Pokémon as a series has embraced adventure, travel and tourism since its inception. But this new approach to Pokémon — where discovery and exploration is at the heart of the experience, rather than the creatures themselves — made me realize this is what Pokémon, and Pokémon Go specifically, is all about. Pokémon Go is here. Savvy marketers and horrified stewards alike are taking notice as Go creates a new tourist class.
I’ve experienced tourist fads in my 10 years in the tourism industry as I market the business I operate in the Dinosaur Capital of the World to families, businesspeople and everyone in between. I teach high school when I’m not selling and my classes include a business course on tourism.
And if Pokémon Go is about tourism, it makes sense that it embraces many of the same psychosocial motivators — such as leaning on nostalgia, seeking new experiences or desiring prestige that marketers such as myself employ to get people to leave home and part with their hard-earned dollars — as traditional tourism.
POKÉMON HAS ALWAYS BEEN ABOUT TOURISM
Tourist themes have always been present in Pokémon — including a need to be responsible — but Go seems to be a part of a larger movement that began with Black and White and continues with Sun and Moon.
Much has been said about the connections Pokémon has to the real world: Going beyond the series’ early linkages to its home country, Pokémon has recently become quite outward-looking, with apparent nods to the United States and France, both major tourist meccas.
In Pokemon Black and White, Unova is clearly inspired by New York state, with major landmarks and regions dotting the landscape. Most notable of all these are the five bridges and underwater tunnel the player must traverse. The camera swoops back, spotlighting various angles of each bridge, accentuating the unique features of each, while showcasing how these bridges impose themselves on the landscape.
I described these shots as "bridge porn" when I first played through Black and White. The developers seem to fetishize the bridges as much as they push the limitations of the Nintendo DS. With Pokémon Go, I’ve found myself traipsing about, taking in real life bridges, parks, shops and more.
Pokémon X and Y take the tourism angle even further. In an interview, the game’s director, Junichi Masuda, describes why Northern France is chosen as the backdrop, by noting both the country’s beauty and its reputation for having "the most tourists in the world". Heck, X and Y go even further by introducing the Tourist trainer class.
Pokémon Go, more than any other game, evokes similar feelings to the cult classic Pokémon Snap. In that game, Pokémon can be found in their natural habitats, living life in a 3D world, just waiting to have photos of them, well, snapped. Those with sharp eyes or judicious use of apples and the PokéFlute will find they are witnessing all Pokémon Snap has to offer. The game even embraces "leave no trace" principles by insisting the player stay on tracks: This was assuredly done for design reasons, making the game feel akin to an on-rails shooter, but one principle of sustainable ecotourism is staying on established trails.
When I think back to how I envisioned encountering Pokémon in the real world as a child, Pokémon Snap is the game that defined my daydreams. More than anything, Pokémon, both in its main entries and its spinoffs, has succeeded in making people wish they could travel.
I dreamt of exploring fields and mountains and coming across Pokémon. I dreamt of taking in the sights, making new friends (and enemies!) and leaving my boring life beyond. Isn’t that what tourism is all about?
And as the series continues to grow with Sun and Moon’s imminent release, it seems fitting that the Alola region is so evidently inspired by Hawaii. It was enough to draw excitement from at least one major tourist stakeholder in that state, likely with hopes that a new Pokemon release will keep Hawaii at the front and center of people’s minds as they decide on the destination for their next holiday.
POKEMON GO DOES THIS REALLY WELL
Pokémon Go’s biggest strength isn’t in translating the gameplay of the main series to mobile phones — in fact, it’s kind of awful at that, with evolution and battling barely resembling the source material. Rather, Pokémon Go succeeds in creating the experience we all wanted after first diving into the world of Pokémon. It creates the experience we all thought we had with the game, through rose tinted glasses, capturing not Pokémon but nostalgia for a bygone era.
