Pokemon Go and the Hunt for Imagination


The mobile gaming app Pokémon Go crossed over 100 million downloads last week, and it’s still barreling through the culture like an armor-plated buffalo (which, frankly, would be a pretty cool Pokémon critter in itself). And now, since even your Great Aunt Edna is trying to catch ’em all, scholarly experts are popping out of their college offices to ruminate on what the whole phenomenon might mean. Like, for instance, how does Pokémon Go impact the human imagination?

It’s an interesting and timely question, as we chronicled in a Culture Clip earlier this week.

For years, experts have noted a shift in how kids play. Folks who grew up in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s remember playing outdoors a lot and tons of make-believe. TV was a bigger deal for kids who grew up in the 1980s and ’90s, but there was still plenty of time to dive into wholly imaginary worlds, or spinoff adventures predicated on popular TV shows and movies.

But for kids today, it’s a different story. Some experts believe that television and video games have supplanted traditional playtime and subverted imagination. “They hardly play,” Diane Levin, an education professor at Boston’s Wheelock College, told The Atlantic. “If they do play it’s some TV script. Very prescribed.” And that’s reason to worry, experts say. Imaginative play is critical in developing problem-solving skills and being inventive—stuff that comes in handy in the real workaday world.

Now, along comes Pokémon Go, and experts are divided as to whether this might mark a return to imaginative play or just another screen-based stumbling block. On one hand, the game gets young players outside and walking, and it encourages them to explore and, to some extent, interact with their environment. But on the other, it’s still … a video game. From our Culture Clip:

Levin … believes that Pokémon Go and other augmented reality games may instead stifle imagination, not help it to flourish. “What play is all about is coming across interesting problems to solve that are unique to you, that grow out of your interactions, experiences, and knowledge,” says Levin. “Pokémon Go is getting people outside but they’re still doing a very prescribed thing. They’re still being controlled by the screen. By some classic definitions, that isn’t play.”

I guess I come down somewhere in the middle.

I’m not a Pokémon Go hater. I don’t play it myself, but my wife and adult kids do, and I kind of enjoy walking around with them while they go on quests for Weedles and Squirtles. It’s exercise. It’s family time. And it’s kinda entertaining to make fun of my wife when she throws a Poké ball 20 feet offline.

But it doesn’t feel like imagination to me.

I grew up in the 1970s and ’80s, so I get the playtime dynamics that Levin is talking about. I’d play with building blocks and create elaborate, sprawling epics around them. I’d leap around my parents’ bedroom playing Indiana Jones, using a bathrobe tie as a whip. My sister and I would ride imaginary horses or wage imaginary battles, fought with sock balls and springy snakes. It was great.

But a key element in these imaginative playtimes was the fact that we were, for the moment, inhabiting worlds entirely of our own making. We did not have a screen to help “augment” our reality: We didn’t need it. We didn’t have a pre-fab digital play structure in which to operate, designed by computer geniuses halfway around the world: We created our own. And while these imaginative playtimes didn’t come with any built-in achievements or scores to keep track of, I remember those times vividly. In fact, those games we created were, in some ways, far more “real” than my real 8-year-old life. I certainly remember those playforts made from sheets and sofa cushions far better than the typical school day.

Pokémon Go won’t be the last augmented reality game we see roll out. They’ll only get more sophisticated—and more fun—as their designers hone in on what we most enjoy about them.

Perhaps, in a decade or two, Levin will have some hard and fast data on what sort of impact these games are having—or have had—on kids. But for now, what do you think that effect will be?

Who wrote this?

Paul Asay has been writing for Plugged In since 2007 and loves superheroes and finding God in unexpected places. In addition, Paul has also written several books, with his newest—Burning Bush 2.0—recently published by Abingdon Press. When Paul’s not reviewing movies, he hikes with his wife, Wendy, runs marathons with his grown kids, Colin and Emily, and beats back unruly houseplants. Follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.

Have something to say? Leave a comment.

Abigail Falanga More than 1 year ago

It's late to be commenting on this blog post (sometimes it takes me a while to think of what I want to say!), but I think it makes some excellent points. All this talk of imagination and media is good, but the question is more whether newer media allows play.

Humanity, to quote Agatha Christie, likes to be spoon-fed: We like to have all of our stories and adventures neatly packaged and delivered so we don't have to do any work in making them. That's the real problem with something like Pokémon Go; sure it gets you outdoors and active, but so does soccer with as little challenge to the imagination. So, if a kid's phone dies in the middle of hunting a Whatever and he can't recharge it, will he be bored stiff until he reaches a charger, or will he (after a minute's disappointment) segue into hunting the Whatever and battling it without the phone?

