Policymakers: Play Pokémon Go, or Shut Up About It

If you haven’t played Pokémon Go, shut up about it.

I find direct language to be effective in starting this conversation, but honestly I do actually have something intelligent to say on the subject:

“I had no idea this was here!” “Oh my god, this thing is so cool! C’mere, read this!” “There’s art all over the place in this park!” The comments I’m hearing from kids as I walk around my neighborhood make me beam from ear-to-ear, because they demonstrate in the field what we radical pedagogues and educational technologists have expounded upon for years and years: virtual environments and augmented reality are the future of education, and people who aren’t paying attention to them are going to be way behind.


People have said for a few years now, “why are you still in Second Life? I didn’t think that was the cool thing anymore.” I’ve been able to say of late, “because I had established best practices in Minecraft before you knew it existed,” and now I can gladly say that I’ve been staying abreast of VE and AR since long before it was cool.

And folks, look around: it’s cool.
Pokémon Go is the best of geocaching meets Google Cardboard(-ish) meets virtual field trips, all within an authentic context: kids like the game. I’m forever trying to get people to understand that authentic contexts are not necessarily related to the traditional “gospel of the school-as-church” rhetoric of “productive member of society.

For me, my gateway to better algebra was EverQuest II, calculating hit points and analyzing the best armor and such. I had some lousy math teachers in high school (family members and some classmates concur) and if I’d had better ones who understood authentic context, someone would have seized upon my visual aptitude and taught me everything through geometry or an applied visual organizational framework. Nobody did that. My strengths and deficits as an individual learner were irrelevant to the stock lesson design. If one was good at math, one could do okay in that class, but if one didn’t learn the way the teacher taught, one was S.O.L. and I’m not referring to the “standards of learning.”

This is, I find, a pervasive attitude among traditionalists and conservative pedagogues. I was recently told by a teacher that “some kids just can’t learn math.” I pressed the point, and the teacher asked in reply, “didn’t you ever have any music students who weren’t talented in music?” I replied that certainly I had, yes, had students who were not naturally gifted in music performance. “How do you teach a kid like that?” was the reply.
I was, and am, appalled. You teach them. What else would one do? To do anything else is child abandonment, the ghettoization of an individual human child, rich with unique intellectual and neurobiological potential, to the wilderness of autodidacticism at best and psychoemotional isolation at worst. The way you reach children, talented or not, is through engagement, and engagement requires an authentic context. Engagement requires relevance. You cannot prattle at a child outside of that child’s universe and expect them to learn in a meaningful, retaining way. That’s lecturing, not teaching, and as I outline in my book Insurrection: A Teacher Revolution in Defense of Children, there is a profound difference between the two.

If we capitalize upon Pokémon Go as an authentic context, the sky’s the limit, and that has immediate progressive and radical pedagogical applications in every classroom nationwide. Anyplace any kid has this game or is even interested in it, there are lessons to be taught. I have yet to hear a single thoughtful counterargument to this position. All caveats of PG are caveats of any educational technology or outdoor experience, and PG gives us an opportunity to teach our kids the embedded literacies of safety, awareness, and social propriety within the context of the lesson.
Colonial Williamsburg has figured out that there is real engagement power in this platform, and allows connections between the desired instructional content and the child’s overarching authentic aim of game success.
The detracting voices I hear are, in my humblest (heehee) of professional opinions, squarely in the “get off my lawn” camp, the same tired lamentation about zombie children muttering and wandering into telephone poles, the moral decay of our society into a self-absorbed dystopia, and terror at the ogreish radiation bombarding kids’ brains from all that glowing technology horror. To put it more professionally, the protests seem to fall into three camps:

  • socialization,
  • freedom, and
  • screen time.

If you play Pokémon Go, Ingress, or are otherwise engaged in augmented reality, you already know these are absurd or ignorant complaints, but I’ll address them all the same, and do so initially by repeating my original point: If you think these things, you’re not playing the game, and if you’re not playing the game, you’re not going to stop thinking these things. Get out there and do it, for real, or shut up about it.

Firstly, as I outlined initially, the level of prosocial engagement I’m watching between friends and peer groups, strangers and disparate demographics alike is astonishing. I’m hearing teacher after teacher, parent after parent talk about how much more time families are spending together walking outside, how much fun they’re having exploring, how many discoveries they are making in their communities. People are finding, making, and keeping new friends already. There is a profound, immediate, observable benefit at work in augmented reality, as one would expect to find in a meaningful VE / AR experience. It’s also worth noting that I’m hearing the old “video games are bad for kids” bullcrap rearing its ugly head again, so lemme say this for the record: Kutner and Olson in 2008 found that higher rates of playing Mature-rated video games correlated to higher rates of anti-social behavior, but found no evidence of causation, and subsequent studies have repeatedly failed to find any such correlation. Top off the fact that your opponents in PG look like this…

…and I think we can put the whole “video games will rot your brain” nonsense directly to bed where it belongs especially where PG is concerned. Teaching through gaming is rightly on the rise because games have been repeatedly shown to be powerful learning platforms.

