First Review for Built on Bones!

So, I spent this week doing a lot of things. One of my favorites was freaking about my photoshopped proximity to lifetime hero author Neil ...

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Thoughts on why #PokemonGO and Archaeological Heritage AR went.

So, after an INTENSELY LONG HIATUS due to work constraints, I thought I'd put a quick piece up on the Pokemon Go phenomenon, mostly because any widescale human trend is super interesting, but also because I have a residual interest in Augmented Reality that is probably Neal Stephenson's fault. This is largely brought on by a terrific article in Forbes featuring Andrew Reinhard of #archaeogaming fame posted in the Women's Digital Archaeology Network by Lorna Richardson.

(here is a video of people in New York freaking out over a rare Pokemon)

The article mostly lays out past attempts at engaging people with heritage, a lot of which was pretty groundbreaking considering Pokemon Go is just about the first popular AR game and it's taken 10+ years to even get that far. Particular shout outs to Stu Eve and his projects over at Dead Men's Eyes are necessary -- if you can smell the Pokemon in the next release, you'll have innovators like Stu to thank. Or not. I'm not really sure how a Pokemon smells. Hamster-y? ANYWAY.  Andrew drew my attention to the whole thing (baffling instagram shots eventually explained by mass hysteria in the press), which he's now written up here, as well as the Forbes article, following on encountering this well thought out post on why Pokemon is the anti-heritage (and not even really AR) by Stu and a bit of ri-post-e (sorry) by Colleen Morgan playing Pokemon's advocate.

So, generally, I've been thinking about this a lot, particularly in the context of why previous efforts didn't take off -- and of course there's no guarantee that this is the dawning of a brave new age, as Stu points out. I suspect a combination of the increasing social acceptability of staring into your phone all the time (remember the etiquette of 2006? no, no one else does either) and the wide-world approach explains quite a bit of the mass appeal, with a little side dish of nostalgia. It occurs to me that site-limited stuff never seemed to do much.
I find all of this really interesting in terms of implications for AR engagement with bioarchaeology and palaeoanthropology; my stuff was always balancing neanderthal heads or spotting skeletons; maybe Pokemon GO shows us this just isn't the way most people want to interact with their heritage? Maybe the value-added of Pokemon GO is in the searching out the unexpected, and seeing an Eevee at Stonehenge prompts the same delight as seeing Dali's Lobster Telephone.
Proof that humans (read:me) find surrealism HILARIOUS

Meanwhile maybe the AR designed for a specific site lacks that sense of discovery, or interaction patterns are rather too close to an audioguide tour to hold our attention? Kate Ellenberger has designed a bespoke archaeology Pokemon GO event in Binghamton NY that seems to indicate that the combination works well, and that kind of tour guide experience might overcome Andrew's initial concerns about lack of content, so I'm not sure if that's really true, given the technical skills and general wit of the Hertiage AR crowd -- but maybe it's something to think about. Maybe when the Facebook of AR becomes a reality, and we are all capable of adding social or gaming layers to community space, the reasonable criticism Stu presents about the lack of information and lack of interaction provided by a game like Pokemon Go can be overcome. And the privileged subset of the world that always has its phone out finds static cartoon chicken-foxes more interesting than archaeological heritage can be gamed into submission.

Apologies if I left a lot of amazing AR projects out of this post, I am super not supposed to be using my daily word count on this. No one tell my editor. ;)

NB EDITED 28 Jul 2016 to update w reference to Kate's project and fix some typos.


  1. I don't think AR is a big draw with this game. While it is fun for a while, the novelty wears off and many turn it off (which saves precious battery life and makes the pokemon easier to catch).

    Pokemon is huge. It's absolutely massive. There are likely more minutes, hours and days of screentime devoted to pokemon cartoons than even something like The Simpsons. There are multiple games, which generations of people have spent many, many hours playing. Each new release is hugely popular and a sure-fire success.

    Pokemon are compelling.

    The Niantic app? It's shoddy, it has poor UI and has a variety of gameplay and visual glitches that most people wouldn't tolerate from a beta release. The gym battling element is frankly not much of a game.

    And yet people are playing it. Huge numbers of people are playing it. For me, the pokemon discovery and catching part taps strongly into psychology of gambling.

    "There's no pokemon... but one could spawn if I walk a little further! It *could* be a brilliant one! Just five more minutes and then I'll switch off. Just five more minutes..." and then one does appear. It's not a great one, but it's kept the players interest.

    If you are interested in Skinner boxes and related experiments, Pokemon Go is going to provide fuel for Behavioural Psychology PhDs for years to come!

    So, is the AR part useful? People are used to it with snapchat filters (which arguably was the most successful application of AR til now) and it adds a bit of fun to the first few plays. Is it why people continue to play it? No, I don't think so.

  2. My very brief thought- I agree about the discovery and catching of the Pokemon as being the reason people are playing a not very slick game- but I don't think its gambling (it doesn't cost anything? or maybe time DOES cost). I think it actually is tapping into the same 'hunter-gatherer-thing' that people enjoy when bird spotting/wildlife watching, foraging for mushrooms or berries.

    1. ive included my reply to you kinda below bc i still dont know how commenting on wp works ;)

  3. The gambling connection is due to the game perhaps acting like an online (poshly named) "Operant Conditioning Chamber" Providing positive feedback to people to manipulate them into wanting to spend more time doing the thing that might give the reward. Slot machines, and other forms of games of chance fall into the same category, arguably.

    There is a decent amount of data (starting with Skinner's experiments) that show that rewards given on a variable time basis are more compelling than a fixed basis, and also that a temperamental* system keeps subjects doing the desired actions for longer once the rewards have been removed. There is a lot more going on here, but pokemon "rewards" being very much on a variable period did make me think of the connection to games of chance and the "Skinner box", even though this research is older.

    * consider pigeons in 3 systems: #1 in a box with a button that always pays out a food pellet. #2 in a box with a button that only works to pay out food after 5 minutes have passed since the last payout and #3, a button that pays out food pellets randomly. On key experiment showed that after the pigeons got used to their button, turning off the buttons led to pigeons in box #3 (random payout) tapping their button for the longest time afterwards. #1 gave up quickly, #2 gave up minutes after, but #3, the pigeons kept trying their luck.

    1. really interesting take; i think i broadly agree wuith your points here and above about pokemon capitalising on reward seeking behaviour, though i might not connect it as strongly to gambling specifically, as per Becky's comment above. i wonder if theres not space in the world for a more hipster-logic heritage mapping ap -- something that encourages exploration through rewarding in depth engagement, or engagement with lesser known aspects. i personally think AR can be a tool for that but i suspect that -- as glitchy games like PG show -- its the message not the medium :)

  4. really interesting take; i think i broadly agree wuith your points here and above about pokemon capitalising on reward seeking behaviour, though i might not connect it as strongly to gambling specifically,
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Trivia (personal)

archaeologist. dental anthropologist. yes, that's a real thing. Author of Built on Bones, available in February 2017 (UK), May 2017 (USA) from Bloomsbury.



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