I loved playing Pokemon Go- until I didn’t

For the last few weeks, I’ve been playing Pokemon Go. It’s a beautifully designed game, with many overlapping feedback systems, and charming touches drawn from the earliest Nintendo games — Zelda & Mario — that I loved. It got me out and about in my ‘hood with my daughter, my husband, and any friend who visited. I caught critters in my car, at the coffee shop, at the park.

I LOVED playing the game. Until I didn’t.

Early-on, our gameplay was filled with unexpected delights. One warm summer night, my daughter and I wandered down to the local park in our sleepy little suburb at 8:30 PM, drawn by the cluster of Pokestops & the majestic-looking PokeGym. At the park, we bumped (sometimes literally) into dozens of families & teen groups wandering around, staring at their phones, doing that now-familiar “PokeBall Throw” — the upward swipe — that visibly differentiates players from texters.

It felt magical — seeing our community out and about, seeing kids & parents playing together — at night — in the park. We felt like members of a secret society — the Pokemon Go game-playing tribe — who see the world not as mundane familiar roads and buildings, but as a magical ever-changing landscape, alive with possibility and cute li’l critters to catch.

I started playing whenever I could — I’d pull out the game when I was running errands or picking up the kids after camp, in order to “catch ’em all.” I liked seeing Pokestops wherever I’d go — but it started interfering with my driving, so I hid my phone in the trunk while picking up the kids to resist the pull of Poke-hunting (don’t judge, we do what we have to do)

I still felt the urge to walk around my ‘hood, so I walked to my haircut & caught some Pokemon on the way. However, the 5th time you take the same Pokewalk isn’t as fun as the 1st — BUT I had fun experimenting with incense and catching a few Pokemon during my salon visit, which helped pass the time.

Now I’m 3 weeks in, and almost to Level 9 — and the magic is wearing off. I still have a glimmer of hope when I leave the house to walk to a local destination — hoping that I’ll recapture the magic of those first few levels, the sense of discovery and urge to see what’s next.

Here’s the thing: now that I “know the ropes,” the Pokemon Go experience has devolved into a monster-chasing, object-getting grind. Yesterday, I walked back from the local train station through the park, hoping to recapture some of that Pokewalk magic. I caught a few of the same ol’ Pokemon along the way — nothing new — I half-heartedly swiped the same familiar Pokestops — and passed by the Park Gym without even bothering to check it out.

Why? Because I’m not interested in battling for supremacy — that holds no allure for me. I’m not that kind of gamer. What I LOVE is collaborating with others to reach a shared goal — and that’s how I’m playing Pokemon Go. We take family walks together — and hand the phone back and forth the share the experience — saying things like: “wanna try catching THIS one?” “Hey, which way should we go now?” “Shall we incubate an egg now?

Lots of folks who love competition & optimization (AKA min/max-ing) are playing Pokemon Go too — there’s a turf-wars battle mechanic (Pokegyms) and strategic resource management (optimizing Pokemon evolution) to satisfy those types of gamers for awhile.

But for non-zero-sum gamers like me — folks who prefer collaboration to competition — there isn’t any skill-building system that holds my interest. The Skinner Box loot drop mechanics (e.g. spawning & pinatas) are initially engaging — the same way a slot machine is engaging. But without a meaningful long-term game to play — without skills to develop and deploy — the game becomes less compelling once the initial thrill wears off.

I still enjoy catching a critter or two — especially while I’m waiting for something — but I’m no longer interested in having the game interrupt my real-life interactions without giving me something more meaningful to engage in. Getting in-game objects from Pokestops I’ve visited before isn’t much fun anymore — it feels like pulling the lever on a not-very-exciting slot machine. There’s no meaning beyond the Pavlovian stimulus-response dance, and the assumed desire for more, more more within the gameworld.

That’s the limitation of any Skinner Box gaming system that doesn’t include a skill-building journey in the core customer experience. And it’s a key challenge for Pokemon Go — and upcoming AR games — that want to engage non-zero-sum players.

Game designer, startup coach, author, entrepreneur gamethinking.io