Secondly, the idea that kids are “all so entitled” and “just play games all day” and “don’t know the value of work” are profoundly ignorant of the nature of kids and games. Children will invest extraordinary energy and diligence into successful problem solving, critical thinking, pattern recognition, and interaction when playing games like Pokémon Go. The fact that kids have ready access to information is not a form of entitlement; it is the nature of a rapidly-changing world that is producing exponentially more information annually than it did before. (This is a basic feature of ubiquitous if oversimple Moore’s First Law: no one can keep up with the rapid rate of change and expansion facilitated by information technology, as its power essentially doubles ever two years, with intermittent punctuation.) Children are able to gravitate toward the natural human natural state – freedom, which I often term independence, though I fully understand that aloneness and independence are very different creatures – because they are increasingly disenthralled from dogmatic impositions of ideology, limitation of knowledge, and lacking access to methods of expression and exploration, thanks to the increasing availability of technology that allows access to those things. (Thanks in no small part to the effects of Moore’s Second Law: companies are spending more and making more technology cheaper for – and thereby more accessible to – individual users.) It is absolutely true that kids are retreating from forms of autocracy and control, because that’s what humans do. We naturally rebel against what we perceive as unfair or over-strong control, and teenagers are hardwired for this. We must recall that our species, which is some two hundred thousand years old or thereabouts, spent much of its history in a state of early death, meaning high school age kids were not that long ago becoming the founders of their own new family units. Consequently, there is some consensus that teenagers have a biological need to strike out on their own. Facilitating that need through exploration and self-determination is essential to their growth. In fact, Reyna and Farley at Cornell found in 2006 that teenagers have a powerful sense of risk and reward in a way many adults do not, which marries beautifully with the radical pedgaogue’s research-supported passion for trusting children within a scaffolded framework of safety and love.

It’s worth noting that there are some compelling studies that say that the so-called antisocial teenage rebellion meme results from increasing isolation because of adults imposing autocratic restrictions upon children at older and older ages. This flies directly in the face of everything we know about effective Vygotskyan scaffolding.

Thirdly, for the love of all that is green, I’ve had enough of people using the phrase “screen time” like it’s a bad thing. Again, this is right in the “get off my lawn” camp. I expect a cane to be shaken every time I hear it, rapidly followed by descriptions of walking uphill to school, both ways, with no shoes, in the snow, all the way from town with the horseless carriages clattering by. Beyond the fact that even the American Academy of Pediatrics has now officially said, for all intents and purposes, “our bad; screen time isn’t the thing after all,” there’s the absurd oversimplification of lacking variables in the argument: Some of the most important discoveries and creations of our time stem from the consistent use of screen-based technologies, from the discovery of the Higgs Boson to the composition of the smash hit musical Hamilton. The question is not one of “the amount of time” one spends using technology with a screen, but what one does with that time. I understand the concerns about plopping kids in front of inane flashing images instead of engaging with them; I’ve never advocated for that and I never will. But there are incredibly effective, immersive, critical thinking-inducing, problem-solving, creative, expressive, and yes entertaining ways to use technology with children of all ages. Augmented reality is absolutely one of those ways.

Am I advocating for turning your kids loose with PG and never thinking about it again? Of course not. We’re all aware that there are risks in the world, and of course we can teach our kids about those risks. What I am saying is that there is tremendous potential good in Pokémon Go, and what I’m seeing with very, very few exceptions is expression after expression of that potential actualizing in our communities and with our kids. I find it preposterous to build a castle of “NOPE,” especially based on these outmoded lamentation tropes, when one has not taken the time to engage with the technology one’s self.

I can think of a dozen ways to use PG in a classroom right this moment, and if you think I will not use every possible vehicle at my disposal to help any individual child learn, you are out of your mind. That’s my job. I’m a professional educational technologist, an avowed radical pedagogue who is ferociously dedicated to individualized child learning, and a kid’s individual needs and authentic self comes way way way before unsupported objections rooted in an intransigent lack of experience.

Now, if a person is a private citizen and is in the “get off my lawn” camp about PG, AR, VE, or any other such technology, so be it… But the moment one speaks about education, educational policy, or pedagogy, baby: you’re in my world now, and you had best be prepared with a robust counterpoint. Thus far, in all the debates in which I’ve engaged on this subject, absolutely zero of them have been compelling. They almost always return to, “well we’re going to have to agree to disagree, because I think it’s silly and I’m not letting my kid do it.”

That’s not a rationale; that’s a cowardly dodge from facts and the documentable, replicable experiences of thoughtful educational professionals, and no thinking person should accept any justification of pedagogy or educational policycraft that’s rooted in “because I think so.”

Consequently, I repeat: If you haven’t played Pokémon Go, shut up about it. The rest of us are busy trying to ensure that we’re engaging in best practices with the single most important technological advent of 2016 leading up to another school year.

I will not get off your pedagogical lawn.

It’s not your property.

It belongs to the kids, and there’s a Vaporeon in that yard!

(Also, go Team Mystic.)