Pokémon Go and the Future of Storytelling

I’m a 30-year old man with a wife and two kids. I have a full-time job. Moreover, I’m also editing a feature film, directing a web transmedia project, and organizing an arts festival for my community.

I do all of these things, yet here I sit at my favorite coffee shop – which also happens to be a Pokéstop – doing everything I can to be the very best, like no one ever was.

Pokémon GO represents a shift in the culture of our storytelling process
– or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it reflects a shift that, unbeknownst to many, has already occurred. You see, for the past few years, the culture and process of storytelling has been shifting – almost imperceptibly if you’re not looking for it.

Pokemon Go and Storytelling Banner Image

Alternate Realities and Storytelling

We, as a people (myself included), are no longer interested in simply consuming the stories that are offered to us. It’s simply not enough for us to watch a TV show, go to the theater, or read a book. We want to go further. We want to go deeper. We want to take part in that story and feel ownership of it.

Even though this mentality is increasingly pervasive in our culture, it’s actually not a new concept. Alternate Reality Storytelling has been around for quite some time, and chances are, you probably know someone who has participated in it – even if they don’t know it themselves!

Don’t believe me? Consider the following.

Sports Teams and Pocket Monsters

Sports fans are notorious for becoming absolutely enthralled with their favorite teams. They take any and every opportunity to talk about their team to their peers, post about them online, plaster their logo in every conceivable place, and start arguments about how their team is obviously the superior choice. Essentially, sports fans take on a part of their team’s identity as their own, and by doing so, they participate in the story that team creates.

This storytelling aspect is even more pronounced when your favorite team has something to prove – everyone loves to root for the underdog. The risk of loss may be greater, but the hard-earned victories are worth it – just ask Cubs fans!

Still, we can take this example even further.

Fantasy FootballMany sports fans also take part in fantasy leagues – where they can take their favorite teams and role-play the manager. Fantasy sports players pick and choose from a roster of hundreds of players until they build what they consider the perfect team, and then they compete with others to see whose team is the very best.

Sound familiar? It should.

In Pokémon GO, players are tasked building a team from a roster of 150 pocket monsters, and they do so by catching them in the “real world” through an app on their phones. After they’ve played the game for a while, players will join one of three teams (named Mystic, Valor, and Instinct). Players then take on the identity of their team and battle to control gyms around the world (based in real-world locations) – all in the name of seeing whose team is the very best.

The three teams of Pokemon GO - Valor, Instinct, and Mystic
The three teams of Pokemon GO – Valor, Instinct, and Mystic.

In both cases, players of both games are using the real world as a basis for the mechanics of the game they’re playing. While they do differ in their manner of play (you actually have to get off the couch to play Pokémon GO), the two share a great many common characteristics.

Choosing Your Adventure

Understand that I’m not saying that either one is the superior game in any way, because in my mind, they both accomplish the same goal. Both games utilize the real world as a framework to craft a player-centric narrative.

This is the crux of Alternate Reality Gaming.

Traditionally speaking, audience involvement in story has been relegated to a “choose-your-own adventure” type of scenario, where the audience member can choose which pre-determined path the story takes. Alternate Reality Gaming eschews this strategy entirely, because storytellers aren’t just giving the audience a choice between a few possible outcomes (video games have been doing this for decades), but they’re actually putting audiences in the proverbial driver’s seat – giving them license to craft their own stories within the framework of a universe created solely for that purpose!

Putting Pokemon in the real world!
Players commonly tell stories by putting Pokémon into the real world!

Again, this concept has actually lurked beneath the surface of our culture for years – tabletop games such as Dungeons and Dragons are built upon the premise that the story changes based on the player’s actions – but Pokémon GO is the first game to truly bring this concept into the mainstream. If you don’t believe me, just look at the numbers – in the US, Pokémon GO has surpassed Twitter in terms of active users, and it’s only been out for a week and a half!

To me, however, there’s something even more fascinating about the game and the community that supports it. See, when Niantic (the game’s developers) released Pokémon GO on iOS and Android, they did so without releasing any instructions to go with it.

In an age where it’s an unwritten rule that every video game needs a tutorial level to hold your hand, Pokémon GO decided to approach things differently and let its players discover the rule system themselves. This, in and of itself, has caused the Pokémon GO community to become even more invested in the game, because even the game’s mechanics are a story to be discovered – and, more importantly, defined – by the players of the game.

Telling Stories. Together.

So, in essence, Niantic has set up a massive playground utilizing the real world as its foundation, given it just enough structure to hold itself together, and set the players loose to compete and create their own adventures. Is the game perfect? Absolutely not, but if the wild popularity of Pokémon GO is any indication, Alternate Reality Gaming is here to stay, and our stories may never be the same again.

All of these elements combine to create the Pokémon phenomenon that’s unfolding in front of us, and, in this writer’s opinion, it’s absolutely wonderful, because it not only allows audience members to participate in the story, it allows them to do so together. If you’ll indulge me for a moment more, I’ll tell you how.

Storytelling. Spontaneously.

One night last week, my dog decided that she needed to go for a walk at 11:30 at night (Cocker Spaniels have very active bladders), so I grudgingly slipped on my sandals and went out the door. Of course, I fired up Pokémon GO as I went, thinking I might catch a Pidgey or two while taking a quick stroll down the sidewalk. The loading screen receded, and up popped the digital version of my neighborhood.

Then I saw it.

A Scyther, my childhood-favorite Pokémon popped up on my tracker. What began as a quick stroll had suddenly become much more – this was serious business.

So off we went, and as we rounded a corner, I spotted three college-aged guys on skateboards coming down the hill, all with lit-up phones in hand. Being an introvert, I didn’t engage them at first, but when they doubled back around and I caught a glimpse at one guy’s phone, I knew we on the same legendary quest.

I hailed them to my position, and it turned out that they had been tracking the elusive bug-type creature all over the neighborhood. We exchanged location intel and coordinated our efforts. They would travel down the road towards the YMCA, while I canvased the back part of the neighborhood. If either party found our quarry, we would text our position to the others.

Together, we would accomplish what we could not do alone.

So, off we went in search of our elusive prize. I rounded another corner, walked for a bit, and then I noticed another guy standing conspicuously on a corner, occasionally swiping his finger across his phone in a very Pokémon GO-esque manner. Thinking that perhaps he could provide further aid in my quest to decipher the Scyther’s location, I headed in that direction.

Then, with a sudden crash, the green-skinned monster popped up on my phone’s screen, patrolling the parking lot behind a nearby apartment complex.

It. Was. ON.

I sent a request for aid to my skateboard-riding compatriots, and then, with the most epic tap my phone’s screen has ever received, I plunged headlong into battle with the creature. Pokéball in hand, the monster and I glared at each other for a brief moment, sizing each other up – both contemplating the struggle that was about to unfold. Then, before he had time to react, I struck – throwing my creature-capturing device with all my digital strength – hitting him square in the nose. A flash of light, and then I waited – one second… two seconds… CLICK. I knew it was over, and I was victorious.

The spoils of victory.
The spoils of victory.

Head held high, I turned towards home just as my skateboarding compatriots rode up and engaged the creature themselves. I gave them a reassuring nod, whispered a prayer for their success, and I continued on my way.

As I rounded the corner towards my driveway, I spotted a young couple with phones in-hand heading in the opposite direction – scanning the horizon with excitement in their eyes. As I passed by, I turned and said three simple words.

“He’s up there.”

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