As well as getting traditionally lazy, couch-bound gamers out into the real world to rack up steps on their fitness trackers, the world's most newly-popular mobile game could be doing some genuine good to build social skills and interpersonal relationships. Craig Smith, an educator, researcher and autism expert, has built a guide for parents to use to educate their children using Pokemon Go outside of the classroom, or for people with autism to expand their horizons, with a focus on the game's real world interactions.
"The real world social aspect of Pokemon Go is unlike anything I have ever experienced with a video game. Even Minecraft, with its near ubiquitous take up by gamers world wide and continued massive interest in educational spaces and for YouTubers everywhere, did not have the immediate social impact that Pokemon Go has engaged since its launch." Smith, an aspect practice specialist at Autism Spectrum Australia, or Aspect, has been stunned by the overnight success of Pokemon Go, but has seen the opportunity for the game to help children and young people get more from the game than just the enjoyment of playing it.
In an iTunes U course and a post on his Autism Pedagogy blog, Smith has outlined the ways in which Pokemon Go can be used by parents and educators to expand the interpersonal skills of children and young adults. At the moment, he says in his blog, the game can be used on a small-scale basis by parents and individuals, but he's also exploring its potential to be used by teachers and in classrooms as a legitimate educational tool in the same way as Minecraft is now widely recognised.
Based on the developmental psychology work of Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences, Smith lays out 10 different ways on his blog that Pokemon Go can educate children and expand the social skills of its players. These areas of skills development are tailored to children and young people with autism, but they're equally applicable to any player, Smith told Gizmodo in an interview. "I’m very much dedicated to the idea that educational and social approaches that work for individuals with autism are often universally designed to work for all individuals.
"If we can capture the imaginations and inspire the engagement of our young people with autism, the same strategies will most always work for all young people, because we are using strategies and learning experiences that cater to the broadest range of learning and living needs possible rather than just designing learning experiences that we hope a few students will like. We’re universally designing tasks to help young people with autism that also support a whole community of young people."
Because Pokemon Go gets players out into the real world, and necessarily — through the use of Pokestops and lures to attract Pokemon to those areas — puts those players in close physical proximity to other players, it goes a long way towards encouraging a social interaction between a player and someone they might not have otherwise talked to at that time, whether a friend or an acquaintance or complete stranger. Smith says teaching these skills — like "organising to meet up with friends and meet other trainers out in the world — this is something that many individuals without autism might automatically do, but those on the spectrum might not consider or might not have the social tools to carry out" — through the game breaks down barriers for individuals with autism.
Pokemon Go as a game is just as valuable to children and young people with autism as it is for the wider public, and the social element is the most obvious advantage. "The most immediate tool is the social one, it can be very difficult in some instances to find ways of motivating young people with autism to explore the world outside their home and to socially meet up with others, and the need to do this with Pokemon GO is a hugely successful motivator to this end. The fact that you can’t just stay home and successfully find Pokemon or go to PokeStops or Gyms means that there is a natural motivator there to encourage broader exploration of ones local area and also the motivator of meeting up with others who have similar goals.
"I saw a meme the other day that showed a mother saying to her family that she was going to the shops and did anyone want to join her, and then a young person playing Pokemon GO immediately says ‘yes, I'll go!’ — making a joke on the cliche that no young person ever really wants to leave home and go to the shops with their mum, but if there are Pokemon to be found at the shops, they’ll be the first in the car ready to go. I think that’s a pretty powerful statement on the potential this game has to encourage that sort of eternal social access."
Because Pokemon Go is a game at its core, the educational aspects aren't obvious, but that doesn't make them any less valuable — especially for teach individuals with autism. Says Smith: "If we can find a game that captures the imaginations of our children and young people with autism, we can design learning activities that can be on the periphery of the game so as to use their interest in the game to meet other academic and functions life outcomes. For example, encouraging them to get involved in writing tasks, or music tasks related to recording and composing sounds from nature, that build on the themes and skills involved in playing Pokemon Go."
Smith is confident that we've only started to see the potential of Pokemon Go as a social tool, albeit one that's centred around users' smartphones. "I think like with most elements of technology it is whatever you make of it - for me, I see it as a huge benefit to social engagement. Take the recent Sydney Pokemon Go walk where thousands turned out to play and catch Pokemon together - that’s extraordinary, regardless of staring at your phone to track and catch Pokemon, it is going to be generating all sorts of new and fantastic social experiences along the way." With the addition of future inter-player, inter-personal features like player-versus-player Pokemon battles, there's a huge range of possibilities for Smith and other educators to explore.