Winter, 2004. High school students move a 20 foot-tall, inflatable big horn sheep through the streets of Minneapolis. They are armed with camera phones, which are still novel. The goal: to capture semacodes (an early QR code competitor) printed on billboards, bus ads, and other urban surfaces within the area occupied by the team’s animal totem. This is ConQwest, a “pervasive game” sponsored by the telecom company Qwest in ten US cities. Four years later, one of ConQwest’s creators, Dennis Crowley, creates the location check-in app Foursquare.
Spring, 2007. Area/Code, the creators of ConQwest, release Plundr, a location-based pirate adventure game that transforms wi-fi hotspots into islands on which players can trade and battle. To travel to a different island, players must physically relocate to another wireless hotspot. Suddenly, a Starbucks is not just a Starbucks.
These are just a few of the ancestors of Pokémon Go, the smartphone-based, physical-world rendition of the decades-old monster fighting game that took the world by storm over the weekend. It has a direct precursor, too: in 2012, Pokémon Go developer Niantic, previously a part of Google, had created Ingress, a science-fiction narrative game played in real locations with Android phones. Pokémon Go is really just a branded re-skin of Ingress, using the points of interest and mapping data that had been created for that game (or borrowed from Google).
Seen in the lineage of its ancestors, Pokémon Go isn’t what it seems on first blush. Billed as an augmented reality game, the title does offer an experience that blends computer graphics with live camera video. But that aspect of the title is entirely optional. Sure, it makes good on the delightful proposition of hunting Pokémon in the real, physical world, and at locations that correspond with the monsters’ various capacities. But mostly, it gives players appealing, local images to help endear others to the experience on social media—and thereby to spread the urge to play among others who’ve enjoyed Pokémon over the last two decades.
For the creators of alternate reality games, pervasive games, big games, and all the other names that have been used to describe computer games played in and across real-world spaces, Pokémon Go represents a bittersweet victory. On the one hand, it shows that an unlikely combination of technology and social will has finally made a truly mass-market pervasive game possible. On the other hand, as Area/Code co-founder and current NYU Game Center director Frank Lantz told me, “such a victory was only possible thanks to years of corporate patronage from Google, along with the licensing of the most popular videogame IP of all time.”
When they first hit the scene more than a decade ago, pervasive and alternate reality games promised to offer a different way to see and understand the physical, material world. The game designer and author Jane McGonigal, who was also one of the “puppetmasters,” or game-runners of ilovebees, insisted that the “alternate” in “alternate reality” didn’t signify the alternative reality of fantasy, but the alternating one of realism. These games wouldn’t replace the world, either as escapist entertainment or as instrumental exercise or socialization therapy. Instead, they would force the fictional and the real worlds to swap places, and rapidly. The result would be a new and deeper appreciation for the real reality that the games use as their materials. That’s one reason pervasive games so often make use of paranoia fiction: they make visible previously unseen—even if preposterous or unlikely—possibilities.