by Elaine Plybon

Since its release in July, Pokemon Go has captured the enthusiasm of millions of players, created difficult situations for businesses, and has even been credited with being responsible for loss of life or severe injuries of its players.

Why was this app instantly popular?

The question is one that every educator should have asked. If you have not asked yourself that question, or if you have but are curious, read on.

I joined the ranks of the Pokemon Go players a few days after it began. My purpose was singular – figure out why it had become such a big deal. After a little over a week of playing, I had my answers, and I outlined them in a lengthy blog post.

Over the last two months, I have read several articles by educators about how they are using Pokemon Go in their classrooms and have witnessed cities, businesses, churches, and other communities joining in the game. These are well-intentioned uses of the game, but I believe they miss the mark.

The issue with using the game, or any suddenly popular habit, is that eventually the hype and excitement will die down. Any teacher who is excitedly peddling the use of yesterday’s news in the classroom will immediately lose credibility with students and will have to rethink the lessons all over again.

What, then, should we use our knowledge about the game for?

The answer to this is in the reasons the game became so suddenly popular:

  • Nostalgia: We live in a decade where fashion, home furnishings, television shows, and every other aspect of popular culture is reliving the good old days. Young people today were never around when plastic chairs were first introduced in a modern home, but they will pay top dollar for “mid-century modern” inspired furnishings today. This same retro/reliving our youth mentality was one of the big reasons Niantic’s Pokemon Go survived longer than its predecessor.
  • Collecting things: The driving force behind all of those people walking so much more than they had in years was the pursuit of elusive characters. Players, who are called Trainers, stow them away in their backpacks and can take a look at their Pokedex to see how many more they have yet to find.
  • Badges: Collecting Pokemon is compelling, but so is collecting badges. No matter how old I get, I will always pursue badges I know I could have but haven’t earned yet. I am not alone in this – millions of Americans join me.
  • Wonder/Discovery: I believe this is the most compelling. Once a Trainer ventures out and finds a new Pokemon, trying to discover others becomes a mission.

How does this translate in the classroom?

Mobile devices have their purpose in the classroom. Don't try to force it.
Mobile devices have their purpose in the classroom. Don’t try to force it.

Rather than having students pull out their phones and wander around campus collecting data for a contrived purpose, use the motivations in your classroom. Use a badging system for everything from turning in assignments on time (or early) to going that extra mile on a component of a project. Develop a classroom treasure trove of items that students can “collect” by completing tasks. Don’t publish what the tasks are – let them discover those on their own. Make sure that all of them require students to complete tasks that promote learning and they will never forget.

Wonder and discovery are essentials in learning. Need proof? My 15 year old son can tell you the names of every Pokemon, their skills, which family of Pokemon they belong to, how rare they are, and which ones are strongest. Show him even a silhouette of one of them and he can name it in seconds. He learned all of that years ago when he played Pokemon using playing cards and never forgot.

Tap into that wonder and discovery. Don’t try to make the game fit your curriculum – let your curriculum be built upon those things that attracted students to the game in the first place and you won’t have to rewrite it in six months when Pokemon Go is “so last year”.

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