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Capturing the research behind Pokémon Go!


Since the launch of Pokémon Go, barely a day has gone by without the location-based augmented reality game hitting the headlines. News coverage has ranged from the ability of the game to get people outside and active, to crowds swarming around places of worship and the various accidents caused by users being engrossed in the game.

What has been missed in nearly all of this explosion of media analysis is the contribution that the UK has made in laying the ground for the success of the game, as well as the important part played by academia in that. Immersive gaming has been researched, developed and played by UK-based artists and academics for over a decade now, with collaborations between the two groups leading to innovations that makers of games like Pokémon Go have benefited from.

“We’ve been working in the area of pervasive games since 2001,” says Steve Benford, who is Professor of Collaborative Computing in the Mixed Reality Lab at the University of Nottingham. “Games performances or mixed reality games, you may want to call them. People moving through a city or environment using GPS to track them and delivering the games in situ, often mixing that with online participation.”

The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) have been a major sponsor of this work. With one of the AHRC’s grants allowing Nick Tandavanitj of experiential arts group Blast Theory to be embedded as a fellow in Benford’s lab at the University of Nottingham during 2003.

During this time, Tandavanitj undertook research into mobile technology and its use with artistic, social and gaming applications. This collaboration between the university and the arts group also lead Blast Theory to being awarded the prestigious Prix Ars Electronica Golden Nica for their location-based game Can You See Me Now? “The lab introduced us to the idea of GPS,” says Blast Theory co-founder Matt Adams. “They could afford to buy a GPS receiver, which we could not. We did exploratory work out on the streets of Nottingham with researchers to see if you could play a game in that way and that became Can You See Me Now?“

AHRC support then was absolutely critical and they were ahead of the game in thinking how artists might work with scientists. As well as allowing development of the basic concepts and technologies for location-based augmented gaming, the AHRC funds were vital in backing knowledge exchange initiatives. This allowed the sharing of findings that are the bedrock upon games such as Pokémon Go have been built. Although the character-based collecting app is a far cry from some of Blast Theory’s more experimental works.

“In one of Blast Theory’s games you were encouraged to think about robbing a bank,” says Benford. “It took you right up to the point of walking up to the bank door. Artists have always paved the way in new genres, experimenting with formats and technologies, transgressing boundaries and Blast Theory were doing this out in the wild. The mainstream culture watches and learns.”

Neither Benford nor Blast Theory were surprised that Pokémon Go caused a stir once it was released, as both had seen unexpected results in their own experiments. Their work in public spaces gave them an insight into what may ensue, as well as an idea of how smaller artistic experiments could be used to shape guidelines or boundaries for larger games.

“One of the things that became apparent very early on with games is the idea of emergence,” says Adams. “These are certain behaviours coming out of games that you don’t design. The perfect example is poker being about bluffing. It is not in the rules, but is one of the main features. Obviously the games designers have not placed all the locations personally, but it does gives this same emergence effect.”

Gamers and commentators have been asking where games like Pokémon Go can go next, and this (of course) is a question that Benford’s lab at the University of Nottingham has been exploring for some years. Even though some thought they were a bit strange for considering gaming of this kind in the first place.

“The rest of the world was looking at us going ‘why would you want to do this?’,” says Benford. “We were talking about the risks and opportunities of taking games out into the street and of course now everyone is interested. A lot of our work now is about psychological- as well as location-based interaction. We’re looking at what happens when experiences are responding to location and context as well as bodily and psychological response.”

Benford’s current work ranges from a computer interface controlled by meditation to a rodeo bull where your breathing dictates whether or not you are catapulted off its back and on to your backside. Don’t expect to see pre-teens with smartphones doing either in your local park just yet. But when the latest interactive gaming sensation hits the streets it may well be worth you digging through the University of Nottingham or Blast Theory’s archives to see where it all began.

Photo/Eduardo Woo via Flickr Creative Commons

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