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Pokémon Go and Work/Life Balance

January 2, 2017 1 comment

I love casual games, though I’ve written before about how they can sometimes be disruptive. Surprisingly I do not find Pokémon Go particularly disruptive. As promised, it promotes walking (you get credit for hatching Pokémon eggs the further you walk.) And it has other interesting qualities I could not have predicted when I started playing it.

Most importantly and most surprising: It promotes better work/life balance. When I am out for a walk, if I have Pokémon Go open, I get credit for the distance walked. As a result, I tend to leave the app open, which means I don’t check my email. That means I am more truly not at work, for my walk.

The bad news of course is that I’m looking at my phone, rather than at the scenery. But generally speaking I find I still appreciate where I am, and enjoy chatting with people I am walking with. It takes little of my attention.

If I am playing while walking with people who are not playing, I never stop to do a gym battle. A gym battle takes a couple minutes, and that’s too long to ask friends to wait. It’s also important to leave the sound off. Most people always leave the sound off. I leave it on when I’m walking alone, because the audio feedback means I spend less time looking at my phone. After you throw a Pokéball, it takes a few seconds to see if you caught the Pokémon or not. If you listen to the sound effects, you can stop looking at the phone and listen for whether you caught it. But if I’m walking with other people, the sound is annoying, and also misleading—they assume I’m more distracted than I really am.

My second surprise: it is a participatory exploration of probability and economics. Probability is fundamental to the game—each time you try to catch a Pokémon, a circle around it shows whether you have a high (green), medium (yellow), or low (red) chance of catching it. A player is constantly calculating: How hard will this be to catch, and is it worth it? It’s a constant reminder of the basic laws or probability: past trials don’t affect the outcome of the next one.

When you try to catch a Pokémon, you have to decide: Am I going to throw a regular Pokéball, a great ball, or an ultra ball? The latter are increasingly rare, but have a higher catch rate. The more powerful the Pokémon, the harder it is to catch, and the higher quality Pokéball you need to use. If I use too cheap a ball, then I have to try again, and again—and might miss catching it entirely, if it runs away. Choosing to use a regular Pokéball might mean I wasted five or more balls, rather than using one or two great balls. It’s like the game is whispering in my ear over and over: don’t be cheap, don’t be cheap….

An economist friend noticed right after the launch of the game that it demonstrates the “sunk cost fallacy”: If it was worth throwing those previous six Pokéballs at that Pidgey, it’s worth throwing one more.

Pokémon Go is good for certain times and places. It’s great for travel, because different places have different Pokémon. It was fun to catch all the Growlithes in San Diego (a Pokémon common there and rare in most other cities). It was particularly fun to use at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, which had a safari-like quality of Pokémon on the day I visited. When you’re visiting a zoo, you do a lot walking, and wander from exhibit to exhibit. Playing Pokémon Go at the zoo made the whole experience more fun. When a rare Pokémon appeared on the radar (a Snorlax), I got to chat with strangers who came to try to catch it from around the zoo. On the other hand, it was also nice to go a number of places (like the lighthouse and beach at Point Loma in San Diego) where there was no cell service, and I put my phone away. The trick of course is knowing when to put your phone away when there still is cellular service.

I won’t lie—I do sometimes play when I shouldn’t. Particularly when I’m somewhere I don’t want to be. A Pokéstop is a place you can get free Pokéballs and other useful items every five minutes. Fortunately or unfortunately, there is Pokéstop accessible in a conference room where I have a number of boring meetings. For a long meeting, I find playing a casual game helps me to pay more attention to the meeting. The distraction is so light that I am still paying attention to the meeting and less likely to zone out entirely. But it’s perceived by others as disrespectful (if they catch me with my phone under the table), and I probably shouldn’t do it. Like any casual game, Pokémon Go requires mindfulness in when you choose to play.

Whether Pokémon Go survives in the long or even medium term depends on whether the developers can keep adding features and special events to keep it interesting. But for now, it’s a casual game that fits into my life better than others.

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Limiting Kids’ Screen Time: How Do You Explain Why?

August 25, 2013 1 comment

“Mom, you sure played a lot of Pokémon today,” said my 9-year-old son.

I looked at him.  I hung my head.  “You’re right,” I said.  But I was caught in a frustrating part, and the same characteristics that make me good at finding a bug in code (“I’m going to fix this if it kills me”) also sometimes make me stubborn about a video game (“They say you can catch a Riolu here, and I’ve tried 100 times… so where’s my Riolu?”)

I should back up a bit.  The previous weekend, it rained all weekend. Again. (Atlanta is on track to set a rainfall record this year.)  And in the middle of a weekend at home where our plans were rained out, our household “screen time” limit was chaffing on the kids.  We let them have at most 45 minutes in the morning and 45 minutes in the afternoon of screen time–any kind of screen.  On a rained-in weekend, my son was challenging why we had this rule.  In exasperation, he asked, “Show me the study that says it’s bad for you!  What study shows that?”

Oh, ouch.  He’s got a point.  I told him about Sherry Turkle’s book Alone Together. I told him about the cool paper by Morgan Ames and Jofish Kaye about how parents of different social classes manage their children’s media use differently.  But honestly I couldn’t come up with a hard reference.  How could you do a careful study of that, I pointed out?  So I trotted out the music analogy.  Look: some parents think it’s wonderful if their kids practice a musical instrument five hours a day. Some parents want their kids to be concert musicians and focus on just that one thing.  We don’t. If you played your saxophone in all your free time, we’d say you should take a break and go play a video game!  A healthy life is balanced.

Ye standard “Life is Balance” speech was not especially convincing.  If I could’ve pulled out a careful study proving my point, he would’ve accepted it.  But I didn’t have one.  (Please send me references!)

And I swear I didn’t do it on purpose–the Pokémon thing. But this morning I turned to him and said, “So yesterday you pointed out that I played too much Pokémon. Why did that bother you?”  And he replied, “well I mean, Mom you were just sitting there all day. You didn’t do anything else.  You…”  He stopped and looked at me.  “Ooooh, wait….” He smiled and shook his head.  He understood.  The perfect pedagogical lesson–and totally accidental.

In response to this my younger son did a comic role reversal, and made me promise I would be more careful about my screen time, or they’d have to start timing me. I sheepishly agreed.

How do you manage your children’s screen time? How do you explain the rationale for your policy to your kids? Leave me a comment!

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