Imagination in the Augmented-Reality Age

Pokémon Go may have reached the zenith of its popularity, but the game has far-reaching implications for the future of play.

Toru Hanai / Reuters

At the start of every school year, Diane Levin, an education professor at Boston’s Wheelock College who teaches a course called “Meaning and Development of Play,” has her students interview people of different ages about how they used to play when they were children. The results are not surprising: Every year, her students report that interview subjects over age 50 played outside all day in big groups of their peers, with a few toys (“maybe a ball”) and no adult supervision. People between the ages of 20 and 40, who grew up in the 1980s, ‘90s, and early 2000s, watched a lot of television but still played outside, often make-believe games inspired by TV shows and movies.

For young people today, however, it’s a different story. “They hardly play. If they do play it’s some TV script. Very prescribed,” Levin said. “Even if they have friends over, it’s often playing video games.”

That was before Pokémon Go, though.

The augmented-reality (AR) game that—since its release on July 6, attracted 21 million users and became one of the most successful mobile apps ever—has been praised for promoting exercise, facilitating social interactions, sparking new interest in local landmarks, and more. Education writers and experts have weighed in on its implications for teaching kids everything from social skills to geography to the point that such coverage has become cliché. And while it seems clear at this point that the game is a fad that has peaked—it’s been losing active players for over a week—one of the game’s biggest triumphs has, arguably, been the hope it’s generated about the future of play. While electronic games have traditionally caused kids to retreat to couches, here is one that did precisely the opposite.

Pokémon Go, for all its novelty and nostalgia and fun, was never meant to be the pinnacle of AR gaming; it is simple and has little objective aside from “catching ‘em all.” What Pokémon Go is, however, is one of the first iterations of what will undeniably be many more AR games. If done right, some say the technology Go introduced to the world could bring back the kind of outdoor, creative, and social forms of play that used to be the mainstay of childhood. Augmented reality, it stands to reason, could revitalize the role of imagination in kids’ learning and development.

Devon Lyon, a media producer based in Portland, Oregon, who has given talks about the relationship between AR and imagination, describes AR technology as the merging of video games and make-believe play.* Now 42 years old, Lyon describes his childhood in Salem, Oregon, in the 1980s as one full of bike-riding and imaginative play with friends. Imaginative play is a form of role-playing in which kids reinterpret real-life experiences and act out fantasies—the ground turns to lava, the treehouse becomes a castle tower, fairies and monsters live in the woods. Sometimes everything is invisible; sometimes toys are used as props—stuffed animals having a tea party, for example. This kind of play, it turns out, is an important building block in child development: Research shows that in creating the experience themselves, kids learn all sorts of skills that come in handy later in life, such as problem-solving and being inventive.

When he talks about how AR would have influenced his childhood had he been a kid today, Lyon’s speech speeds up with excitement. “If my friends and I were in the forest and we were having a sword fight with sticks, how cool would it be if we could actually have one of the Minotaurs [from] Dungeons and Dragons represented in front of us—but we’re still in the forest, and we still have sticks in our hands?” AR, according to Lyon, will make imaginative play—a childhood staple for older generations—mainstream again. As he noted in a 2014 TEDx event, traditional imaginative play is “critical”—“but I actually think it can be so much more.”

Some experts, though, argue that any digital technology limits, rather than extends, imagination. Levin, who is also the founder of the organization Teachers Resisting Unhealthy Children’s Entertainment (TRUCE), contends that in its truest sense, play is fundamentally explorative—it’s not just about being creative in responding to various situations, it’s about creating the situations themselves. “What play is all about is coming across interesting problems to solve that are unique to you, that grow out of your interactions, experiences, and knowledge,” she said. Levin fondly remembers the day her son, now grown, learned how to draw a “scary eye” while doodling one day—a feat he didn’t even know he cared to accomplish until he stumbled upon how to do it, and was pleased with the results. After that discovery he began drawing dozens of scary eyes, and eventually progressed to sculpting scary monsters out of clay.

