Maybe you can imagine my delight – or maybe you can’t – when, as a 30-year-old man, I got to experience the phenomenon of Pokemon all over again. If you haven’t been living in a cave for the past couple of months, you’ll be well aware – and perhaps even addicted to it already – that PokemonGO has taken the world by storm, territory by territory, like a military campaign. Quite literally, a wave of nostalgic joy washed over me the moment I started playing – it was as if I was that nine-year-old boy again, holding my Gameboy and exploring Pokemon Blue with my trusty sidekick Squirtle. And no doubt this is a huge part of its appeal.
I’m not that nine-year-old boy though. I’m a man. A MAN!! What’s a grown man doing running around the streets finding and capturing augmented reality cartoon animals?
It’s worse than that, in my case. Games are pretty much my life, and the original Pokemon on the Gameboy is largely to blame. As the worldbuilder for the online game, The Aetherlight: Chronicles of the Resistance, games occupy my professional life, as well as my social – and not so social – life! So I’m looking at this whole PokemonGO phenomenon with two sets of eyes – as a player/consumer, but also as a game writer and marketer.
The first thing that strikes me is the sheer popularity of the thing. Nintendo’s stocks rose as soon as the game was released (then promptly plummeted again when investors realised that while Nintendo owns the characters it doesn’t own the game!). This reaffirms the popularity, if not the centrality, of gaming in people’s lives, as a form of entertainment, and educational tool, a social networking device, or just sheer escapism. In the gaming industry we’ve known this for some time, and while it might be scary for some parents it’s not to be feared. What we and a great many respected educators are discovering is that gaming is just a new form of learning and discovering, an actual way of knowing just like reading stories or learning mathematical formula are. It’s just different.
What we and a great many respected educators are discovering is that gaming is just a new form of learning and discovering, an actual way of knowing just like reading stories or learning mathematical formula are. It’s just different.
So at Scarlet City Studios, the makers of The Aetherlight, there’s possibly a feeling of, Heck, why didn’t we invent that! when it comes to Pokemon. But there’s also the reassurance that we’re on the right track. Like Pokemon, The Aetherlight is a compelling game. Like Pokemon, it facilitates social interaction between kids and their parents and friends. Like Pokemon, it’s fun, funny, challenging, and encourages players to actually engage with the world around them.
But there’s a major difference between PokemonGO and The Aetherlight, and that’s its source material. While Pokemon is based on make-believe (and admittedly lovable) characters created for a Nintendo gaming device, The Aetherlight’s world and story and characters are based on the Bible. And this is where we believe The Aetherlight trumps a game even as popular as PokemonGO – ultimately we are taking players beyond the fun, beyond the story, beyond the learning that they pick up in the game, and into an engagement with the biblical text itself.
In other words, there’s a dimension to The Aetherlight that PokemonGO can’t attain. PokemonGO has many, many good things going for it, so many that they outweigh the few negative aspects that come with such a phenomenon. But it can’t draw players into a deeper engagement with spiritual meaning and a grand, historical narrative that has been shaping the way believers engage with the world for more than 3000 years. Only the Bible story can do that.
That said, once I’ve finished my work today, guess where I’m heading … out into the world to find me some Pokemon. Perhaps I’ll see you there!