How Play Shaped Augmented Reality

Play has always been at the centre of the metaverse. Gaming technology has a clear place in the history of virtual reality and worlds. From Oculus Rift’s role in reinvigorating interest in virtual reality (Evans, 2018), to persistent virtual worlds like Second Life shaping our perception of virtual worlds (Boellstorff, 2015), games and gaming technology have been integral in shaping ‘the virtual’. Conversations about the future of the metaverse tend to be grounded in virtual simulation and immersion of the body. From Zuckerberg proudly adoring his legs to the world (Zwiezen, 2023), to the persistent virtual worlds of online gaming, and early dystopian imagery of virtual spaces in cyberpunk novels – notions of the metaverse overly focus on virtual and simulated environments. Yet, augmented reality developers are thinking about the metaverse, to the point where Niantic CEO John Hanke deems their suite of augmented reality games are ‘building a better reality’ (Hanke, 2021; Levy, 2021). What role has augmented reality had in shaping current discourse of the metaverse. Perhaps more importantly, what role has play had?

A close up of a person holding a phone up to the camera. The background is a residential street and the phone is open to the street view of pokemon go
Starting to Play – Filtering Reality

Augmented reality has multiple histories – from early experimental approaches to layering our perception and view like Sutherland’s 1968 augmented reality display, to industry specific uses of AR, where the term itself was first coined by Boeing working Tom Caudell (Marr, 2021). The relationship between play, games, and augmented reality is buried within these histories. Early augmented reality games are a forgotten part of its history, and perhaps for a good reason. These early AR games may have even included large wearable backpacks and head mounted display. This is true of the very first AR game, ARQuake (2000). Early mixed reality games like those of Blast Theory used multiple forms of mobile media to create immersive playful engagements with public space. Yet, augmented reality gaming didn’t really find it’s feet in app stores.

Augmented reality saw some success with mobile applications as a means of navigation, as a novel form of advertisement and interaction, but interest started to wane with the launch and subsequent failure of Google Glass (Reynolds, 2015), raising issues of surveillance and privacy (Wassom, 2014) for wearable augmented reality.  Mobile social media is where AR first started to find its feet. Snapchat, a photo sharing app released in 2011 offered a range of filters that users could apply to their face. This embedded augmented reality within the everyday – part of a routine practice of identify performance. More importantly, it offered a way chance to use augmented reality in a playful way. Photography can be a form of play, offering playful engagement with place (Hjorth, 2017) and reimagining intimacies, time, space, and identity (Niemelä-Nyrhinen & Seppänen, 2023). Filters offers a chance to playfully approach photography, subject and objects, as well as play gesturally. A far stretch from gaming, augmented reality filters off a space for understanding, bodies, movement, and the use of mobile cameras in a form of play. This is where Pokémon Go enters the space.

The Pokémon Go Moment

Many augmented reality and location-based games came before Pokémon Go (plus a range of flops afterwards… more on this later). Pokémon Go was the right game at the right time. It was released at a time when people were willing to play around and experiment with augmented reality. I use the term ‘the Pokémon Go moment’ to describe the discursive, technical, and design shifts within augmented reality after the game’s release. This idea builds on Burgess’ et. al.’s (2012) concept of ‘the iPhone moment’, who argue that the discourse surrounding the iPhone’s marketing and usability marks a distinctive shift in the history of digital culture and mobile technology. Pokémon Go drew from previous augmented reality games, particularly Niantic’s previous augmented reality/location-based game Ingress. Ingress is populated with user generated locations, layered over a stylised version of Google Maps – building from Niantic’s history as an in-house Google Start up before they become their own independent company in 2015 (Olanoff, 2015). User-generated locations were ported to Pokémon Go, becoming the underlying infrastructure of all of Niantic’s future augmented reality games (Moore, 2020; 2022).

