As an adult, I feel way too old to play Pokémon Go.
Yet I'm noticing there are countless business opportunities around the game released this month for iPhone and Android. It's astounding how many people have dived into the real-world game mechanics, where you chase down animated characters and throw Poké Balls (or Great Balls as you level up) to capture them. They appear in an augmented reality view on your phone's camera, a perfect blend of tech and gaming.
It's addictive and fun, like a treasure hunt with a group of people that takes place...everywhere. (Well, unless you live in a rural area or a small town.) Local businesses can purchase a "lure module"--it's like a beacon to attract players in that area to spend real money on real food or services. One of these modules costs 100 Pokécoins, or exactly .99 cents in the real world.
Wait, does that sound a little familiar?
Pokécoins and the Pokémon economy are a now a thing. At Barbette's bistro in Minneapolis, I asked why they haven't set up any signs yet or purchased any lure modules and they admitted to being a little confused about the game.
"It's too complicated..." said one server.
Yes, it's confusing. Yes, there is a lot of hype. However, it's also a brilliant way to learn about alternative currency and what drives people to spend $99.99 on 14,500 coins. A bag upgrade costs 200 coins, and an egg incubator costs 150 coins. These things add up! Once you buy a lure module, you can use it to attract customers, although you can only do that from a PokéStop. (Barbette's isn't a PokéStop, so they were rightfully confused about how it all works. According to Pokémon developer Niantic Labs, there will be a way to create sponsored locations "soon" in the game.)
What's the big deal about alternative currency?
Since April, the value of bitcoins (BTC) has skyrocketed again, from around $430 per coin up to around $630 per coin. I remember making my first BTC purchase years ago, and there was a strange sense of excitement. I can hardly explain it. I went online and purchased a bag of beef jerky from a company I'd never heard of before that was way too expensive, then bragged to everyone about how I had paid with bitcoin.
That same sense of excitement has returned. Kids are wandering the streets looking for Pokémon, adults are running into telephone poles. People are driving around looking for them in their cars (no recommendo on that). And, if you're smart, you're figuring out how to lure people into your retail store, coffee shop, graphics design service bureau, coffee chain, shipping store, and everywhere else in the world people who might want to benefit from meeting other players will likely go.
If anything, it reveals why alternative currencies get so much traction. Microsoft doesn't do this anymore, but at one time, they used a point system for the Xbox gaming console. Friends and family wouldn't blink twice about paying $50 per week to "load up" their points so they could easily purchase more movies and games. There's a streamlining to the process. In Pokémon, it all makes sense.
I'm not saying any of this will cross over to the real world. We won't buy goods with Pokémon coins anytime soon. But it could push the idea of alternative currency firmly, completely, and convincingly into the mainstream in a way we have never seen before. It even beats Xbox points. It beats all of the hype about BTC exchanges. It beats anything we've seen before. People are paying for animated icons that blink. That's worth its weight in gold in terms of understanding BTC.
I'm all for Pokémon Go and think it could change how people play games. We live in dangerous, fearful times. It's scary out there. Having a way to spend a little fake cash on some furry creatures and join other players on a massive treasure hunt makes perfect sense. And now, finally--so does using an alternative currency.
We'll see if BTC takes hold. If it does, there are millions of gamers who will understand the reason it exists. Maybe they'll understand the inherent security someday as well.