Sunday, August 21, 2016

10 Days of Pokemon Go: One Educator's Perspective

There's something about summer that makes us feel whimsical.  As we don our sunglasses, feel the sun, and open car windows, our inner self starts to relax.  I was in a summer mood when my friend Tim- a working IT professional in his mid 40s - told me that he was playing Pokemon Go, and found it to be fun.  My usual dubious, anti-gaming, mom self was inexplicably set aside, and, in the name of education and  exploration,  I decided to try it. Together, we downloaded it, and took our first Pokemon Go walk.

Day 1: Go!

This is amazing!  It actually knows where I am; I can see the streets appear around me as I walk, and blue "PokeStops" appear in the distance as I walk. I create my avatar with purple hair and a matching outfit and we set forth into our shared space. My world is now filled with PokeStops and Pokemon (Pocket Monsters)  buzzing my phone, challenging me to catch them.  The fact that when you click on the stops they fill in with an actual photo of the area made me wonder about the blurring of lines between virtual and real for young kids. The Pokemon move with a liveliness and animation that teases me to just try to catch them; my PokeBalls were jumped over and dodged time and time again with ease. Each Pokemon has a name and type, and points are given by the type of catch you make. Once you catch one, it is added to your Pokedex.  Points. points, points for everything. Spin the Pokestop medallion, and the balls and other useful tools fly out to you....not unlike a roulette wheel, except you win every single time. Gambling addiction, anyone?

Day 2: Scaffolded Learning

Breaking learning into chunks and then providing a way to approach each chunk is scaffolded learning. Pokemon has this concept down pat.  You start with easy-to-catch Pokemon at first.  "Gotcha!"  There is music and sound effects as well, but I never had my sound turned up.) There are PokeGyms that appear on the screen, but when you click on it as a beginner, it says, "You will be able to go to the gym after you reach Level Five." You get good at what you are doing in steps.  Every time something new appears or is caught, there is a one-sentence explanation of what it is and what that means. There are lots of chances to succeed - PokeStops everywhere! Pokemon appearing again and again!  - and no one knows how many times it takes you to catch one; if you keep trying, you can keep winning. Pokemon-Go is constructed like a  "safe assignment," something I have been promoting  in my courses; giving students lots of chances to self-assess without worrying about being graded; lots of smaller assessments for students to check and see how they are doing as they learn, rather than one or two large tests.

It is a very upbeat and positive distraction. Emphasis on distraction; since it is so immediate and intertwined with your own life (when I went to the beach, Pokemon-Go went with me; when you play in the evening, the screen turns to night-time colors.)  It is almost like your own life has expanded. The Google orange man has been around for a while, what was missing was the engagement. There have to be ways we can incorporate these concepts into learning.  I imagined a Quizlet-Go; a program that has vocabulary words that you have to "catch" with their definition of things around you and related concepts. 

Day 3: Growth Mindset

Perseverance is worth a lot when it comes to learning; seeing yourself as being able to succeed and failure as a chance to learn are keys to a growth mindset.  Pokemon Go helps to hone this mindset, as you have numerous chances to fail and then try again and again to win.  You can move ahead, as I did, with no experience in gaming culture, but simply the determination to make it to the next level. I did not feel frustration at having to keep finding PokeStops to gather more balls, but enjoyed the process. By deciding to move to another level, I then did so simply by persevering; no matter that some were caught easily and some not.  Along the way I collected some badges that also worked to nudge me forward; 10 Water Pokemon! 10 Insect Pokemon!  These things encouraged me to keep going, in spite of the fact that it often took me numerous attempts to catch those silly things.

Day 4: Walk to incubate!

There is a lot of research that points to the benefits of exercise and the brain; learning is increased when the body moves. Many educators such as myself make sure students have a chance to shift gears every once in a while to increase learning, and moving to another table in the room, shifting from listening to a lecture to group work,  is enough of a change in the environment to refresh the brain. Pokemon Go not only refreshes the brain with new Pokemon, they slowly bring in various types of winnings at PokeStops besides the beginner's PokeBall. Occasional eggs started appearing at PokeStops, and I learned how to put them in incubators. I have 2 km and 5 km incubators; those eggs will hatch with even more powerful Pokemon after, and only after, I have walked those distances. This means, walk with your phone. This means, keep playing.  Constant engagement: brilliant. "Gamification" in education is huge, but we are nowhere near this level of engagement. Yet.

Day 5: Level Up!