John Crompton, University Distinguished Professor at Texas A&M University, and an expert on recreation and tourism described a series of psychosocial "push and pull" motivations that guide the decision making processes of tourists in 1979, and are still widely employed today by those marketing tourism today. Pokémon Go employs nearly all of them of these markers, in effective ways.
The first of Crompton’s motivations is novelty, or a desire to seek new and exciting experiences. Novelty can be employed by tourism destinations by installing an adventure activity such as ziplining or Eurobungy, by offering potentially strange or unusual foods like deep-fried anything or simply by being first to market on a new idea.
Pokémon Go embraces this positive view of novelty, as players search high and low for Pokémon in the real world. This will be the first time many of these players have mixed real-world travel with virtual gaming.
I once attempted to cash in on a similar activity by placing a geocache on my business’ property. While personal GPS devices were still novel and new, my cache attracted several visitors a week, who were surprised and delighted at their find. The novelty has worn off as personal devices have included GPS systems, and these days our cache barely receives traffic. The potential to sponsor and promote a PokéStop, in addition to those that already appear on my property, has me interested; I’d be even more interested in being able to pay for specific Pokémon such as Omanyte to appear within my fossil-themed business.
But the game’s draw goes deeper than that. Pokémon Go isn’t about being delighted by yourself.
One of the biggest draws Pokémon Go offers is socialization. It’s already helping turn strangers into friends.
Inspired by this Reddit post showcasing a number of Pokémon Lures scattered around Sydney Australia, I chose to set a lure at one of the multiple PokéStops outside my tourist destination. A lure is kind of like an incense that draws additional Pokémon to it for a limited time. Within minutes, a swarm of 20-somethings descended upon my property to take in the Pokémon-catching bonanza I unleashed. Most hadn’t met one another prior and we struck up good conversation about all things Pokémon, about my business and about their lives.
Added bonus: They spent a ton of cash on novelties in our gift shop.
This take on socialization pairs well with Crompton’s belief that some tourists seek prestige. Prestige can be bought through traditional means (having a Tyrannosaurus skull in your office certainly sends some kind of message) experienced through limited access events or VIP admission or by tackling an obstacle like climbing Mt. Everest.
The team system in Pokémon Go, where players can join Team Mystic, Valor or Instinct, is another way of granting or gaining prestige. These teams have become fiercely loyal to one another, going so far as offering discounts to members at one Canadian bakery, or by battling for control of the American capitol.
Pokémon Go’s gym battles are vaguely reminiscent of Foursquare. Instead of checking in the most times at a given location to become its mayor, Pokémon gyms are turf wars. When one encounters a gym of an opposing team, the player may challenge the gym with a team of six Pokémon, lowering the gym’s point totals and its available pool of defenders until the gym changes hands. Encountering a gym owned by one’s own team allows the player to battle with a single Pokemon, adding to the gym’s points, and potentially allowing for more defenders to be garrisoned.
Did I mention these are called prestige points?
Being with your family
One of Crompton’s motivators I didn’t expect to see at play is in full effect: enhancement of kinship relations. This is Crompton’s way of saying families are brought closer together by certain activities. Jam four people into a tiny car with half of their worldly possessions and they’ll be all but forced to interact.
It’s this mindset that made me wary of considering the kinship motivator — isn’t staring at one’s phone kind of the opposite of coming together?
My biases were unfounded. Most of the players I’ve encountered are 20-somethings. Some had children with them, staring through their parents’ phones, eyes wide at the creature staring back. Pokémon Go is a stepping stone for sharing the love of Pokémon across generations. The idea that this game is isolating us only works on the most topical level. If you take more than a moment to pay attention you’ll see how the game is bringing people together.
Rest and relaxation, or escape, comes in spades within Pokémon Go. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to enjoy all the app offers without leaving your house. It’s an escape from the daily grind. There is also intellectual enrichment on offer, as Pokémon Go encourages users to seek out local landmarks and interact with them. I have a sincere hope that Pokémon Go will drive a "tourist in your own town" mentality, encouraging local users to stop by local businesses for the PokéStops they offer.
