$200 million in revenue and 100 million users later, it's safe to call Pokemon GO a sensation.
The iPhone and Android mobile game encouraging players to venture out into their communities to capture Pokemon recently became the largest mobile game in history, capturing the attention of news outlets around the world. It's even helping players with autism and other social disorders engage with their communities in new and unexpected ways.
But Pokemon GO has the potential to be something more. As Americans mark the centennial of the National Parks Service, is it so outlandish to imagine Pokemon GO revolutionizing the way Millennials think about public spaces?
NPR Morning Edition host David Greene turned to Instagram on Sunday to grumble about the legion of Pokemon GO players using Washington, D.C.'s Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial as a popular "Pokemon nest." But when it comes to catching 'em all, the Parks Service is enthusiastic about growing national Pokemania.
Buzzfeed first reported on the Parks Service utilizing Pokemon GO to merge educational experiences with the latest gaming trend. Instead of fighting the flow of gamers to national forests and monuments, the Parks Service encourages site staff to engage players - even going so far as to help new visitors hunt elusive Pokemon.
A quick jaunt to the Washington Monument or the Roosevelt Memorial reveals hundreds of players at all hours of the day. They socialize, take in tours, contest Pokemon "gyms" (where players battle their captured monsters against each other) and engage Park Rangers. It's hard to imagine many of these players visiting memorials on their own.
Even if the consumption of history or natural beauty is secondary to gameplay - and it is, in many cases - who are we to criticize? It's hardly new to see tourists soaking in history, faces firmly placed in phones. What's so fascinating about Pokemon GO is the way in which it has shifted the demographics of our parks and monuments. Many players are getting a sense of the Parks Service for the first time.
From Pokemon to Public Policy
I reached out to a player in Arlington, Virginia about his experiences using local parks as a field of play. The Level 33 player, who goes by the handle "Fulliautomatix," told me this:
"It's brilliant seeing parks that used to have three or four people and their dogs now have four or five times as many Pokemon fans using them. The game has spurred a greater connection - a real connection - between folks in the neighborhood and the parks in the community."
You'll hear that a lot. And local communities are increasingly recognizing the potential of Pokemon GO to foster dialogues about the often dull subject of public parks and greenspace. Last month, Fairfax County, Virginia hosted a community "Pokethon" that combined neighborhood walks with discussions of safety and the importance of maintaining community spaces. Hundreds turned out.
Governing Magazine reports on the broader national trend of localities - especially local police departments - using the opportunity presented by Pokemon GO to discuss community safety while softening their image. There's no reason local governments can't do the same to engage users on the importance of their local parks.
70% of Americans say they use public parks, but few likely know much about their local Parks and Recreation department. Utilizing the popularity of Pokemon GO to broach the subject of greenspace - while users are actively using that greenspace - may seem silly. But it's just the kind of tech-forward, constituent-facing activity most municipalities struggle to develop on their own.
Think tanks and local commissions often bat around ideas for increasing the often dismal participation of Millennials in local politics. Pokemon GO offers a useful bridge to explain the value of parks and greenspace in a language local gamers appreciate - but only as long as the Pokemon GO trend lasts.
We can applaud Pokemon GO for creating a social experience that brings gamers out of the living room and into the community. But the broader value of their community involvement could be wasted if local governments don't follow the lead of organizations like the National Parks Service. Education and entertainment need not be exclusive.
For localities, it's time to catch 'em all.