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Pokémon GO is the Sweet, Successful Fruit of Failure

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In a weekend, Pokémon GO has already taken our smartphones by storm. But where did it come from?

On the one hand, this is a simple question to answer: Nintendo. Pokémon is a game franchise created by Nintendo, and Pokémon GO is the newest installment.

But Pokémon GO isn’t just more of the same. It’s a revolutionary innovation.

Using the camera function on people’s phones, the world of the game is our world. The eponymous monsters appear on the screen as hiding in plain sight. People catch them, train them, fight them, trade them, and so on, just like in previous games. But now the game itself is causing people to get out of their homes and see new scenery, meet new people.

Jeffrey Tucker offered a glowing review at FEE today:

How can a silly game lift up our hearts and give rise to the better angels of our nature?

That something marvelous had happened was obvious to anyone living in dense population areas. Parks filled up with people playing the game. They were hanging out in public areas around malls, at bus stops, in parking lots, and just about everywhere.

People were holding their phones, playing the game, laughing and moving around. Crucially, people were meeting each other with something in common – people of all races, classes, religions; none of it mattered. They found new friends and came together over a common love.

And there was a common feature to all the people doing this. We smiled. We smiled at each other. Even now, even in the midst of a world in which “the center no longer holds,” we actually found that center again: a heart-felt affection for something we love and an awareness that others share that same aspiration.

It was absolutely beautiful to watch. With an element of fantasy and the assistance of marvelous technology, we experienced the common humanity of our neighbors and strangers in our community. This kind of experience is key for building a social consensus in favor of universal human rights.

That might be a tad optimistic, but it’s well-placed optimism. Video games are not incidental elements of our culture. This one in particular has already (in a single weekend) had a wide-reaching effect. And that effect has been mostly positive (for an exception see here).

So all that said, where did this come from again?

Nintendo is a correct answer, but it doesn’t really satisfy the curiosity behind the question. The other hand is to think much bigger. Tucker’s answer is the “market process.” This is also true, but it errs on the other side. It’s too big of an answer. The market in general didn’t produce Pokémon GO. Nintendo did. A relatively free market was certainly an essential element, but not a sufficient one.

No, what produced Pokémon GO was not simply the market or Nintendo, but Nintendo’s exceptional market strategy. In a recent post for the 20th anniversary of the N64, I summed up this strategy:

There are a lot of things that Nintendo tried with the N64 that didn’t really work in their favor. But Nintendo’s willingness to take such risks, and their general product differentiation (for example, their massively successful Pokémon series debuted just one year earlier for Nintendo’s Game Boy handheld console, spawning a cartoon and a card game) make it an outstanding example in the long run….

What Nintendo does is a microcosm of what successful markets in general do: They fail all the time. And they are able to fail all the time because they have sufficiently diversified their product offering without overextending themselves. So if one product, despite huge investments of time and money, fails, Nintendo still has two or three other big ideas just waiting to explode. And all they need is for one to catch on to completely make up for the losses inherent to the innovative process.

This, I argued previously, is also characteristic of healthy spirituality:

Nintendo is an example of capitalism at its best. And its success (and failures) ought to remind us of what the spiritual life requires of us. Praying a prayer every now and then or reading one’s Bible from time to time may be enough. But a plurality (to the point of redundancy) of spiritual practices makes a person far better prepared for the unpredictable challenges of real life.

By contrast, cronyistic and protectionist measures seek to preserve a company’s or market’s current state, rather than being open to development. It may work for a while, but eventually creative destruction will displace a company or industry ill-equipped to adapt. Similarly, an over-confident spirituality sets one up to fall into unexpected temptation or to be unable to bear unexpected tragedy.

If we hope to spiritually develop, the process of that development is actually quite analogous to healthy economic development. Don’t just pray. Pray and fast and give alms and read your Bible and meditate and so on. Weave ascetic habits into your life so that when the unexpected comes (and it surely will) you will have all the practices you need to endure it already there with you.

But how to get people interested in that? Hmm …  Just imagine what pokémon may be hiding in your church parking lot!? or under your prayer table at home? or in your Bible, if you only would open it up? Grab a pokémon, say a prayer, read a psalm, trade with a friend, help that friend with a life problem, and so on and so on.

Maybe it won’t be the next human rights revolution, but it could be an incremental step in the right direction, not only for human rights but also for spiritual growth.

Just a thought.

P.S. For those of you reading this and wondering what in the world I’m talking about, here’s a video that basically explains nothing:

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Dylan Pahman Dylan Pahman is a research fellow at the Acton Institute, where he serves as managing editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He earned his MTS in Historical Theology from Calvin Theological Seminary. In addition to his work as an editor, Dylan has authored several peer-reviewed articles, conference papers, essays, and one book: Foundations of a Free & Virtuous Society (Acton Institute, 2017). He has also lectured on a wide variety of topics, including Orthodox Christian social thought, the history of Christian monastic enterprise, the Reformed statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper, and academic publishing, among others.

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