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11 July 2016

Kids are stuck indoors more than ever – so Pokémon Go has come at just the right time

The game could give a generation of "cotton wool kids" a reason to go outside.

By Tracy King

When I was a kid I had to walk to school in all weathers, uphill both ways. I had to share a pair of rollerskates with my sister, trundling around on one wheeled foot. The perception is that “kids today” don’t play outside as much as we did, and when they do play it’s video games instead of hopscotch. The other perception is that this is a bad thing.

But is it a bad thing? First we must establish if the claim that kids no longer play outside is actually true, and this is one of those rare times when rose-tinted reminiscing is correct. Multiple studies have shown that children now play outside much less than my generation did, and when kids do get out into the wild, they’re supervised. A government study released in February 2016 showed that 78 per cent of kids never visit an outdoor space without an adult present

A 2008 Channel Four documentary called this new generation “cotton wool kids”. Rising childhood obesity is the obvious main concern, but there are wider issues around knowledge and engagement with nature, and areas of child development like risk-taking, socialisation and independence.

But the biggest factor is not negative at all. Road traffic accidents involving children have plummeted. A 2015 study from the Policy Studies Institute says there has been “a considerable erosion of children’s independence for a period of their childhood way beyond the age when they are physically able to get about on their own….the much reduced incidence of injury on the roads appears to have been gained to a large degree by obliging children to be accompanied by an adult to a later age in their childhood.” It takes a bold parent to accept the benefits of a free-range childhood if it comes with a chance, however small, of that child being hit by a car.

Moreover, indoor entertainment is both cheaper, and more plentiful. Video games consoles, films and TV on demand, smartphones and tablets are common. There are fewer outdoor play spaces and gardens, or even none at all, depending on where you live. Kids don’t need to go outside to have fun, so they don’t bother.

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Until now. Enter Nintendo, the new hero of the great outdoors. Ironic, because Nintendo makes video games. One of these video games is Pokémon, originally launched in 1996 for the handheld console Gameboy. It’s the second biggest game franchise of all time, selling over 279 million copies in its various iterations. If you haven’t played (and I have, for twenty brilliant years), the basic idea is that you – role-playing as a small child with no parental supervision – wander around cities and countryside catching small adorable “pocket monsters”. The most famous of these is Pikachu, a yellow electric mouse. You then train and fight your Pokémon as you make your way through the game, eventually becoming a Pokémon Master. The game works because it combines traditional role-playing elements of story and levelling/progress with something kids find irresistible: collecting things. There are 722 different Pokémon and, as the old strapline goes, you “gotta catch ‘em all”.

Imagine, then, if you could do this in real life. If you could wander around outside and discover a small yellow electric mouse in the bushes by your house, which you then catch using a combination of skill and luck (you catch Pokémon by throwing a Pokéball at them, how else?). Nintendo has launched a smartphone game for iOS and Android called Pokemon Go which is exactly that. The game Pokémon, but in real life. Obviously, this requires going outside, not least because progress in the game is in part linked to walking. If you don’t go anywhere, you can’t catch ‘em all.

Game screenshots. Images: Tracy King.

Nintendo has historically been good at getting people to move. Its 2006 console Wii came with a motion detector and was bundled with Wii Sports. Suddenly, 80 million gamers were jumping around in their living rooms head-butting a virtual football. The new technology was accepted because the application was so much fun, and now they’ve done it again. Pokémon Go combines the camera on your smartphone with GPS and augmented reality (virtual objects placed over the camera feed, like Snapchat filters) to make pocket monsters appear in real life. You need to be looking at real life through your phone’s camera, but it’s still real life.

The game’s developer, Niantic, uses a database from its previous game Ingress to direct players to “Pokéspots” for an in-game reward. These spots are generally of historical or geographic interest. Yep, that’s right. This enormously fun game is also educational. Today I discovered a Pokéspot is a WW1 memorial plaque on the front of my building, which I have passed every day for eight years without noticing.

It’s this incredible combination of technology, the giant adorable brand that is Pokémon, and local curiosity that will ensure the game’s success. It’s already bigger than anticipated in the US, Australia and New Zealand, leading to server load issues that have delayed the game’s official UK launch (though there are ways around the region limitations for the curious Googler).

But of course, as established, going outside is risky. There are going to be accidents, muggings. Two adult Ingress players have died, one hit by a bus and the other falling from a pier. Missouri police claim the in-game beacon was used by armed robbers to lure players.There will be concerns about privacy (get off my lawn), probably a few calls for a ban, maybe even a Parliamentary debate. But now kids have a reason to go outside, they’re going to go. And parents will do what the research proves parents do – they’ll make it safer by going with them. It helps that many of those parents will already be familiar with Pokémon from their own youths. This could reverse the trend of kids not playing outside because they’re staring at phones. Now they’re playing outside because they’re staring at phones.

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