Is Pokémon Go The Latest Shiny, New Toy?

July 25, 2016       Mark Hrywna      

It’s been less than a month since Pokémon Go was released and already nonprofits might be experiencing the early stages of reaction to the latest technological fad: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

The augmented reality game in which players try to catch Pokémon via a mobile app that makes them appear through their smartphone cameras already rivals Twitter in number of users. Nonprofits ranging from museums to churches and food banks kinds have tried their hand at participating in the game to draw visitors.

Many branches of the New York Public Library have created “Lure” events, activating a feature that “attracts” Pokémon to the area, bringing new patrons to the library. Other branches are using Pokémon as a jumping off point for other activities, according to a spokeswoman. The 53rd Street library organized a Pokémon-related scavenger hunt throughout the building to teach teens how to navigate the space. The Westchester Square branch put Pokémon cutouts in their Young Adult literature to encourage kids to catch not only Pokémon but new reading material as well.

At the same time, some museums have had to remind users to avoid stumbling into their collections while playing the game. The National Holocaust Museum Memorial in Washington, D.C has asked that users not play the game there and is working to be removed from the game. Other nonprofits might be asking whether Pokémon Go is just the latest shiny new toy to devote resources toward.

“Augmented reality is about adding a layer of fantasy, possibility, and discovery to the world we see around us,” said Steph Routh, content manager at Portland, Ore.-based NTEN. Whether nonprofits should be chasing Pokémon Go users is an open question, she said. “Nonprofits should definitely be paying attention,” she said. “The nonprofit sector exists to further social change; to manifest a reality that does not yet exist. A nonprofit’s role is about changing the reality we experience and helping envision and create a more just reality,” she said.

“The question nonprofits can ask themselves is, how can we as a change agent use the concept of augmented reality to further our mission? Perhaps the mission is about getting more people experiencing a neighborhood and making it feel safer. Maybe it is about connecting students with STEM programs. What part of our current reality is your mission trying to shift, and how can augmented reality help your dreams feel more possible? That is a lesson of Pokémon Go worth learning,” she said.

Pokémon Go represents the continued growth of “serious games” with real-world objectives, Elizabeth Merritt wrote in a blog post for the American Alliance of Museums (AAM). “Scavenger hunts in and around museums are nothing new nor are apps that introduce virtual elements into galleries even without permission,” said Merritt, founding director of the Center for the Future of Museums, an AAM initiative. “But the growth of open data sets and social media facilitate taking such use to scale,” she said, noting estimates from 9.5 million to 21 million active users of Pokémon Go per day in the United States.

Increased attendance has been reported at the McNay Art Museum in San Antonio, Texas, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark., and Morikami Museum & Japanese Gardens in Delray Beach, Fla., according to Merritt. There are still emerging concerns for museums, she said, as they “struggle to control, adapt to or partner with people who make us part of their digital worlds.