Digital applications that facilitate social interactions
Pokémon Go is a mobile app game where you can catch Pokémon in the real world. It was released on July 6, 2016. Soon after it was released, one often saw groups of people with battery packs attached to their phones walking around cities and sometimes congregating in certain areas. Even though the app crashed often due to technical issues, the fun times Pokémon fans had outweighed the inconveniences those frequent crashes brought.
Fast forward to 2020, I still occasionally spot a Pokémon Go player walking around but they have become as rare as catching a Dratini. There were a couple years or so that I had deleted the app but my sister who recently became enthused about the game got me into it again. I was pleasantly surprised at the app’s smooth performance and the new features that have been released, such as being able to identify “friends,” send them gifts, and trade Pokémon with them if you are within a certain physical distance from one another.
Coming back to the platform in recent times has made me reminisce about the beginning times. My partner and I would often take long walks in the evenings together so we could play. While there has been criticism of the app because people don’t always look where they’re going while playing, the app has been praised for getting people who might have otherwise been sitting at home playing a game, off the couch and walking around as many features require actual walking (i.e. physically going to different Pokéstops, hatching an egg, or getting “candies” from your buddy).
At my previous workplace, I was fortunate to be located in what I would call a Pokémon “hot spot.” There were several Pokémon gyms where raids were held. Raids are time-bound events where a Pokémon would be available for one to battle with rewards for those who win, including the potential to capture the Pokémon you just battled. Raids usually require several Pokémon Go players to work together in order to be successful and this is where the game became a social activity.
I remember co-workers gathering at various times throughout the week in order to win a raid together (one could say our breaks were team building activities). During one of the exciting beginning months of the game, I remember going out one weekend with a neighbor and friend who was playing. We encountered large groups of strangers at various Pokémon raids and worked with each other to accomplish our shared goal, however small it may have been.
Recently, I have arrived at raid spots and found no one around. I have tried to win a raid alone but it doesn’t work and I leave defeated. I applaud Pokémon Go because they have designed a game where you need to be social and be co-located with other humans to experience the full range of the game. In an age where we are concerned about the amount of time spent solely in a digital world, we should consider creating and embracing more digital experiences which complement human-to-human ones.
Another past experience that I look back fondly on was when HQ, a trivia app which only broadcast at certain times of the day (it has changed a bit since then), was wildly popular at my workplace. I was actually visiting my current workplace for an on-site interview and at 3pm, I noticed a group of co-workers leave their desks and stand in a circle, excited about something. I had not heard about HQ but quickly became hooked and learned that it was best played as a large group, in order to increase the chances that someone knew the right answer. It was basically a couple minutes spent answering random questions, but the time spent together was time that we had peeled ourselves away from our desks, and even though we were still looking at screens, we were interacting with each other in the real world.
These two apps make me think, how might we facilitate more positive human-to-human interactions using these screens we always have in our pockets? It might not even have to be a game. While I am excited about a future with screenless UI, more ambient notifications, and more seamless and useful integration of IoT devices, the reality is we are staring long and hard at our phones today and will be continuing this habit into the near future. However, we can use the apps we have or create new apps that draw people into situations where they have to go somewhere new or interact with other people or both.
There is a longer list of mobile apps which get people moving and interacting in the real world, including Wizards Unite (developed by the same company that developed Pokémon Go, Niantic), Geocaching, and most dating apps. (There are also digital applications, such as games on Nintendo Wii or Switch, that facilitate real world group interactions but I’ve kept this blurb about mobile applications.) I’m not familiar with all of them but here are some attributes I’ve noticed across the mobile apps that successfully encourage users to get off the couch to interact with others:
Having the user accomplish a goal in a time-bound way creates a sense of urgency and gets people to take action. When you can only accomplish the goal at a certain time and place, people will gather at the designated time and naturally be there to interact with one another. Some dating apps, such as Coffee Meets Bagel, utilize this tactic of limiting online interactions to a certain amount of time in order to get people to stop messaging and to start meeting in the real world.
Using location services, apps can encourage users to walk around or go somewhere different. They can place certain activities in designated spots in the real world. This is key to having people physically congregate and inevitably interact with each other.
This may be the most important attribute. In order for there to be other humans to interact with, members of your local community need to be bought in and using the same platform. Mass adoption is key to there being an in-person social aspect. With a dating app, the more people on the app, the more likely you’ll find a match that you’ll want to meet up with in person. With Pokémon Go, I can’t win raids alone, so like I said, I still play and I wish you would too.