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Friday July 28, 2017
Pokémon Go: Does accessibility need to be the ultimate goal of game design?
by Alayna Cole | Jul 14, 2017 | Comment Now
How can we create experiences that are limited to particular spaces without always excluding rural areas?
Pokémon Go: Does accessibility need to be the ultimate goal of game design?

Augmented reality games had existed for a while when Pokémon Go was released, but there was something about the nostalgia of this particular title that awoke the world’s imagination. At least for a short time.

It’s now been one year since Pokémon Go first arrived, and there have been whispers that the game is dead. Sure, I don’t open the app nearly as often as I used to, and it’s been awhile since I rushed out of the house in the middle of the night in search of a particular pocket monster, but - according to the figures - Pokémon Go is far from dead.

It may not be attracting the 28.5 million players that Pokémon Go saw at its peak (one week after its original release), but according to recode, the game was still seeing 5 million unique visitors per day at the end of last year - statistics based on the 2017 comScore mega data report.

There was a time where I could drive to the couple of Pokémon hotspots near my house and be guaranteed to see fellow players. The Pokéstops at the university where I work and study were lured near-constantly for six months after the game’s launch. But things are quieter now, and it seems many of the remaining players are city-based.

Perhaps that’s because cities always had the advantage in Pokémon Go. The game started as a ‘barren wasteland’ for players living in the country, according to Polygon, with limited options in terms of Pokéstops and gyms. It became even harder for rural players when the ‘footprint tracking system’ was removed (despite this revealing very few Pokémon outside urban areas at the best of times anyway). While people who worked on top of a Pokéstop were gaining levels and catching Pokémon constantly, people in rural areas were unable to compete.

There was a time where I could drive to  the couple  of Pokémon hotspots near my house and be guaranteed to see fellow players.

Niantic has claimed that the reason the tracking system was removed - and has yet to be replaced - is because it didn’t quite do what they were hoping at first, and they are now about six months behind where they wanted to be in terms of development because of the infrastructural work that needed to be done in the beginning to handle the overwhelming influx of players that they simply had not prepared for. But when the new gym system - including raids - has taken precedence, and the next priorities (player-to-player battles and a trading system) don’t mention improved experiences for rural players, it seems accessibility of Pokémon Go isn’t going to change anytime soon.

Players who are too far from gyms - or aren’t surrounded by many other active players that can work collaboratively with them to complete raids - are denied the opportunity to catch the ‘rare’ Pokémon that these raids are said to yield. And it’s not just in-game events that rural players can’t access; the external events are also inaccessible.

It was bad enough when user-organised events mostly revolved around city centres, but now the game-organised ones will be too. In celebration of the one-year anniversary of Pokémon Go, live events are being held in Chicago, Chester, Copenhagen, Prague, Stockholm, Amstelveen, Oberhausen, Paris, Barcelona, and Yokohama. Players outside of these cities are able to participate in ‘challenge windows’ and catch as many Pokémon at these times as they can, but this is certainly a less engaging experience than being able to attend an event.

Pokémon Go is an undeniably improved experience for people who live in urban areas. Access to in-game landmarks and external events is what makes this game fun, so if you don’t have that access, can you truly enjoy Pokémon Go?

Then, the next question is, do you need to? I’m an advocate for accessibility in games as a whole, but does every individual game need to be made for every person?

Tabletop games have been finding new ways to connect people digitally - removing the restraint that people need to be in the same location to play together - but there are plenty of game experiences that must still be shared in one space. Physical sports are an obvious example, but escape rooms and alternate reality games are also often restricted to a particular physical space, as well as a point in time. These transient, local experiences create intimate experiences for the players who can participate, despite being exclusionary to those who cannot be involved. It’s disappointing that so many of these seem to only occur in urban areas, purely because of the advantage of creating local games in spaces with higher populations - the same people are being excluded from sharing in these experiences over and over because they don’t (and often can’t) live in the ‘correct’ geography.

I’m an advocate for accessibility in games as a whole, but does every individual game need to be made for every person?

But there are plenty of reasons why physical experiences might need to remain physical to have their desired impact. For example, smolghost’s like camping is available for download online, but when it travels to arcades as part of larger events, it includes a physical experience that cannot be captured just through a digital download. The tangibility of interacting with game objects in physical space can be incredibly meaningful. There’s a reason why Monopoly uses Monopoly-money rather than asking players to keep track of their cash with pen-and-paper.

I’m going to continue opening Pokémon Go over the weeks to come as anniversary events and other updates rollout - and perhaps I’ll be able to catch a Pikachu wearing Ash’s hat before that particular event ends on July 24. But I’m also becoming increasingly aware that it’s impossible for me to have the ‘optimal’ Pokémon Go experience, purely because of where I live.

But maybe that’s okay.

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