The lure I described earlier attracted three locals to my business that had never visited my attraction in the eight years we’ve been operational. They left with new Pokémon and newfound knowledge. What they needed was an excuse to visit, one more small external reward for leaving their home and normal routines to visit some place new. The game gave them this reason to escape.
Perhaps Pokémon Go’s biggest appeal, at least while it only features the original 151 Pokémon, is nostalgia. Crompton describes this as "regression," the desire to engage in behavior reminiscent to that of a child or to re-live childhood memories.
Great tourist attractions have staying power based on the ability to bring multiple generations through their doors. Pokémon Go leans heavily on nostalgia, but if that nostalgia can be combined with the adoration of some special locale, like a theme park, then the effect is boosted. Catching Pokémon in locations people remember from their youth could work as a sort of multiplier for this effect. But Pokémon is, at its heart, a nostalgic brand. This is why you see so many people from their mid-20s on up in the images and videos of groups of people playing the game.
IT ISN’T ALL CHERUBI AND ROSELIA
That’s not to say Pokémon Go isn’t causing problems. Last week a neighbor phoned me to inform me there were a large number of people at my business despite the fact we were closed. One fellow, oblivious to the purpose of eight-foot fences, was cheerily trying to catch an Onix in a place he probably shouldn’t have been.
Responsible tourism is about minimizing negative social, economic, and environmental impact of one’s tourist actions. This means not stripping on a holy mountain, leading locals to accuse you of unleashing a terrible earthquake. This means not stealing an innocent llama and having him ride a tram. This means not hopping eight-foot fences for no reason other than the appearance of an Onix.
Pokémon Go players are searching for Pokémon everywhere. And while many attractions are getting on board, there are times and places that aren’t appropriate. Holocaust memorials and cemeteries are not appropriate places to set up shop. Careful consideration should be used before whipping out one’s phone-turned-Pokédex, lest we make light of powerful landmarks. The onus isn’t just on players, however: Niantic may want to consider reducing the amount of PokéStops at certain monuments and instead concentrate them elsewhere.
GET OUT AND EXPLORE
If the journey matters more than the destination, then Pokémon Go is the right app to spread that message. I’ve explored more of my hometown this summer than I have ever before in my life. I forced myself to take time off work to travel my province. All in the name of virtual creatures.
Pokémon, the creatures, are a key part of the series — after all, the series bears their name! — but travel and tourism are staples. Many of my fondest memories with Pokémon involve exploring caves, discovering huge cities and speaking with locals. Pokémon Go promotes this type of behavior in a real way, challenging players to leave their comfort zones and discover new locales and fellow trainers.
Embrace this, and nothing will stop you from truly living your Pokémon dream.
As a marketer, I’m already in talks with my team on how I can take advantage of Pokémon Go. Should we use lures to drum up business? Can we offer discounted admission to those that prove they caught a Pokémon at our location — a task Pokémon Go makes easy by showing where each monster was caught — or offer up incentives for coming inside our attraction? Should we share the ridiculous places we’ve found Pokémon in our facility on social media? How do I keep attracting locals that have never come in before?
I’m excited. I hope that energy translates to innovative marketing.
Pokémon Go will continue to evolve. Niantic have already mused that trading Pokémon between players is in the cards. We know more Pokémon will be added in due course. Both of these changes have tourism potential. Trading brings people together and can enhance length of stay at a PokéStop: The longer people stay in a tourism business, particularly restaurants, the higher their bill becomes.
Adding Pokémon has the potential to create regional exclusives: Imagine discovering patriotic Wargle at any American National Park or a higher concentration of Crawdaunt on the East Coast.
That’d be all the motivation I need to travel outside my own region.
Evan McIntosh is the founder of Good Games Writing. He is an educator, writer, and management professional based in Canada. He tweets a lot about Pokémon.