Pokémon Go and the Power of Pocket Sized Incentives

7 min read

Pocket Monsters and Powerful Incentives

If you're reading this, then chances are you've been exposed to Pokémon Go. Heck, if you're not reading this, you're still more likely than not to have encountered Pokémon Go at this point. Gaggles of children, adults, and teenagers alike have been compelled by incentives to spend the last two weeks wandering the streets at all hours of the day and night, furiously swiping at their screens in an attempt to capture invisible creatures flocking unseen through the world. It's all a little much to take in - especially if you haven't exactly bought into the craze. But let's pull back from the inscrutable source material and the impossible hype, and look at what this game is, what it's done, and what we can learn from it. Because whether this is a flash in the pan or the new normal for our planet, there is an incredibly valuable lesson to learn from this game about the power of pocket sized incentives.

Incentives and Behavior

So, if we take the Pokémon out of Pokémon Go - what do we have? A locational-based GPS enabled exercise app, essentially. Built on the Google Maps API, and leveraging their experience from their previous GPS game Ingress, Niantic Labs created a game that must be played by moving. To collect any of the game's resources, or engage in any of the game's activities, you have to get up from your couch/chair/bed and move around the world. Let's take a moment to consider just how monumental an ask that is for a culture and a country that is known for it's sedentary life. To play this mobile video game, you have to walk around town, visit new areas, interact with strangers, and most importantly, you have to walk around a ton! From personal experience, the week prior to the release of Pokémon Go, I met up with my friends three or four times to hang out and play games, and each time we met up in one spot, stayed there for hours, and then went home to eat food. The week following the release of Pokémon Go? I met up with my friends three or four times to walk around our neighborhood, explore our local parks, and check out a couple museums. What a difference a day makes, right?

Pocket Sized Incentives

The thing is, as I'm sure you've noticed, I wasn't alone in this behavioral shift. All across the globe, thousands of people are playing this game (and remember, to play this game you have to move). So Niantic has a game they want people to play, but to play that game you have to move, and as we can all admit to ourselves, moving isn't everyone's favorite pastime. So how exactly did they manage to pull off such a fascinatingly universal change in behavior? Why, with Incentives of course! Pokémon Go is a free game, and within the game, the incentive to play is simple - if you walk around for a while, you will encounter some Pokémon to catch, or some Pokéstops to check in at, or some Pokémon trainers to battle at locations called gyms. That's it folks, that's the whole game. Sure it's tapping into a fairly large vein of nostalgia for a lot of people, and a sense of community and exploration for others, but no one knew that on launch day. No one could have expected the massive crowds of people flooding into parks and walking around town meeting each other and enjoying the lovely weather. No; the only reason anyone hopped into the game at the start was because the game provided an incentive to walking around, which was to capture invisible critters and get some gear.

You can do that!

Here's the cool thing about Pokémon Go - you can do it too! Look at how a little bit of planning and some dedicated coding work produced a massive global behavioral shift - with a free app! Look at how seemingly silly incentives created such incredible results! Need some proof? Just look at Nintendo's stock, or these user statistics, or this real time downloads tracker. It's more apparent than ever that targeted incentives can create impressive results, and specifically, that the incentives don't need to be all that complex or costly. If a free game about a cartoon from the 90's can generate this much activity in such a short window of time with just the prospect of walking around and catching critters, imagine what you could do with sales incentives? Imagine how you could encourage new behaviors with small opportunities for engagement and entertainment? Imagine what it would look like if launching a game at your company drove your stock to record-breaking highs? Some people might look at the success of a game like Pokémon Go and think "I can't believe that this is popular," but with a little creative thinking and a mind for behavior-changing incentives, you can be the one to look at a defining trend and thing "I can do that." All GIFs courtesy of!