“The popularity of Pokémon Go may never be replicated, but it’s ability to collect data can be”

Pokémon Go also capitalised on the playfulness of AR photography – offering a space for ‘ambient play’ – a sense of vicariously playing with others and an embedded playfulness through the technology’s mere existence (Apperley and Moore, 2019). As a distinctive moment in augmented reality gaming history, Pokémon Go provided proof that augmented reality games could be financially viable. The game earned 832 million during its first year and has maintained steady revenue since then (Statt, 2020). Pokémon Go drew from previous gamified locative media such as Foursquare (Saker and Evans, 2016), offering sponsored locations as part of their platform (Tassi, 2017). Pokémon Go, or more explicitly Niantic, took another note from Foursquare’s book. Foursquare pivoted to become less a gamified location-based application, and more an underlying for other apps and their location-based services such as Uber and Tinder – less a location-based app and more a geomedia service (Firth and Wilken, 2019). Pokémon Go, alongside with Niantic’s other suite of games, offers a means of platformisation, hidden under the guide of communities and play. Pokémon Go offers more than a space to play, it offers a platform for play – a means of captialising on communities, feeding into Niantic’s larger mixed reality platform and infrastructures.

The Metaverse, But Good?

Does it matter that Pokémon Go can’t be replicated? Not really. Pokémon Go has opened a space to build augmented reality gaming infrastructure that’s larger than any one game. Niantic have found recent success working with Capcom on Monsters Hunter Now (2023) – with the game exceeding 20 million in revenue within it’s first month of release, 67% of which came from Japan (Tsuji, 2023). Niantic have also had some success collaborating with Nintendo for Pikmin Bloom (2021), an augmented reality game where players plant flowers as they walk. Niantic have also partnered with other studios with far less success – from Warner Brothers to create the short-lived Harry Potter: Wizards Unite (2019-2021), and the even shorter lived Catan: World Explorers (2020-2021). There has also been series of games that were cancelled during Niantic’s recent round of layoffs, cancelling their Marvel and NBA collaborations (Silberling, 2023). Outside of Niantic, there have been a range of less successful ‘clones’ like Garfield Go (Haskins, 2017), alongside Tencent’s hugely successful clone Let’s Hunt Monsters, generating $50 million in revenue (Nelson, 2019).

So, what does this all mean? Pokémon Go offers more than Pokémon of successful location-based game (explore and capture), it offers a model for platformisation. It offers a way of creating locative gaming platforms that collect data, amass users, and an underlying infrastructure built for data collection.

The popularity of Pokémon Go may never be replicated, but it’s ability to collect data can be. 

Through their suite of games Niantic can create scans of the world.  CEO John Hanke says this is to ‘build a better metaverse’. While this sounds great for Niantic, it has implications for players as well as for a broader technological landscape. There are considerations surrounding the ethics of these practices, as well as accessibility and inclusion (Carter and Egliston, 2020). There are tensions here between public space and private cartographic practices.

What’s Niantic’s end goal? Currently, Niantic have had a series of acquisitions, namely The Matrix Mill and Escher Reality with the intention of building cross platform augmented reality experiences (Statt, 2018) . These acquisitions, along with their range of collaborations and suite of games, currently all point to their development kit, previously known as their Real World Platform, now Lightship. Niantic’s rhetoric around this platform is that it can empower other developers to build their own real world Metaverse (Niantic, 2021).

Pokémon Go isn’t just an example of successful locative and augmented reality gaming. It’s an example of Niantic’s platformisation strategy, grounded in acquisitions, the mass accumulation of players, and importantly, a large scale data collection infrastructure. Play is embedded throughout these games, mobilised through communities and their labour. This is most explicit in Niantic’s rollout of Wayfarer, where high level Niantic players help continue to user-generated legacy of Ingress.

Play has had an important role in shaping augmented reality and how we perceive the future of the ‘metaverse’. The role augmented reality has had in this is often forgotten, and for good reason. Through mobile applications, the ‘game’ and ‘platform’ of Niantic become embedded in an everyday ambient playfulness. By expanding play across multiple platforms, Niantic operate more as a social media platform, accumulating data through users, all under the guise of a morally good Metaverse rooted in open and exploratory play.


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Recommended citation

Moore, K. (April, 2024) How play shaped augmented reality. Critical Augmented and Virtual Reality Researchers Network (CAVRN).

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