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Pokémon Go’s first community event is a hint of the game’s future

To keep people in the game, Niantic wants to take them outdoors

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Pokémon Go on iPhone
Michael McWhertor/Polygon

Niantic wants this summer to be, once again, the summer of Pokémon Go. To do that, it’s looking back at what part of what made the game so popular last July, when it became an international phenomenon: big, outdoor events.

The developer announced that it’s partnering with the Knight Foundation, a national organization geared toward civic engagement, for a community-based initiative, aimed at getting players outdoors and collecting Pokémon together.

These events will take place in cities across the country, the first of which is set to take place in Charlotte, North Carolina on May 7. The plan is to have players exploring their cities in search of PokéStops, which will be physically marked along a set route. Gym locations will also be highlighted on an official map that players are encouraged to follow as they search for Pokémon — and learn more about their city.

The route for the first official Pokémon Go city event.

To further incentivize players, Niantic will give away stickers to participants, although the company doesn’t have clear projections for the turnout. Players worldwide will also see more grass-type Pokémon in the game from May 5 until May 8, so Charlotte residents looking for Chikorita will have a good reason to go out.

This first North Carolina event is referred to as “very much an experiment” by company representatives, although it could set the tone for future events. Niantic’s desire to make Pokémon Go more of a social experience in this way is something that the developer’s spoken about on numerous occasions throughout the year.

“That’s a small thing, to discover a nook or cranny of your city ... but that small thing magnified by lots and lots of people is really significant,” Niantic CEO John Hanke told Fast Company’s design blog this week, in an interview about the Knight Foundation collaboration. “So we’re going to keep working on our side to cause that to happen more often.”

Hanke and Sam Gill, the Knight Foundation’s vice president of learning and impact, co-headlined a talk about this very subject at this year’s South by Southwest in Austin, Texas. The talk on “Augmented Reality and Urban Revitalization” anticipated the two companies’ impending partnership, as they swapped stories on how Pokémon Go’s augmented reality tech can work to get people seeing their neighborhoods in new ways.

Senior game designer Tatsuo Nomura of Niantic intimated a similar interest when we spoke at Game Developer’s Conference this past March. Among more game-specific innovations — like trading, a redesigned gym feature and actual multiplayer functionality — was the throughline that Niantic is adamant about Pokémon Go being used as a tool to unite people for the greater good.

That was a huge part of the game’s early appeal, Nomura said in March.

“The goal this year is to do public events this summer — part of what accelerated [Pokémon Go] is that it came out in the midst of a beautiful summer, and that seemed to be a good chunk of the magic for accelerating that game,” he told us.

Players took it upon themselves to organize huge bar crawls, Pokémon hunting expeditions throughout famous parks and other endeavors throughout Pokémon Go’s first summer. Maybe the point wasn’t to better explore their hometowns, but it was a welcome result of these well-attended events.

It makes sense that Niantic would embrace this style of play, and it seems like a focus on these kinds of real world social events are where Pokémon Go is heading as it nears its first anniversary.

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