It is one of life’s most sacred moments. Jessica Theriot lay in a Texas hospital about to give birth to a baby girl. She looked up and smiled across at her husband Jonathan. But he wasn’t looking. He was busy playing Pokémon Go and something amazing had just happened: he’d caught a Pidgey. Jonathan uploaded a screenshot of the happy event, it went viral and served as final confirmation that August 2016 was the month the human race officially went mad.
Unless you have been absent from the solar system you will have read some of the headlines. Two men chased Pokémon characters off a cliff. One girl searching for them found a dead body floating in the river. On August 9 in Central Park we saw the world’s first Pokemon Go stampede, thanks to the spawning of an extremely rare Pokemon character called a Vaporeon.
Across the globe, a similar event made Taipei look like the scene of a disaster movie. A Tsunami of people surged through the streets, sirens blared, children screamed . . . reports don’t say whether anyone gave birth.
Not surprisingly, the Pokémon Go phenomenon was quickly noticed by those whose job it is to make a buck out of the public. Cafes, bars, shops and other outlets soon started paying money for Pokémon Go “lures,” to draw the crowds in. Even churches got in on the act.
And, of course, we advertisers noticed too. Up until then, we had always assumed that virtual reality would be the best place to put our ads. Pokémon Go, by contrast is AR, or augmented reality, using the same plain vanilla reality we all spend our days bumbling around in, and overlaying some graphics to spice it up. The technology was actually pretty basic: a map, GPS and the graphically unsophisticated Pokémon creatures.
Why didn’t we see it coming? Had we been asleep at the wheel? Probably not. The unexpected is one of the great engines of human progress. We almost never see the great innovations coming. Instead we chase trends in the direction of the obvious and predictable, and are then surprised by something coming left of field.
More interesting, perhaps, is the question about what it means. Is this a genuinely new phenomenon? Because in certain respects it closely resembles certain time-honored kids’ collecting games such as collecting cigarette or baseball cards. Those card sets worked on the same principles of scarcity and reward. Is the Vaporeon anything more than a digital Babe Ruth?
The similarities are instructive. The Pokémon Go phenomenon derives its power from one of the most ancient human activities: Play. Like humor, no one is quite sure what the point of play is, although everyone is agreed it is a fundamental part of being human. Everyone likes to play but often it has been considered too childish for adults. However, play recently acquired grown-up status. A group of crowd-sourced online gamers playing the online puzzle game Foldit, managed to beat scientists, crystallographers and computer programmers in working out the shape of a protein. This was serious science.
No pun intended, but this might be a game-changer for advertisers. Traditionally it has been hard work getting people to look at ads. It took a lot of money, ingenuity and creativity. We had to be clever, startling, charming–anything to get them to look. But under the spell of the game, players have surrendered all resistance. In the first two months the app was downloaded 500 million times, and players collectively walked 2.9 billion miles. In the process it made $200 million in revenue for Niantec Nintendo, even though the actual download was free. Surely advertising that participated in the game rather than interrupted the entertainment in the traditional way would fare well?
And then the wave passed. Or did it? No one is quite sure. Two recent developments may give the phenomenon a powerful boost. First, the appearance of the app on the Apple Watch. Followed by the announcement of the wearable tech version which vibrates to alert the wearer to a Pokémon in the vicinity, there is also talk that Pokémon Go will feature on the eagerly anticipated NX games console from Nintendo.
Niantic Labs are, of course, well aware of the dangers of the craze running out of steam. Their plan is to drip-feed in new features such as player-versus-player battles, Pokémon trading and live event tournaments with thousands of people. They will also be expanding the universe of characters from the current 150 to 700.
Perhaps the route forward here would be to combine the Play element with another ancient human art, Storytelling. Like the baseball cards which were soon left gathering dust in the drawer, the current Pokémon narrative is pretty one-dimensional.
You could easily spice it up with a few time-honored storytelling motifs. A hero (you) on some sort of journey, following a traditional story arc. Add some conflict–something or someone pushing back against your efforts. Make sure something is at stake–it’s not enough for it to be just for fun. The player needs to pursue something meaningful, or risk losing something meaningful. Some sort of quest or treasure hunt would be fine. Suddenly you have a narrative that could become truly addictive. It would be great news, too, for advertisers and marketers if they could pay to weave their products and services into the story.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about the Pokémon craze is the realization that it hasn’t even launched in China yet. If and when it does the whole thing could go stratospheric. In fact, the authorities might be well advised to ban the Vaporeon. If one spawns in China and 1.4 billion people give chase, who knows what could happen?
Tham Khai Meng is Ogilvy & Mather’s co-chairman and worldwide chief creative officer.