In 1997, I got Pokemon Blue. Maybe it was 1998. And maybe it was Pokemon Red. I don’t know which of those histories is true, so I’m going to believe they both are because, well, what does it matter?
I’m pretty sure it was Blue, though.
The game was more successful than anyone could have imagined; but nowhere in my childish brain – nor, later, my adult one – could I conceive of the idea that, twenty years later, we’d be using those critters to exploit human nature to improve our well-being.
I’m referring to Pokemon Go and the newly announced Pokemon Sleep. And by exploitation, I’m referring to two aspects of the game’s design that messes with our heads: cutsey characters and gacha games.
According to research, humans like cute things. Creatures with eyes too big for their heads (like baby mammals) make our brains go gaga. According to one study, we even concentrate more just by being exposed to pictures of big-eyed babes. Pikachu is the cocaine of cute: his eye-face ratio means that he’s basically two giant eyeballs, except cute and adorable and not kinda gooey and weird. In short: we’re evolutionary wired to be at his sweet-little whim.
Gacha games are a Japanese phenomenon in which you exchange money for a change at getting one in a set of collectable somethings. These are typically physical machines that you put a Y100 coin into, turn a handle and hope you haven’t received the same molded plastic shape being dispensed before. If so, repeat until lucky.
Gacha items have different probabilities of being dispensed, so you’re often stuck with duplicates. We see a similar system in the West with trading cards or stickers for stickerbooks, and more recently, loot boxes in computer games.
For some people, collecting these is an necessity, for others, the gambling aspect provides an intense rush. For an unlucky number, both of these apply.
Pokemon Go weaponises both of these techniques to get people to play the game (and spend money). Pokemon are cute, but they appear semi-randomly, and you gotta catch ’em all.
However, it’s not all evil: the game requires people to go outside. You literally can’t play Pokemon Go from a static location, as you need to visit real-world locations to find new Pokemon. People congregate at these locations; taking part in group battles, exchanging tips, socialising – sometimes sharing battery packs. Pokemon Go created a new public square and gym at the same time. But it did so by exploiting aspects of our humanity.
Will Pokemon Sleep do the same for naps? And what’s the cost when sleep is transformed into part of a transactional relationship with a system of reward? Are we exploiting ourselves for some greater good, or do we just not know the consequences yet?