Gotta Catch ‘Em All: Campus Engagement with Pokémon Go

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Beth M. Whittaker, Director of the Kenneth Spencer Research Library and Associate Dean of Distinctive Collections at the University of Kansas.

I’m not ashamed to say it: “I play Pokémon Go.”  Or perhaps, more accurately, “I STILL play Pokémon Go!” Although much of the excitement of the popular AR-based mobile game has died down since its launch in 2016, the game continues to evolve and develop, bringing in new players and drawing back those who left. Nowhere is this more evident than on college campuses. While my love affair with Pokémon Go started, as it did for many adult players, as a way to encourage myself to walk more, it’s become a major way I interact with my community and navigate the world around me. In short, it makes me a better librarian, providing me with new ways to connect to students and faculty and promote the library.

Lawrence, Kansas is home to a large, active group of “PoGo” players and the University of Kansas (KU) is a prime spot to play, full of Pokéstops and gyms, dense with opportunities to “catch ‘em all!” Pokéstops are virtual location markers tied to a set of GPS coordinates. When a player “spins” a Pokéstop by interacting with it on their phone, they receive useful items and points. At a gym, you can do battle with Pokémon, or participate in solo or group “raids”. The beautiful North Gallery of Spencer Research Library is a Pokéstop, but it’s reachable from outside the building, too. Spencer had nothing to do with it: stops and gyms are assigned by the software company Niantic based on a complicated set of factors I don’t even pretend to understand. I could probably figure it out through careful research if I wanted to, though. I am a librarian, after all.

One aspect of the game that may come as a surprise is that it is designed to be interactive, and gameplay frequently encourages collaboration over competition. Faculty, staff, and students communicate through a chat app to find rarer Pokémon and to coordinate our group raids. I love to read messages like, “There’s a wild chansey at Spencer Research Library.” Chansey, in the Pokémon universe, brings good luck and happiness to those who catch it, and who couldn’t use more of that?

Our library is off the main campus thoroughfare, hidden behind Strong Hall, KU’s large administrative building, and not particularly easy to find. Since players interact with the game on the screen as much as they do with the physical world around them, it’s actually easier to find some places virtually than in person from the app’s aerial view. Recently a group was planning to battle a raid boss Pokémon at the gym at the Campanile, a campus landmark near my office, and a new player on campus asked where that was. The response, “Behind Strong Hall” obviously did not come from a librarian. I clarified, “Actually it’s behind Spencer Research Library, where we have a great exhibition on display about Helen and Kenneth Spencer.”

When I’m on campus, I’m usually wearing my KU Libraries lanyard, and I make no secret of the fact that I work for the libraries. I’ve had people ask me questions about fines, or mention that they visited the Spencer Library for a class and that “it was so cool!” I’ve met faculty and graduate students I never see inside our doors and I think it’s fair to say dozens of undergraduates think of me as “their” librarian. I have shared information about our student book collecting contest, directed people to campus parking options when they come to a raid, and reminded people when severe weather was imminent. All of this helps personalize a large campus, and feeds into my goals to help students succeed.

The PoGo community has served me well when I travel, too, including a recent visit to Cleveland for ACRL, where I chanced upon a group during a special lunchtime raid event. I tagged along with them for half a dozen raids as we made our way closer to the Cleveland State campus. Afterward, I joined two students at a Starbucks to trade Pokémon. We talked about their plans after graduation, and I was reminded of one of the universals of academic libraries everywhere: students can always use a sympathetic ear, a cup of coffee, and someone to help them navigate the world around them. I like to think I’m putting a human face on the library, both at KU and across the PoGo community, even if that face is known mostly by the name of my avatar, “Pokemom.”

So if you see me standing around on Jayhawk Boulevard with a group of people, looking at my phone, and, to be honest, probably yelling and screaming if I don’t make the catch, please know that yes, I’m playing Pokémon Go.  Most weeks, I do end up meeting my goal of walking 50 km. I collect potions, candy and stardust, all while playing a game that connects me to my campus and community.

P.S. After I submitted this to ACRLog, Niantic launched Harry Potter: Wizards Unite. Although I’m only at level 7 in this new augmented reality mobile game, I suspect it will share many of the same benefits for connecting with campus communities, especially given the popularity of the Harry Potter franchise. Time will tell!

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