Any video game, including one like Pokémon Go that takes advantage of the real world, is more about figuring out a program than being creative, argues Levin. “Pokémon Go is getting people outside but they’re still doing a very prescribed thing. They’re still being controlled by the screen,” she said. “By some classic definitions, that isn’t play.”

Michael Rich, an associate professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and the founder of the Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Children’s Hospital, says the kind of creativity developed through imaginative play is what eventually causes people to be able to respond proactively in the face of failure. Video games inherently “are not about taking the risks that lead us to new discoveries and new abilities within ourselves; they’re about reacting to and achieving,” he said. “They don’t prepare you for failure … They are designed to create a challenge you can ultimately succeed at so you can get to the next level and buy the next version.”

Indeed, for all Pokémon Go’s emphasis on social collaboration, exercise, and engagement with the real world (which John Hanke, the founder of Go, has said were some of his main objectives), it is still very much a product, and money is still very much involved—users can buy items with real money to lure Pokémon and advance through the game at a faster pace. No matter how well-intentioned, any video game or AR experience that emerges next will struggle to overcome what sets it apart from straightforward imaginative play: One is created in a child’s mind, the other is created by a company.

Harvard’s Rich warns against giving Go more credit than it’s due by equating it with imaginative play. “I think that what people are saying about Pokémon Go is not that it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread, but, ‘Aren’t you glad they’re not just sitting on the couch playing Grand Theft Auto?’ It seems really good in comparison to the alternative we’d already accepted.” Though, while it does succeed at getting users out and moving, as the author and scholar Kristen Race argued in The New York Times, hunting for Pokémon in Go “activates the exact same brain structures as playing Grand Theft Auto.” In an article for Quartz, the neuroscientist Colin Ellard writes that when playing Go, as well as first-person shooter games, there is an increased activation in a part of the brain called the caudate nucleus, which is also the same part of the brain activated when following GPS navigation (rather than exploring or finding one’s own way).

To that end, the ways in which users responded to the changes to Go announced last weekend also raise questions about the kinds of AR experiences people want. The two most controversial changes were that it stopped giving “tracking” clues indicating how close a player was to a Pokémon and it barred the use of third-party services that had sprung up to help players locate Pokémon. Theoretically these changes heighten the discovery and exploration aspects of the game—making it harder to find Pokémon but ultimately giving players more autonomy. The blowback from users was astounding. Downloads dropped drastically, and many users demanded their money back. Scores of people retreated to social media to complain about the game’s changes. A comment on one subreddit reads, “Who else is having more fun following this sub than actually playing the game at [this] point?”

That said, over 75 percent of Pokémon Go players are adults over the age of 18. And tech evangelists insist that AR technology does hold the potential for creating experiences that are, in fact, comparable to true make-believe play. “AR is a way to extend the human imagination, not supplant it,” said Helen Papagiannis, a researcher and designer who has worked with AR for a decade. In her forthcoming book Augmented Human, she describes AR as “a form of make-believe, creating a virtual story that can be visual, audible, tangible, olfactory, and even one you can taste.” Lyon, the Portland media producer, says it’s fully possible to create games for kids in which they largely make their own choices but have some assistance in carrying them out.

The question is whether or not those experiences will come to pass. “What I hope to not see happen is that all that’s produced are stories fed to us in a linear, narrative way,” Lyon said. “If storytellers and creatives work in conjunction with developers, and if we’re careful, what we can see is a merging of video games and imaginative play.”

In order to ensure that the AR games of the future treat children’s imaginations with the reverence they deserve, Lyon urges developers and storytellers to involve children in the development phase of augmented-reality gaming. “I guarantee you they’re going to have insights into what they think will be fun,” he said. He pointed to a virtual-reality game he has on one of the devices that allows the user to paint a character onto a simple snowman template. When Lyon and some other adults first tested the game, they focused on painting the outside of the snowman. His 9-year-old daughter was the only one who thought to crawl inside the character and paint a heart.

* This article originally misspelled Devon Lyon’s first name as Devin. We regret the error.