If the words “Pokémon GO” do not instantly light up a big chunk of your brain in excitement, I have to say I understand — although I probably should not admit to it. While this phenomenon has prompted parades of people to head outdoors in search of digital creatures, millions more otherwise well-informed Americans are still wrapping their heads around what Pokémon are, let alone where they might go or why we need to find them.
But we at the Boy Scouts get it, Pokémon GO-wise. We really do. And we think there’s a lesson in the sudden enormous popularity of this game for all of us — parents, teachers and everyone else who’s involved with today’s kids.
First, a definition, just in case you need it: Pokémon GO is an “augmented reality” game. Players use their smart phones to “catch” Pokémon, which are 151 different “pocket monsters,” or little characters that resemble turtles or pigs or other creatures, even people. Players find the characters popping up on their phones as they go, physically — this game does get people moving — to various places where Pokémon hang out. They “catch” them by launching a ball at them with a flick of a finger on their phones.
Different kinds of Pokémon are found in different places. If you walk by a park, for example, you might find grass Pokémon or bug Pokémon; by a pond, water Pokémon. But some of the Pokémon are rare, so catching all 151 — the goal — is a challenge.
And that’s it.
Well, not so much, in my view.
Because the Pokémon GO craze is really just a reflection of the fact that people, and especially the young, love adventure and challenge. The techy piece of the new game is just in the service of those well-recognized characteristics of the young and brings some alluring novelty to it as well.
So the popularity of Pokémon GO doesn’t surprise me at all. We’ve seen a similar response among kids to our own efforts to bring technology into some of our programs and outdoors. They love it.
In recent years, we’ve established merit badges for animation and game design. We’ve developed STEM Scouts, an innovative program for both boys and girls that focuses on the frontiers of science, technology, engineering and math. We have a merit badge for geocaching, which in some basic respects is a precursor to Pokémon GO. Geocaching is a kind of modified treasure or scavenger hunt in which GPS coordinates are used to locate the prize, or cache.
Our Scouts also are using their skills and embracing Pokémon GO. Many of our camps and other properties are home to PokéStops and PokéGyms, which our Scouts have had a lot of fun locating. And, whenever those locations are open to public access, we have encouraged our staff and volunteers to make them as welcoming as possible to other gamers by offering refreshments and relief from the heat.
All of this may surprise you, I know. Beside character development, after all, what people associate the most with Boy Scouts are outdoors-related activities and skills — camping, hiking and so on. And let me assure you that we’re as concerned as anyone about excessive screen time for today’s kids. We understand that it can be overdone or misused.
But so can anything. And disapproval is not going to make today’s technology disappear for our kids. Nor should it be overlooked that the economic future is bright for those with digital and other STEM-related skills.
So our view is that the right approach is to incorporate tech into the kinds of experiences that really can benefit kids. And to do it in ways that are safe, healthy, that get them moving and out of their homes and build in the values the Boy Scouts have taught for all these years: trustworthiness, loyalty, kindness, cheerfulness, bravery and more.
In other words, we want kids to have the best of both worlds — the real and the virtual, technology and outdoor adventure. There’s no reason that, with a little adult guidance, they can’t. And who knows — in doing so, they may just find the inspiration that leads them to a successful career developing the next big thing.