Pokémon Go and Higher Ed Campuses

Pokémon Go is an augmented reality game that's become popular in the past few weeks. It's a kind of a waypoint-type game where players go to places called PokeStops and/or gymnasiums, which can be different buildings, locations, parks, sculptures, all those types of things. A player within the game can travel from point to point and get items at the PokeStops. They can have little competitions or battles at the gyms, and in between all those places they can collect and capture Pokémon, which are different characters within the game.

My institution has been affected in a few ways. Our campus, which is the smallest in the University of Wisconsin system with 10 to 15 buildings and about 2,300 students and 300 faculty and staff, has seven PokeStops and one gym (located in our main academic building). I've seen a lot of community members — young people, tweens, students, and older people — around campus going to the different PokeStops and playing the game. The game has brought all these people to our campus.

We have talked a bit about having information in our main academic building, which is a Poke Gymnasium, about the game. We have a large open lobby area with seating, and it would be a good opportunity to put some marketing materials there, maybe have some different days where we do promotions or events, get on the radio, or things like that. I talked to Director of Marketing and Government Relations Daniel Fanning about this a little while ago. When our marketing staff put information up on Facebook and Twitter, they saw it as an opportunity to invite people to our campus as a lighthearted way to interact with a younger audience. Those Facebook posts and Tweets were liked and shared often. Fanning felt that was a successful piece of marketing for our institution.

There are some risks to having Pokémon players on campus, as others have pointed out. For example, we have seen increased traffic, and more people on campus increases the risk that someone could trip or fall or cause trouble, but I don't see these risks as any different than any other day. Our campus is a state-owned institution, supported by taxpayers, and they have the right to walk to and fro on our campus pretty much any time they want anyway.

I don't see a lot of risk, but I do see where there could be risk. I've looked at risk within the technology space, but mostly I'm looking at different ways we can market and attract this generation of potential students. We have double-digit growth in our online programs, but declines in our traditional campus population. Something like Pokémon Go doesn't necessarily promote your campus and your programs, but it brings people — especially younger people — to see the beauty of your campus. They might see information that interests them, and this might become that first contact with a potential student. It's an attractor to the community in general. There is a popular five-acre park in our neighboring city, Duluth, Minnesota, where some of my students said they go because it has a lot of Poke Stops. On weekends they will find some 300 people gathered to play Pokémon Go — not just young people, a variety of people of all ages.

Some people expect the game to really launch augmented reality. I've been looking at the field even before the game launched, considering ways we could integrate augmented reality or virtual reality within coursework, for example. I followed a few producers who make virtual reality film, and I think that will produce a big shift in the classroom because we do distance learning right now. We set up online or blended courses so that they're almost like our traditional classroom, with the instructor in front of the students lecturing online, giving students a video, etc., whereas augmented reality and virtual reality give you an opportunity to bring students into a different place with content. With augmented reality, they might have an avatar or person in the space doing the instruction. Virtual reality gives you the opportunity to bring them somewhere that they can't go physically. Maybe a trip to China or Italy or something like that.

Sometimes as a community we think about the risk in things, and we do need to evaluate that. We also need to think about the benefit to our campus and to our surrounding communities by letting these things happen. I've heard a few talk about how to remove Poke Stops from their campuses, and that's a decision you want to evaluate carefully. I liken that to many years ago when Facebook was starting up, and our campus was contacted to be a member; some of our administration at the time wanted to block Facebook "because they're going to say bad things about us on there and we can't own that." Ultimately, Facebook became one of our primary means of outreach and marketing.

I think sometimes you need to carefully evaluate resources, especially this one because it's at no cost to us, but how can we bring it to the next level? My suggestion is that campuses partner with this company — maybe there's a Pokémon we can create based on our campus mascot. Then players would have to come here to gain or to capture that character. Something to think about.


Joe Kmiech is director, Technology Support Services; acting co-CIO; and advisor, Veterans and Friends of Veterans Club, at the University of Wisconsin Superior.

© 2016 Joseph J. Kmiech III. This EDUCAUSE Review blog is licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International.