What ‘Pokemon Go’ and ‘Skyrim’ Have in Common

PokeStops encourage us to look up and notice the little design details around us that we’d praise in a virtual world, but that we often take for granted in the real world.

I wrote this about the difference between exploration and wandering some time ago:

Exploration is not an aimless activity. It’s a very goal-driven activity. We might not know what our goal is initially, we might not know what we’re looking for, but we know we’re looking for something. It’s the knowledge (or assumption) of that “something” that drives us to look closely at the world, to explore it. Without that “something” to tempt us, our movement ceases to be exploration and becomes wandering. The former has a purpose (we move with the intention of learning), but the latter has no purpose. That’s why Skyrim gives us a compass to point us in the direction of interesting discoveries. Bethesda understood that without some sort of goal in mind, players can only wander, and wandering is boring.

I think the distinction still holds true. There’s a fine line between exploration and wandering, between something fun and something frustrating. The Elder Scrolls and Fallout games have achieved immense popularity because they expertly straddle that line. Surprisingly, so too does Pokemon Go.

Lots has been written about the multiplayer and social aspects of Pokemon Go, but that experience is only available if you live in certain areas. I live in a suburban place that’s not exactly a hot spot of Pokemon hunting, so if I’m at a PokeStop and someone walks by on their phone and I don’t speak up to ask “Catch anything?”, my Pokemon hunting experience ends up being more solitary, less social — a personal adventure in hunting for unknown rewards in an unfamiliar location. This is much like playing Skyrim.

Skyrim knew how to bait us into exploration through the promise of discovery. Pokemon Go uses PokeStops towards that same goal. The PokeStops on the map act like the icons on the compass in Skyrim. They’re a guide through an unfamiliar location. In Bethesda’s game that unfamiliar location was probably filled with caves and dungeons and crypts and towns, while in Niantic’s game, the unfamiliar location is more mundane, probably a shopping center that we’ve always driven by but never entered or a simple suburban neighborhood that we’ve only ever driven through.

The mundane aside, the PokeStops (like the compass) help us plot a route through this new area. We can see all the stops around us, so it’s easy to plan a path that winds past every one of them. Now we walk with a purpose, we know where we’re going and why. We don’t know what we’ll find, but we know we’ll find something. We’re exploring. Without the PokeStops to guide us, we’d have less direction, and we’d be reduced to wandering.

Additionally, the PokeStops, unlike Pokemon hunting, encourage us to look up from our phones. The PokeStops are attached to physical locations, and those physical locations are displayed on a little digital coin that represents the PokeStop in the game. By displaying a photo of this real-world object on the screen, the game is helping us orient ourselves within the world.

For example, I was walking down a sidewalk towards a PokeStop that was attached to some location called “Iron Leaves”. The picture on the screen showed a metal plate with images of leaves stamped on it. I was confused. I wasn’t by a building so this couldn’t be a mural, and the sidewalk was pretty open so there were no statues or sculptures hidden behind the bushes. The Iron Leaves were pretty distinctive, and there wasn’t much around me, yet I couldn’t find them.

Then I looked down. There was a small tree next to me, growing out of a patch of soil that had been purposely set between the concrete slabs of the sidewalk. Surrounding that patch of soil were metal grates stamped with leaves.

I was taken aback by the stamps. Here was this little bit of art hidden in plain sight that I never would have noticed if not for the PokeStop. After this moment, I made a point to pay attention to the pictures on the PokeStops, to look up from the phone and search out the exact object depicted on the screen. Sometimes this was easy — the PokeStop was just a store sign or an obvious mural. However, sometimes I found another hidden gem — a decorative column marking the county border, a biking art piece stuck between two bushes, or a cool statue in a store window.

The compass in Skyrim was meant to point us towards interesting locations. Lots of time and effort went into designing that world, and the developers wanted to help us see as much of it as we could. The PokeStops in Pokemon Go might not have been designed with that same specific intent, but the resulting feelings of exploration and discovery are the same. I’m still drawn to things that might otherwise go overlooked. It’s actually shocking how much art surrounds us at all times that we don’t notice, little works of creativity that give the world a human touch.

Pokemon Go is known for its social gaming, but there’s a value in its single-player experience as well. Without others around, it’s easier to get caught up hunting PokeStops rather than Pokemon, and that leads to a greater appreciation of the world around us. Pokemon Go has been mocked as a game in which people walk around staring at their phones, not acknowledging the world, but the PokeStops explicitly work against this misconception. They encourage us to look up, to notice the little design details around us that we’d praise in a virtual world, but that we often take for granted in the real world.