This past November, rumors started to fly about a special Christmas update to the application. Legendary Pokémon! Pokémon trading! Something called a Typhlosion! Hundreds of new Pokémon released into the wild! Having a very limited understanding of the Pokémon universe, I had no idea what any of that meant, but I was interested. Finally, I thought, something to catch that's not a pigeon or a cranky looking rat. In early December, the update hit the streets, and we got…
Pikachu. With a Santa hat.
In addition, Niantic released five of what appear to be baby Pokémon, but there was a catch: You can only hatch them from eggs. Hatching Pokémon eggs is one of the more tedious aspects of the game, because it requires you to walk a certain distance with the app running. Five eggs and 25 km later, I'd only hatched one of the new ones. This is a clever tactic to get players to spend money within the game; you can purchase additional egg incubators which enable you to hatch multiple eggs at once. They did not get my money, as I do not tend to spend money on boring things in order to make them more interesting. I do tend to cheat them, however.
There are many video games I have become bored with and cheated to win. I'm not the only one, either. In her book Cheating: Gaining Advantage in Video Games, Mia Consalvo discusses the reasons people cheat at video games. Reasons include being stuck, wanting to explore expanded boundaries within the game, maliciousness, and just being bored. These findings were corroborated by researchers at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University who found that students self-reported wanting to progress or gain an advantage over others as primary reasons for their cheating behavior (Doherty et al., 2014). In this case, I fell into the "bored" category.
So how do you cheat at Pokémon GO? The primary objective of the game is to "catch them all," however they are not all accessible to you at any one place. Success requires you to travel, as some critters are only available on specific continents. To fill out the Pokedex, a player would have to travel the world…or at least their phone's GPS would have to reflect that. It turns out that in Android's developer mode, it's fairly straightforward to spoof your GPS location and navigate with a virtual joystick. If your phone's GPS thinks it's in Tokyo, Pokémon GO does as well. Cheating is not without its risks. Niantic has banned players from using fake location data, as well as other cheats, but at this point I decided that getting banned from this game was probably not a horrible thing for my productivity anyway, and it was probably worth it.
Over the next few weeks, I went to London to catch Mr. Mime, Tokyo to catch Farfetch'd, and Sydney to catch Kangaskhan. I spent a lot of time in New York's Central Park and Times Square. After a few hours, I realized something interesting: I'm actually pretty familiar with the layout of Central Park just from navigating the map in the game. I know that the zoo is one of the southernmost points in the park, and that Carnegie Hall is a couple of blocks away. I can get from Bryant Park to Times Square by going north and west. And now that all the Starbucks locations are Pokestops, I'm real sure I could get you a cup of coffee in ten minutes if you dropped me anywhere in the middle of Manhattan. This makes sense, given every Pokestop is a labeled landmark, and while not high fidelity, the map provides enough information for me to know where the roads are and the difference between land and water.
Whether this learning transfers to the real world is an empirical question. To find out, I'd have to take a trip to the Big Apple. While the Pokémon people probably never intended it, they may have tapped into a paradigm for incidental spatial learning. For example, an incoming university student could familiarize themselves with a large campus prior to their first day of class through playing a similar game. Soldiers could learn landmarks in a new operational environment before they deploy. Astronauts headed to distant planets could learn a new landscape through a game during the long flight. While other methods might be more effective, this might be a fun avenue to explore!