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.

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