It seems to me that that is the important point. Does technology accessorize and inspire imagination, or must we rely on it to pop new and adventurous ideas in our heads? Stories, books, movies, etc., have long inspired us; it remains to be seen whether things like Pokémon Go will do the same. The very fact that it tells us how to play argues against it, and that is troubling.

(By the way, now I better understand a character that I'm writing; thanks, Paul!)

charitysplace More than 1 year ago
I'm an 80s kid. Parents didn't allow much TV for at least a decade. Shh! Don't tell. I still play make believe! ;)
Skulatikus More than 1 year ago
For those of you who don't feel like reading my main, five-paragraph post (a perfectly understandable sentiment,) I've included a short, single-paragraph version at the bottom.

I'm not going to go into my alternate theory as to the decline of kids' imaginative skills, as that would likely consume a good fifteen paragraphs. However, I will say that my own experience leads me to wholly disagree with the idea that "prescribed" experiences innately stifle imagination.

I, personally, developed my own imaginative abilities the same way I have developed many other skills: by watching someone else provide an example, then attempting the skill myself. In this case, I would first look into the worlds of other people's imaginations, predominantly through books, movies, and video games. Armed with these examples, I would begin conjuring worlds of my own, using techniques and patterns I liked from my source material to create my own ideas. Sometimes I would not even wait until I had finished the book/whatever that I was working on: I would stop in the middle of what I was doing and start crafting new ideas from the ones I had just experienced, then, once I was finished, go back to the book/whatever and keep going.

Now, of course, I would never have said anything like this back then. If you had asked me what I was doing, I would have simply told you that I was "playing" or something to that effect. If you had asked for a more detailed explanation, I would probably have just given you a confused look.

Today, however, I write fiction as a hobby, which I intend to adapt into a future career. My methods, while more developed, are essentially the same as the ones I used back in my childhood: I read/watch/play the stories others have created, then adapt some of the concepts they use and combine them with my own work. Sometimes, for example, I will see an interesting side of a character's personality and think "Something similar to this would be a perfect way to make the villain in my book more interesting. I think I'll tweak this a bit and see if it fits with his character." Other times, I will see a particularly brilliant plot twist, look at the principles driving it, and say to myself "If I use similar techniques, it will make this twist I'm planning have that much more of an impact."

Some people may say that my methods are not true imagination: that I am merely combining the ideas of others in new ways, and that, therefore, I'm not actually engaging in "imagination." I argue that this is complete nonsense. Ideas do not just come to a person out of thin air: they all originate from some source, be it personal observation or the mind of another. Imagination is the act of taking pieces from these existing ideas and combining them in new ways. If you truly want to develop any skill, even imagination, you need two ingredients: good examples/material and practice.

The Short Version: Imagination requires ideas as fuel. This fuel doesn't appear out of thin air: it is supplied by experiences, "prescribed" or otherwise. What matters is that you're getting quality fuel and actually doing something with it.
Antilles58 More than 1 year ago
I'd say that media has provided a powerful catalyst for my 5-year old son's imagination. Countless times have we watched a movie or played a game, only to find him later making up his own adventures in that world. He'll take the many amiibos we have and create huge adventures, oftentimes battling villains of his own creation out of duplos. Snoopy has often found himself to be "king" of the stuffed animals. Rather than reduce his ability to create and imagine, I'd say that media has possibly led to the flourishing of those abilities in my boy.

Thinking back to my own childhood, those were my experiences as well. Nothing captured my imagination the way video games (and, to a lesser extent, other media), with their vast stories and worlds, could. Much like your experience with Indiana Jones and Star Wars. ;)

Of course, the most important point here is that these activities have not *replaced* imaginative play time for my boys. We still make sure that he has time with the screens off and the toys on. And when we see how much fun he can have that way, I don't expect we'll stop making that time for him any time soon.

Marissa More than 1 year ago
"I’d leap around my parents’ bedroom playing Indiana Jones...we were, for the moment, inhabiting worlds entirely of our own making."

You created Indiana Jones? Huh. News to me! Either that, or it sounds like your imagination was a little more fueled by media than you like to think. 
AsayPaul More than 1 year ago
Nope, exactly my point. As a kid growing up in the 70s and 80s, I was influenced by the TV shows and movies I watched (as Levin suggests I typically would've been). Played both Star Wars and Indiana Jones, sometimes reenacting what I saw in the movies, sometimes creating my own adventures based on those worlds. (Indiana Jones didn't use his whip nearly as much as I would've liked him to in the actual movies.) And then I made up worlds of my own, too.