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News . Feature Stories . Game expert Bendis on Pokemon GO


August 05, 2016

Game expert Bendis on Pokemon GO

'Their core audience has eaten it up'

By Karen Sandstrom

You’ve heard about Pokémon GO, the smash-hit mobile game released last month by Niantic. And by now you’ve seen the snide memes, too: Maria from “The Sound of Music” whirls around the valley musing, “This is me not caring about Pokémon GO.” Don Draper from Mad Men raps about how “the world is falling apart and you’re chasing a Pokémon.”

Stand down, haters. Game guru Jared Bendis, adjunct Game Design faculty member at CIA and Ideastream tech guru, suggests people play before they diss. Or, as he told his Pokémon-resistant girlfriend, “Do me a favor. Download the app and tell me why it’s stupid.” (She’s on Level 20 now.)

Bendis regards Pokémon GO as decidedly not stupid — in part because it appeals to different types of players. Plus, it gets people out and walking.

For the uninitiated, Pokémon GO places the basic elements of the 1990s-era Pokémon game against a map of the actual world. Players use smart-phone apps to find and collect cute pocket monsters, train them in gyms to fight for sport, and gather stuff to keep them thriving. Today’s Pokémon live on street corners, in museum lobbies, parks and monuments — even on college campuses. (Note: You’ll find a PokéStop at the northwest lobby of CIA.)

That’s why it has become common to see players staring at their phones as they wander in one direction, change course, then head off on another path.

Like a true game scholar, Bendis explains the appeal by pointing to Peter Bartle’s taxonomy of video game players: killers, achievers, socializers and explorers. There are nuances among each of them, Bendis says, but in general Pokémon GO appeals to every type of player.

“This idea of a social game, of mapping the game onto the real world – game theorists have talked about this for years — has really become the holy grail,” Bendis says. “This is the perfect storm of technology, of story, and then such an interesting way of relating to people.”

The real-world piece gives the game its wow factor, but also spurs some of the backlash. “Pokémon GO is in your face,” Bendis says. “It’s unnerving to people because it’s invading their space.”

“How dare they play in Lakeview Cemetery,” some think, yet Bendis points out that people do all kinds of things there besides paying respect to the dead: they bike, jog, and have picnics. Is it really so bad that they look there for the PokéStops? Further, he says, the game is prompting people to get out and move, and to meet other players in a real-world way. Bendis himself found himself hanging out with new friends when he pulled over at a PokéStop at the Mayfield Heights Police Department.

“Am I surprised that it’s big? No. Am I surprised that it’s this big? Everyone is,” Bendis says. “Their core audience has eaten it up. “

To the degree that there’s backlash, some of it comes from critics of video games in general. “The game industry is the largest entertainment industry in the world. So we’re not hurting, but still it’s got this underground rap,” Bendis says.

There’s also an insider/outsider mentality regarding video games. Take the game out in public, Bendis says, and the “outsiders” feel more outside than ever. “There are people who are like ‘I’m embarrassed for you.’ But I’m not embarrassed for me.”

His philosophy: “People who don’t play games at all should be asking themselves why they don’t play games anymore.” (And being a sports spectator is not the same as playing sports, he points out.)

As for Bendis, he plays casually every day. And he knows the game itself will continue to evolve as it takes hold in the culture.

“One of the things I tell my students is that what’s different about our art form is this. Let’s say you paint a painting, and you present it to the world. They may feel about it one way or another, but you’re still done.”

For the most part, a painter doesn’t alter the work in response to audience interaction.

“As a game designer, we design the game, and then right when we think it’s done, we start playing it,” Bendis says. “Only after it’s played and played and played do we fix what’s broken about it. You cannot predict what’s going to happen. You put a game out there, you’ve got no idea how people are going to game your game.”

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