Pokémon Go and Heritage: One Year On

MoL

A Krabby Diptych. Image: Museum of London.

[UPDATED: July 6, 2017, 8:00pm. Scroll to the bottom for the updated content.]

July 6, 2016, saw the launch of the world’s most popular augmented reality (AR) game, Pokémon Go. I wrote about its great potential for use with touring cultural heritage sites, but other responses from heritage professionals were largely mixed, and justifiably so. The purpose of this post is not to revisit the old arguments and criticisms (which are still valid), but rather to see how things are going  with the game generally, and with the game’s use in promoting heritage sites specifically now as Pokémon Go celebrates its one-year anniversary.

Lest people think Pokémon Go‘s popularity has waned, Gamespot reported on July 5, 2017, that the game had surpassed 752 *million* downloads, and, even though the game is free to play, in-app purchases have made parent company Niantic US$1.2B (US$950M in 2016). People continue to play worldwide, but are there any metrics available for PG in the heritage sector?

Screen Shot 2017-07-05 at 9.32.24 PM

The most recent tweet featuring the #PokeArch hashtag.

One enterprising heritage professional, Annie-Leigh Campbell of Historic Environment Scotland, created the @PokemonArch Twitter account on July 10, 2016, with the express purpose of collecting and retweeting “archaeological / historical discoveries” under the #PokeArch hashtag. At the time of this writing, the account had 222 followers, and had tweeted 99 times. The most recent tweet is from Erin Lloyd Jones on September 20, 2016, from Whitby Abbey in Yorkshire, United Kingdom. The tweet received modest engagement with one reply, three retweets, and six likes. The #PokeArch hashtag was minted by the @PokemonArch account on July 10, 2016, and was used in 84 total tweets from 33 unique accounts, about two-thirds of which belonged to individuals, the remaining being heritage organizations. Concerning the total Twitter share of the PG general user group, PG heritage was in effect invisible. There was not enough inertia behind the hashtag and account to generate much Twitter buzz, but that’s not to say that individual heritage organizations weren’t attempting to paste the game onto their existing mission statements at least for a while. So how is that coming?

What follows is decidedly unscientific, but I wanted to see if PG is still actively being promoted and used by heritage organizations, sites, and museums. So I took a small sample to see what, if anything has changed. Future research must include a large sample of organizations and sites, metrics (if available) of how many guests played the AR game on-site, how many people came to the site expressly to play the game, if these places saw any uptick in revenue, and if the sites were damaged by players. It would be interesting to hear from heritage professionals who integrated PG into their visitor experience what the end results were, if there was any actual engagement, and if a PG-inspired visit encouraged return visits where the game was not played at all. This project could be someone’s PhD (not mine).

Let’s start with the museums on the National Mall in Washington, DC. Early reports showed enthusiasm in playing PG at the National Museum of the American Indian, the National Air and Space Museum (with its Pokeémon Go Flight Path), and the National Museum of American History. The National Park Service saw an uptick in visitors, but proscribed using the game in memorials managed by the NPS. English Heritage promoted PG as a Family Day Out. The Museum of London hosted PG events through August 2016. The British Museum also published a PG guide. Preservation Maryland also wrote a guide for its historic sites to use to promote heritage alongside gameplay.

On a more local level, Wisconsin’s Rock County Historical Society hosted a Pokémon Go historical walk on the afternoon of September 30, 2016. The Maine Historical Society in Portland hosted a daylong meetup on August 5, 2016, in conjunction with its annual Art Walk. The Fuller Craft Museum in Brockton, Massachusetts, hosted a Pokémon Night on August 4, 2016, to bring families to the museum to walk and explore. Along with initial positive reception by some cultural institutions, there were any number of negative responses including the most-reported example of the Holocaust Museum forbidding play. Culturally and environmentally sensitive areas require both common sense as well as courtesy and respect.

It appears that all of the goodwill towards PG and museums and sites was limited to the summer of 2016. So are any of these places still actively doing anything with PG, and have any of these institutions created Augmented Reality apps of their own to provide a more meaningful experience to visitors?

The British Museum’s main website has zero hits for anything related to PG. English Heritage has nothing about PG following July 2016. The National Museum of American History sports a handful of news stories, but no scheduled events or heritage trails. The National Air and Space Museum still promotes its Heritage Trail, but there are no formal events planned around PG in 2017. The National Museum of the American Indian’s website shows zero hits for PG. The National Park Service sports dozens of hits, incorporating PG as one of the activities one can do within a national park. In 2017, New Jersey’s Red Bank Battlefield Park became one of many no-PG areas in the US, successfully lobbying Niantic to remove Pokéstops from the game in order to protect the battlefield and also to serve as a traffic-calming measure.

A handful of museums and historical societies continue to host Pokémon nights/events. The University Museum at SIU Carbondale hosted a PG event on March 25, 2017, in conjunction with a walking tour of the grounds. The Lakeshore Museum Center did something similar in Michigan on February 24, 2017. In January 2017, the Birmingham (UK) Museum and Art Gallery hosted a PokéHunt

The Montana Historical Society used PG as a hook to get users to download its own app, which contains maps for “history hunters” throughout the state. The app does not (yet) feature Augmented Reality, but does reflect at least one major institution’s commitment to creating a history tour experience with a significant depth of content. With cultural heritage open source AR app platforms such as Mbira from the Matrix team at Michigan State University, one can expect to see more public archaeology and heritage AR apps appearing in the next couple of years. PG was a quick fix to a much larger issue of public engagement with heritage sites, largely added as part of a suite of ways to entice people to visit, and it does look like the museum and archaeological world largely has moved beyond pocket monsters to focus on integrating apps (some with AR) to facilitate something with meaning, purpose, content, and hopefully fun. Pokémon Go is not dead, but its application in the heritage sector, for the most part, is.

UPDATE: After this post went live, I received several notices from readers that PG‘s creator, Niantic, had partnered for the city of Chester (UK) and Big Heritage for a PG heritage weekend at Chester Heritage Festival, July 22–23, 2017. From Niantic’s official press release:

Niantic CEO and founder John Hanke said “I am incredibly excited about this partnership linking local history and Pokémon GO. We love the idea of using mobile games as a motivation for families to play outside together and perhaps to learn something interesting while they are at it!”

Big Heritage founder Dean Paton said “We are so excited about working with Niantic, Inc., who are true innovators in their field, and as passionate as we are about getting people exploring and learning about the world around them. It’s a genuine coup for Chester to be the ‘test bed’ for some amazing new ideas, and we hope we can use the game based on the iconic and beloved Pokemon brand as a tool for helping more people get excited about the past.”

If any of you do go to the event, please leave a comment on this post.

—Andrew Reinhard, Archaeogaming

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