I became a Level 5 and was eligible for the PokeGym.  This could be my nature, it could be because I don't know enough about it, but the thought of battling other Pokemon did not interest me.  I kept walking, catching, and incubating. By this time, my husband John was way ahead of me.  The points pulled him in, and I noticed that he was reading the information more carefully than I was,  (when you capture one and it says "Great!" you get more points than when  you capture one and it says "Nice!" (Or maybe visa-versa; you can see how important this is to me.) I have to say this struck me as a male/female thing. He was going for the gold. I was enjoying the process.

Day 6: Trampled

Soon after, my husband John  confessed that he had gone to a PokeGym. He had used his strongest Pokemon, a crab type creature called Paras.  He had expected that a trainer would be there, and he would be able to learn what to do, in a step-by-step style, as we had been doing all along.  Instead, his crab had been instantly beaten. In his words, Trampled.  We ain't in Kansas no more... This is a PokeGym.  It was like walking into a final thinking you are fully prepared, and flunking because none of the material was covered in class.  Whoops. Pokemon Go dropped the ball here - so to speak -  at least from a beginner's perspective.

Day 7: A Community...of Sorts

When you play Pokemon Go, you talk to others who are playing too. That means the UPS driver, the guy next to you in the parking lot, the people sitting on the bench near you.  People exchange tips and ask what level you are. Most of the people I talked to were in their 30's and younger. Other players seemed happy to see someone of my generation (= old) playing.  Non-playing friends thought I was joking; they shook their heads in disbelief; my esteem visibly falling before my eyes.  They all but said it: "What a waste of time."  For the first time in my life, I was at the other end of the disappointed glare that I have given my sons in the past.

You notice duos, and trios of kids playing as they walk down the street, completely engrossed. "Watch where you are going" and "Do not Trespass" the game warns in intervals. The game has brought them outside, and has brought them together.  This is impressive and important. It is a community builder; if you consider they are all in a classroom, it is the kind of classroom community where people are sharing and helping each other.  Both the educator and mom parts of me appreciate that, but both the educator and mom parts of me also know that real community needs more interaction than just playing a game next to each other. We have to be careful when we talk about community, as (in my mind)  it involves interactions. There is also some level where race plays into this, as I (white) am not worried about walking around randomly with this game in hand, but someone else may be perceived as a threat.   On some level, it is a game of privilege, as you play it on a smartphone, with a lifestyle that allows you to choose this diversion.

Day 8: Free Catches!

We visited our 24-year old son Brian  in Bellingham, WA, and my husband discovered with excitement a Lure Module; someone had switched on a feature that lures Pokemon to the area and anyone there can benefit by being able to capture Pokemon easily.  We went near the area and stood on a street corner and there were Pokemon everywhere to catch, sprinkled into the air were cherry blossoms-like petals of celebration. We busily caught Pokemon.  Our son stood next to us and watched, incredulous.

Day 9: Perspective Shift

On Day 9,  I started to notice the "distracted listening" syndrome in myself and others. We are pretending to listen - and even feeling like we are participating - in conversations around us, but one eye is on the game. We casually attempt to catch a Pokemon as we wait for an order to arrive, or while walking to the car, for example.  I knew I was doing it, but it didn't start to bother me until I was driving, and my husband John, riding shotgun, was trying to catch Pokemon and get balls from Pokemon stops at 50 mph.  I felt like I was chauffeuring a young teen around, even though he tried valiantly to cover.  I began to feel myself turn from experimenting educator to exasperated mom mode.   I could see that this could potentially affect our relationship if we continued along these lines.  (Playing "a little" is probably not an option that will work very well. How much is a little?)

Day 10: Pokemon Stop

The next day I  reached Level 8, and  I decided it was time to stop.  At this point John is a Level 15.   This is probably a typical female/male sample of difference in gaming. I could see how it could be fun to keep playing, of course, but I also felt like actively playing was interfering with too many thoughts and ideas that I am compelled to use in my work and life, and at this incredible moment in education, there are too many other things to explore.

I am happy I experienced Pokemon Go, and actually had more fun than I expected.  It has been truly educational, and I know it could easily be used for subjects such as local geography (PokeStops are usually small places of distinction that we often don't notice)  math (distances walked, points, percentages) and even writing (who is your Avatar?)  You could even get creative with surveys of Pokemon Go users for communication studies, and there must be ways this can be tied to coding.  It reinforced my ideas about scaffolding and engagement, and as an online teacher, I am convinced we need to find ways to utilize more of that. Pokemon Go was exactly what is it supposed to be: Fun. But I don't want it to take over my life, so I am stopping.

At least for now.