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Nintendo’s latest video game has become an overnight sensation. What’s the appeal?

By Chris Baraniuk

“Basically the reason I downloaded it is because a lot of my friends in the States have been going mad for it,” says Jon Norris. “They’re quite sensible adults but they were absolutely freaking out about it.”

Norris, head of content at Brighton-based digital agency Rocketmill, is talking about Pokemon Go. It’s a new augmented reality mobile game – and it’s taking the world by storm. The title, which has been available in the US for less than a week, has racked up millions of downloads already. The app lets players track down and “catch” virtual Pokemon that appear somewhere in the world around them.

Although not yet officially available in the UK, eager players like Norris have been able to install the app via some technical workarounds. The app has not risen to fame without controversy, though. For one thing, some have raised concerns over the fact that it can have very broad access to user data – from emails to search history and Google Drive – when users give it access to their Google accounts on iOS devices.

So what is the big attraction? And could its success have been predicted?

Admissions tests

Psychologist Andrew Przybylski at the Oxford Internet Institute has studied what attributes are essential for games to have the chance of being successful. These range from whether they are pitched at the right difficulty for players to how much they build in, or foster, social interaction with others, and he thinks one important factor is the ‘barrier of admission’ to having a good time.

A crucial feature of Pokemon Go, for example, is that it relies on technologies many people have and are already familiar with – their smartphone and GPS. Contrast this with geocaching, for example, which requires a more advanced knowledge of GPS (and even an array of physical equipment).

Many of the games that have enjoyed surprisingly broad appeal in the past – from Snake to Angry Birds and many of the original Wii titles – also married highly accessible gameplay with technology that was relatively new but easy to use, adds Przybylski.

“People have already learned how to use their phones – just like they know how to use their bodies for Wii Tennis,” he explains. “The work has already been done.”

“You can dive into it very easily,” agrees Norris.

Another factor is nostalgia. While Norris, for one, never played any of the previous Pokemon games, many Pokemon Go fans have fond memories of titles dating back to 1996, when the first instalments in the series were released. Even the very fact that people are talking about Pokemon more than usual again has prompted reminiscences among some older fans.

But for Przybylski, if a game tries to use nostalgia as part of its appeal, it must also deliver on its promise of novelty and fun. Pokemon Go, at least, certainly seems to have done so for some.

“The only way to deliver fun is to have players feel confident, give them a sense of exploration and connect them socially to others – on those three very important counts, the game looks like it’s succeeded,” he says.

Indeed, Norris immediately points out an unexpected benefit of wandering around Brighton, Pokemon Go app in hand.

“All the little Pokestops [where players collect in-game items] are associated with various pieces of street art in Brighton,” he comments. “It’s actually shown me a couple of pieces of street art I haven’t seen before.”

People have apparently been willing to wander around outside late at night in search of that elusive Squirtle or Meowth – or even make a catch while they wait for their wife to give birth. This has turned Pokemon Go into a bizarre phenomenon that has helped provide the game with its other, perhaps most important, dimension of success: it is excellent fodder for social media.

In 2013, British writer and TV presenter Charlie Brooker cited Twitter as one of his top 25 video games that changed the world. How is Twitter a video game? By Brooker’s logic, it has a graphical interface and a points-based system of competition (number of followers, for example). The idea that social media is a game, or that it can be played like one, is provocative – but with an app like Pokemon Go in mind this seems to make sense. Part of the game’s appeal, whether its makers intended this or not, seems to be the opportunity to meme-ify and share experiences about it on sites like Reddit, Snapchat and Imgur.

Thus, Pokemon Go plays out not just within the official app, but via these social networks too.

Psychologists are beginning to understand why using social media is so enjoyable, and one aspect of particular interest is the opportunity to craft and experiment with one’s sense of self. We do this offline too, but online we are offered different possibilities – and different potential rewards, such as new friends or increased levels of interaction.

Interestingly, there are many stories online of Pokemon Go players bumping into each other while on the hunt – the game clearly encourages social interaction both via the web and face-to-face, which is unusual.

Pokemon Go, then, may well be the perfect game for the social media age – we’re primed for it, argues Przybylski. Using social media has, he suggests, readied us for this sort of experience.

“The modern era has trained people for playing Pokemon Go,” he says.

Indeed, the way the game is being played and talked about online certainly seems to capture the essence of Mark Zuckerberg’s mantra that social media should enable “frictionless sharing” – activity that happens naturally and that appeals directly to the needs and desires of users.

Of course, it’s not clear how long players will remain enthralled by Pokemon Go. It’s still very new. But as with all overnight successes, this is another phenomenon that has managed to tap into some fundamental desire shared by many.

In doing so, Pokemon Go might just have revealed a little bit more about what motivates people. Whether or not you enjoy playing video games yourself, that’s certainly something worth thinking about.

Chris Baraniuk is a freelance science and technology writer. He Tweets as @machinestarts.