Why 'Pokemon Go' and Its Ilk Are the Future of Video Games

In a crowded world, mass gaming is becoming essential.

Come Out & Play game Credit: Come Out & Play


On a Friday evening earlier this summer dozens of people used a smartphone app to role play as journalists and track down an actor dressed as iconic Brooklyn poet Walt Whitman on the streets of a Brooklyn neighborhood in a game called Lost in Time.

This was just one of the unusual scenes unfolding at the Come Out & Play Festival, an annual outdoor event showcasing original games that make innovative use of public space and inspire people to interact in new ways. The event also happens to be a top destination for designers trying out new ideas and concepts for multiplayer games.

Come Out & Play is an ideal testing ground for these types of large-scale games as it provides lots of open space and plenty of eager players to observe and who can provide feedback in real-time. You can see firsthand how intuitive a game is, if players can quickly grasp the rules and if they are continuing to have fun even if they are not racking up the highest scores. Hit games like Killer Queen Arcade, the ten-person cabinet arcade game with built-in beer holders, got its start at Come Out & Play, and my firm, ESI Design, has used Come Out & Play for many years to test and develop multiplayer, live-action games for museums, hotels, and stores across the country.

I have always been fascinated with games that can be played by large groups of people, especially ones that can be played in the same space. In the 1970s, I wrote three bestselling books on games for pocket calculators, which was about as close as you could get to mobile gaming at that time. But rather than writing games that could just be played between the user and his or her pocket calculator, I created as many games as possible where the pocket calculator became a platform for playing games with other people, a device for social interaction.

Why have these large-scale, in-real-life games struck such a nerve?

While many games today are created for a single person to play with a single screen, we are increasingly seeing that people are hungry for games they can play in the real world with a few friends, and also with groups of strangers. Look no further than the popularity of Pokémon Go, color runs, escape rooms, pillow fights, flash mobs, Tough Mudder and more.

Why have these large-scale, in-real-life games struck such a nerve?

First and foremost, people simply have more fun when they play together in the same physical place. You improve your skills by seeing, observing, and interacting. You get better at working and collaborating with other players. You make new friends. These are not just qualities of a rewarding game; these are qualities the world needs now more than ever. There are 200,000 new people on Earth every day. We need experiences where we begin to really love being with other people and gain the skills to work, live, and play well together.

That's why I believe the future of gaming lies in the games that bring large groups of people together by leveraging technology to seamlessly weave together the digital and physical world. The most promising and successful are putting new twists on familiar and popular games, drawing in more mainstream audiences and then taking them to new and unexpected places.

For instance, the ESC Game Theater at Las Vegas' Circus Circus Hotel & Resort is a mashup of an old-fashioned arcade, cinema, and pickup basketball game. In a room pulsing with surround sound, music, and theatrical lighting effects, dozens of players use hand-held controllers to compete against each other in wildly fun games on a movie theater-sized screen. A live emcee adds to the excitement and quickens the learning curve by offering tips, providing play-by-play commentary and encouraging teamwork.

In Somerville, Massachusetts, designer Randori has turned an ordinary rock climbing wall at Brooklyn Boulders gym into a real-life video game. In one game, a projector throws numbers up on the rock wall. Climbers can see the points they want to get as they scale up and across the wall, visual and audio cues alert them as they increase their scores.

Politics has even been made fun. At the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate in Boston, a touchscreen tablet is the driver of a large scale simulation where up to 100 people become Senators for a day. Unfolding in a replica of the U.S. Senate, the players try and pass legislation based on a real day in the history of the Senate. Since it opened two years ago, tens of thousands of people have played, sharpening their collaboration, negotiation, and debating skills.

You'll notice that none of these boundary-pushing games utilize Virtual Reality. While VR is cool, it is not the type of tool that will take this social gaming trend to the next level. When a room full of players are jacked into their VR headsets, they often disengage and disappear from one another, not unlike the deafening silence of a train car full of people playing games by themselves on their phones.

Instead, the best large-scale, multiplayer games will leverage increasingly sophisticated smartphones and new technologies like augmented reality and holography in the same way I approached the primitive pocket calculator forty years ago. In the introduction to the 1975 Pocket Calculator Game Book, I promised readers the book would "provide interesting, exciting, and amusing experiences ... and create new contexts for game playing and human interaction." By following those very same guidelines today, the future possibilities for fun on a massive level are endless. 

Edwin Schlossberg is the founder and principal designer of ESI Design, a design firm that creates experiences, exhibits, and large-scale games for museums, brands, and retailers including the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the U.S. Senate, eBay, Comcast and the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration.