When Pokémon GO! launched in July, 2016, it was a global phenomenon, it was one of the most popular apps in the world, and became global news with thousands of people walking more than usual to play a game. It was a strangely communal moment in pop culture. You could see people walking around to certain areas, stopping and tapping their phones, smiling and carrying on.  The popularity was not what anyone expected. There was international coverage of people who had walked X distance playing, losing X amount of weight and so on. There were knock on health benefits to a game based on a children’s tv show.

According to the news, it was like the night of the living dead as careless teens obsessed with the game stumbled through the streets, eyes glued to their phones, oblivious to cars, walls, buildings, and cliffs.

A report in the Journal of the American Heart Association found that on average, the number of steps the users took daily rose by 35% after the release of the app. Not only that, but the game succeeded where other apps failed; this increase was across the board. The app was popular with a wide range of people, including those who would typically be inactive.

There were drawbacks to the success. The same report found that users did report dangerous activity associated with the app, with 90% of those surveyed admitting to using it in a moving vehicle. More starkly, in the 10 days after the app was released, at least 14 different car crashes were attributed to the game. And to top it off, the health benefits to users only lasted as long as they played the app, and the data showed significant drop-off in interest over time. Pokémon GO! had arrived, defied even lofty expectations, and left everything as it had been to begin with, all in the space of a few weeks. The contrasting success and diminished lifespan of Pokémon GO! prompt two opposing questions- what did the game do right, and why didn’t it last?

The ability of Augmented Reality (AR) technology to shift the game was massive on at least two levels. First, it expanded the game’s playable environments to the whole world. There was no chance Pokémon GO! could be accused of recycling level design, because how interesting the environments in the game were was entirely up to the player. Not only that, but the game’s environments were more immersive by virtue of being actual locations. It seems silly to point it out, but a player is likely to have a more realistic experience of visiting the beach by actually, you know, visiting the beach.

This still doesn’t explain why it succeeded in getting people to go to the locations in the first place. The beach can be as… well, beachy, as it likes, but the exercise comes first, and people were unwilling to do that before. The immersive environments helped keep people in the game, not to get them in. The key to getting them in was the way AR allowed the developers to ‘gamify’ exercise.

Being healthy is a valuable commodity to pretty much everyone , but its benefits are hard to grasp and not immediate. Catching a Pokémon, however, is an immediate goal, and prompts immediate action to succeed. So when AR games can substitute the commodity of personal health for one with more immediate impact, the results can be profound. It’s ‘gamification’ without the tiresome bells and whistles. It makes personal health and exercise a game without being strained or hitting us over the head with it, which is why it works.

What about the drawbacks? What made Pokémon GO! so short-lived? Ultimately, the game was pretty limited. You could find & catch Pokémon, but the ability to train & battle was not properly implemented until long after the majority of users had already moved on. They had grown bored of what was, at its core, a fairly limited game.

So what does the Pokémon GO! phenomenon teach us? First off, that apps aiming to improve our health and lifestyles aren’t entirely howling into the void. The goal is an achievable one, but it requires something special. The immersive experience of AR and gamification can be powerful tools to help this pursuit. Ultimately, the end product doesn’t need to be immensely complicated. Much like Minecraft, in many ways, the simplicity of playing Pokémon GO! was an asset.

But simplicity doesn’t have to be confused with lack of depth or limited gameplay. If an app is to be successful in the long run, it will need to not just create interest in healthy habits but sustain it. Pokémon GO! generated value in healthy living for a while, but when there was nothing to do with the Pokémon they caught, all but the most committed fans lost interest, and exercise lost its short-term value.

With that in mind, the biggest learning is for tech companies interested in developing health apps. The experience of Pokémon GO! shows us that it won’t be enough for them to simply provide connected health solutions. There is a need for creative thinking and imaginative design to create apps that draw people towards healthy habits. Preferably with more subtlety than a 2-by-4 to the back of the head. If developers can tackle that problem, the results could be incredible.

Until Pokémon GO!, apps that aimed at health benefits often did so explicitly, without hiding exercise behind a game. They also struggled to make waves with anyone who wasn’t already keen on keeping fit. In the past, people who were typically inactive just hadn’t responded to apps aimed at lifestyle improvement.

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