According to the National Academy of Sciences, “nature-based recreation” has decreased 25 percent in the last 40 years. The average American now spends only one half of a day per week outdoors. Furthermore, kids now spend an average of only 30 minutes or less outdoors each day, half as much as 20 years ago. Is Pokémon Go — the explosively popular game app released worldwide this month — a way to get adults and kids off their sofas and into parks and other public spaces?
After a couple of days happily playing the game, my answer is a qualified yes. The qualification: it is possible to play a circumscribed version of the game while sitting at your desk or sofa. But the game is really designed to get you out into streets, parks, and plazas. It got me out into two public places — the town square in downtown Rockville, Maryland, and Pershing Square Park in Washington, D.C. — where I had different yet intriguing experiences.
Pokémon Go, which may be downloaded on iOS and Android devices, is a free, location-based augmented reality game in which players capture adorable-looking creatures called Pokémon. The game is played not from a comfy sofa, but out in the real world.
The app provides a map of the player’s real-world surroundings. Players move outside in order to find Pokémon and capture them using Poké-balls. The map provides a handy way to locate Poké-stops, which are found in such public spaces as public art installations, historical markers, and monuments and contain additional Poké-balls and other items. Poké-gyms, where players unleash their Pokémon to fight, are also located near prominent local businesses and other attractions.
I spent my first afternoon playing the game at Rockville Town Square, a 12-acre suburban public plaza that opened in 2007, part of a larger master plan to create a “daytime, evening and weekend activity center that is easily identifiable, pedestrian-oriented and incorporates a mix of uses and activities.” Not only is it home to shops and restaurants, the square also includes a number of Poké-stops. The large crowd who congregated there on a Sunday afternoon included many Pokémon Go players, smartphones in hand, searching for virtual goodies hidden in the colorful public art.
The game turned into a communal experience as we chatted with strangers along the wide sidewalks. We all certainly benefited from Rockville’s cohesive pedestrian policies and were able to crisscross the square and surrounding streets safely with little interference from traffic. While it may be facile to urge landscape architects to create Pokémon-friendly landscapes, they should continue to design high-quality and lasting public spaces that accommodate ever-evolving recreation preferences and pedestrian safety.
A couple of days later, I felt the urge to play the game at D.C.’s Pershing Square Park, a multi-level park designed by M. Paul Friedberg + Partners that opened in 1981. It features a monument to General John J. Pershing as well as a bronze sculpture of an eagle by Lorenzo Ghiglieri — both, unsurprisingly, are Poké-stops. I spent half an hour in the park on a Thursday afternoon and quickly gathered items from the statues (this is done on the app by spinning a photo of the public art or feature).
After capturing these Pokémon, I found myself with nothing to do. The park was seemingly devoid of Pokémon, no matter where I stood, so I gave up and sat down to enjoy the calm retreat from the noisy traffic streaming on all sides. Tree branches shook in the breeze, and a parade of Falun Dafa supporters marched by. One woman paused in front of the Pershing monument, not to admire its historical significance, but to retrieve items for the game. Once she finished, she quickly walked away.
Later, a family of tourists arrived with cameras. They stood in front of the monument and photographed it and each other as they spoke in their native language. Clearly they were savoring a moment to be remembered later — a traditional experience of a public space that still serves a time-honored purpose.
My experiences with Pokémon Go, and observations of other players, show that the game may not fit the traditional definition of outdoor recreation, but it certainly creates enthusiasm for exploring your environment and engaging in physical exercise.
And perhaps this new enthusiasm for augmented reality games can be tapped to generate more creative designs of public spaces that integrate real and game worlds. Similar games are sure to come in the future.