University researchers discover what spending money on Pokemon Go really gets you

By: Kiel Watson, Student Life Editor

An international team of researchers led by Dr. Philipp Rauschnabel has shed light on what players of the augmented reality game Pokemon Go worry about, why they enjoy playing and what motivates them to spend money in the most comprehensive study of the game to date.

When Niantic released Pokemon Go last year there was buzz, but the company was unprepared for the incredible popularity of the game, which overloaded servers so badly that it was unplayable by many in the first weeks of its release. The game drew quite a lot of attention by causing video game players, typically a sedentary bunch, to venture outside and  interact with other players at gyms and pokestops. The recent addition of raid battles even goes so far as making the teamwork aspect of the game which was previously voluntary a required part of the gameplay. New research from the University of Michigan-Dearborn, however, has shown that players of the hit game lauded for its social interaction not only enjoy it just as much when nobody else is around, but that the players that spend money in the game do it because of other players.

Rauschnabel was joined in the research project by Alexander Rossman of Reutlingen University, Germany, and M. Claudia tom Dieck of Manchester Metropolitan University in the United Kingdom. The research was conducted in an effort to learn more about the AR games after Pokemon Go spread like wildfire, but the applications can potentially be applied to other games to follow. Even though Pokemon Go became the most publicly notable AR game on the market, it was not the first. The publisher of the game, Niantic, previously had released a game called Ingress, which became the basic map structure of their Pokemon game. The various pokestops and gyms in the game were locations players of Ingress had mapped out in their game, allowing Niantic to use free crowdsourced labor for their incredibly popular game.

The use by Niantic of player data from Ingress was something that few players likely worries about at the time, and according to the research by Rauschnabel, is not a concern for Pokemon Go players as well. When surveyed, players indicated that data collection and privacy concerns were not a factor in their choice to play the game. When you stop to think about the fact that the app has access to your GPS location and your camera in addition to troves of other data the finding were surprising given that players were slightly concerned about physical risks and dangers associated with playing outdoors in sometimes unsafe locations, the research showed. When asked why data collection was not a concern for players Rauschnabel said, “Most players are aware of potential threats to their privacy, but it does not impact their behavior. It seems that people overweigh the short-term benefits of playing and discount the abstract consequences of privacy risks in the future.”

According to those surveyed, among the many reasons for playing was nostalgia. Pokemon was something remembered from childhood, and Pokemon Go managed to associate with those memories to allow players to experience the game through rose-colored glasses and enjoy it more because of the psychological association it has to those cherished memories.  

A less noticeable reason researchers learned players consistently play the game is what is known as flow theory. Something many people encounter in everyday life, flow theory is described as the “feeling of complete and energized focus in an activity, with a high level of enjoyment and fulfillment.” An example would be to think of the last time you were engaged in a task where you became so engrossed in your actions that you began to lose your sense of time and of your surroundings. When you feel like you get into your groove in a task and you perform better than you normally would. If you can think of an instance where that happened, congratulations; you’ve experienced flow. The mental state flow brings about is rewarding, as the more successful we are at the task we are engrossed in, the happier it makes us, leading to an increase in the desire to continue or return to the task. Many simple and repetitive games such as endless runner mobile games, or even classics like Tetris rely on creating this state in players.

One area where Pokemon Go was able to capture the public’s interest was the fact that all of a sudden it was possible to play video games and exercise. A generation of people that had spent their childhoods mostly indoors were going out for long walks and dusting off bicycles. In the first few months of the game’s release success stories abound about overweight players shedding pounds as they walked miles per day. The positive effect of the game on the physical and mental well being of players getting out and being active was another factor in the decision to play, and to keep playing. All of the time outside at pokestops also led players to interacts with other users of the game, leading to it being hailed as a social lubricant bringing people together. The findings of Rauschnabel and his team, however, proved this wasn’t the case. While the social factor of the game was viewed positively by players, it was not a significant source of enjoyment to the players, and not a major reason they continued to play.

While playing Pokemon Go is free, Niantic had earned more than $1 billion dollars from the game early this year. Research findings showed that those that spent the money on the game did so because of other players. The reasons for the purchases were both selfish and altruistic. On the selfish side money was spent on items to gain advantages in-game so that players could level up and advance beyond other players to establish their superiority. On the other end of the scale purchases of lures, which draw pokemon to a certain location for all players were often made for the benefit of other nearby players as well as the one spending the money.

One finding of the research that was surprising was that player enjoyment of the game did not directly relate to the money that was spent on in-app purchases. Those that played the game without spending any money were just as likely to enjoy the game as those that put forth money, proving that enjoyment of an AR game such as Pokemon Go may not follow the tradition rules of mobile games where a higher user rating leads to higher profits. As more established properties enter the market in the coming years the success of Pokemon will be put to the test.

Augmented reality games are truly just the tip of the iceberg. While Google Glass did not gain traction with the public and the Microsoft Hololens is out of the casual consumer’s grasp, the technology is out there and it will not go away. As time goes by we will see an increasing level of integration between the real world and the virtual. Alexa and Google home already have made massive inroads into the lives of consumers, and the smart watches are now everywhere. As tech improves, lowers in price, and becomes more fashionable the adoption rate increases. Whether it is in the form of glasses with a display, contact lenses or cybernetic implants, one day a computer will be able to show us what we want to see wherever we look. Looking to the future, Rauschnabel said “The real world and the digital world will merge. Augmented reality and the Internet of things are one of the two main drivers of this development.”

More information on the study can be found at www.philipprauschnabel.com