Today marks a year to the day since Pokémon Go took the world by storm. Initially restricted to Americans, British trainers spent the first week installing workarounds to get their hands on the game.
What was remarkable about the game - other than the speed at which it racked up the downloads - was that it was arguably the first mainstream augmented reality game. All of a sudden, hordes of players could be manipulated through physical space - and the game sent millions of people running around in pursuit of virtual monsters.
The game also brought sudden attention to thousands of specific physical locations. By transforming houses, churches, statues and other buildings into PokéStops, the game meant that suddenly people were turning up en masse.
And this made us wonder: What happens when your building becomes a PokéSpot? How do you deal with the new interest?
To find out, we fired off some Freedom of Information requests to various public buildings and institutions, to find out how they handled the unexpected Pokémon infestation.
Houses of Parliament
The Palace of Westminster is, understandably, one of the most (if not the most) secure building in the country. Every entrance is guarded by police officers, every visitor must go through an x-ray machine - and once you’re inside, photography is banned lest your snaps inadvertently give away any information that could be useful to people with nasty intentions.
So how did Parliamentary authorities respond to a game that positively encourages use of the camera function and which encouraged people to visit rather specific locations? The following security briefing note was issued, which warns that people shouldn’t be admitted purely to play Pokemon.
This was echoed in Parliament’s response to my FOI. Presumably spotting that I was a journalist, a spokesperson issued a statement reiterating the same points (no photos, no dicking about). But the spokesperson also points out that there are no rules against MPs playing the game:
“The game developers are best place to advise on what’s technically possible in the game, and beyond that it is up to MPs to decide how to spend their time.”
A few weeks after the game was released, it was actually mentioned in Parliament as Redcar MP Anne Turley was worried about kids playing in cemeteries. (In Norway, by contrast, the Prime Minister was spotted playing the game when she should have been working.)
Of course I also FOI’d Transport for London about Pokemon Go. They must hate me.
On the 21st July last year, following Parliament’s lead it too issued a security briefing for staff warning them to look out for players being idiots.
“Players are often so absorbed in the screens of their phones that they fail to appreciate their surroundings and the inherent dangers around them or whether access to an area is restricted”, it warns - illustrating the point with someone trying to catch a Kakuna which appears to be sat on some railway tracks and a level crossing.
The British Museum contains some of the greatest treasures from around the world. But why look up from your phone at the Rosetta Stone or the Elgin Marbles, when instead you could flick virtual balls to imprison pretend animals?
Because of the risk to the objects in the museums of hundreds of people swarming specific locations, the Museum says that it asked the internal “Big Data” team to perform an analysis - so they could work out just how popular Pokémon Go was.
The analysis involved digging into the wifi traffic in the museum - which apparently around 12% of visitors connect to. The data reveals that the game overtook YouTube and got close to Twitter in terms of number of user sessions from the museum. We would hazard a guess that one year on, things have returned to normal.
The Science Museum reacted by incorporating Pokémon Go into one of its adults-only “Lates” evenings - and incentivized players to catch Pokémon within the museum.
“As part of this event there was a ‘Pokegym’ and ‘Pokestops’ at different locations in the museum. Pokemon Ball stickers were handed out to visitors who showed staff at the Information Desk that they had caught a rare Pokemon within the museum”, the FOI response says.
Natural History Museum
The NHM released to me an email thread with various people (all anonymised) weighing in on Pokémon Go. One person suggested that the game could be used to highlight threats to biodiversity, and another suggested they should put Pokémon in jars in the Museum’s Darwin Centre expansion. One user even mocked up a Jigglypuff in a jar to show what it could look like:
But not all museum staffers were quite so forward thinking. One sent the following email during discussions of the impact of the phenomenon on their work:
“In Museum terms I think there is a slight conflict in that Pokemon has always promoted the idea that children — many of whom are now grown up — should fixate over and collect imaginary creatures rather than take an interest in real ones as represented at the Museum. Not sure if it quite aligns with our mission therefore if the reason they'll come here is to find a 'Zigazoon' [sic]. I also recall when Pokemon was first at its height in the 90s, obsessed children would sometimes ask if we had any Pokemon on display rather than boring zoo animals.”
Ironic then that they show a surprisingly detailed knowledge of Pokémon - as Zigzagoon is from the third (Ruby/Sapphire) generation of the original Game Boy games, which were released by the point when casuals were no longer playing.
Victoria & Albert Museum
And finally there’s the Victoria and Albert Museum, which is just across the road from the Natural History and Science Museums. And this perhaps had the most interesting FOI release of them all. As far as I can tell, the V&A didn’t respond publicly to the phenomenon - but clearly behind the scenes, there was a feeling that it probably should have done something, given the game’s potential to attract new, different audiences to the museum.
James Doc is one of the museum’s web developers, and he used Pokémon Go as a starting point in a presentation about how the organisation should better handle “fads”.
His argument was that PoGo (as the cool kids term it) is a good illustration of why they need to have a process in place. He gives the example of when the BBC handles a breaking news story on its website, there will be someone who puts up the short “breaking” post, someone tasked with finding images, and someone in charge of making any graphics, and so on.
He goes on to cite “The Dress” and the great 2016 marmite scare as similar viral stories that savvy brands were able to capitalise on. And he thinks that all organisations should ask themselves three questions when it comes to fads: “How is this fad affecting my organisation right now?”, “Does my organisation have anything to say to this fad?”, And “Can we use this fad to reach a new audience to raise awareness of my organisation’s goal or cause?”
So don’t be surprised if the next time we have something like Pokémon Go suddenly take the world by storm if the V&A has a much nimbler response.