chair, the Niantic games encourage you to move around. (Granted, you could move into oncoming traffic if you disregard Niantic's warnings to be aware of your surroundings.)
And there are other benefits also, as this story from the mother of an autistic child shows. Excerpts:
He never wants to go to the playground at night, because it’s out of his usual routine. He is normally so rigid about his routine.
But tonight he was happy to change things up, and do it. We were in shock!...
When we got to the playground, other kids ran up to him to hunt for Pokémon together.
He was interacting with other kids. Holy crap! I didn’t know if I should laugh, or cry.
MY AUTISTIC CHILD WAS SOCIALISING. Talking to people. Smiling at people. Verbalising. With total strangers. Looking up at them.
Sometimes even in the eye. Laughing with them. Sharing something in common. This is amazing.
Now Pokemon Go is just a tool, and it's conceivable that someone could devise a sit-down Farmville-like game that could encourage similar interactions by autistic people.
But there clearly are some good things going on here.
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