Steppenwolf the PokéStop?: How Theaters Should Use Pokémon Go

Gotta catch a play?

Unless you’ve been living in a Zubat-filled cave (in which case you also wouldn’t understand that reference), you’ve probably heard about the global phenomenon that is Pokémon Go. The game, which requires players to explore their real world to catch fictional creatures called Pokémon, is currently the most downloaded app in history, and it recently passed Twitter in number of daily users and Facebook in amount of daily time spent with its app. This video by Polygon offers a good overview of just how popular it is, but for a more visual representation, just look at the crowds that gathered when a rare Pokémon appeared in Central Park at 11pm last Friday. It was enough to stop traffic.

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Those outside the Millennial generation may be wondering why Pokémon fever has suddenly come out of nowhere to afflict the nation, but the reality is that the Pokémon franchise has been going strong for over twenty years. A lot of younger adults grew up playing Pokémon games, and for those who didn’t there were also trading cards, a TV show, movies, etc. The series also scales well to different age groups, so many of those people that enjoyed Pokémon as children have had ways to continue to enjoy the franchise as they have grown up. While some Pokémon content, like the movies and cartoon, are aimed at children, interested adults know that the main video game series is actually a surprisingly deep strategy game that continues to receive high critical praise in the industry. (And let’s not also forget Pokémon’s recent appearance on the political stage, when Herman Cain apparently quoted one of the films in his concession speech during the 2012 presidential primary.) So if you’re out of the Pokémon loop, think of it like a Pixar movie—cute and accessible for kids, but layered and well-crafted enough for adults to appreciate, too. For me personally, my level of Poké-interest is probably somewhere in the middle; I’ve enjoyed several of the past games, and I’m glad to see the series doing so well, but I thought I’d probably take a pass on hunting for Pokémon in the real world. But when I learned about Pokémon Go’s marketing possibilities, and realized what it could mean for theater, I decided to hop on the bandwagon and see for myself.
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Pokémon Go, which uses your phone’s GPS to track you on a game map identical to the real world, recognizes landmarks and places of interest. It does so primarily by designating them as “PokéStops,” which are useful places you can find to restock on items, and this means that many theaters are now PokéStops, too. In other words, Pokémon Go is rewarding players who spend time around theaters, and theaters can, and should, take advantage of that.

Even more importantly, PokéStops can be outfitted with an item called a Lure Module to turn them into a magnet of Pokémon activity. By using a Lure on a PokéStop, Pokémon will begin to congregate around it for thirty minutes, making them much easier to catch than when they were scattered hither and yon across the map. Lots of businesses have already realized the power of drawing in customers by luring crowds of Pokémon to their establishment, and the price conversion on Lures (which have to be purchased in the game using PokéCoins, which are themselves acquired with real money) comes out to just a little over a dollar an hour.

Use a Lure to draw Pokémon–and people.

This means 84 hours of increased traffic for just $99.99!  The one caveat is that a player has to be at level 8 or higher to buy a Lure Module, but it doesn’t take too long for a new player to get to that point, and chances are, if you have young adults working for your theater, you already have some players at that level or higher.

This all seemed promising enough on paper, but I wanted to see for myself, so I tried the process last weekend when I went to Between Riverside and Crazy at Steppenwolf. Sure enough, Steppenwolf is a PokéStop. Here I am on Halsted, and north of me is Steppenwolf, designated by a floating blue cube. On the opposite side of the street is the Royal George Theatre, which the game has designated as a Gym. Gyms are other important areas where Pokémon can battle one another, but for the purposes of this article I’m just going to focus on PokéStops.

Steppenwolf is the blue floating cube just north of me. The large gray platforms are gyms.

Now, having just started the game, I couldn’t buy any Lures yet, but I did have Incense. Incense will cause Pokémon to gather the same way a Lure does, but they will only apply to the player who used it, so a business couldn’t use one to bring in customers. But for the purposes of demonstrating how to make the creatures appear in a specific location, it will work in this case. Here’s a shot of Steppenwolf after I used the item, now with two new Pokémon (Beedrill and Squirtle) that weren’t there before.

Voilà! Pokémon lured to Steppenwolf.

So given how simple and inexpensive this strategy is, and how insanely popular Pokémon Go is right now, I see no reason why theaters shouldn’t start using Lures to physically draw more foot traffic to their theaters. They should make it clear that they’ll be turning their PokéStops into prime Pokémon catching locations, and they may even want to have people outside handing out fliers or season brochures while their Lures are active. (Theaters aren’t usually places to hang out and make casual purchases the way a restaurant or bar would be, so you’ll want to make sure the trainers leave with information that will eventually draw them back to buy tickets. In this way, theater outreach is more similar to how churches and synagogues have been using the app than anything else.) It may seem a little silly at first to start incorporating Pokémon into your theater’s community outreach lexicon, but people are spending more time on the app than on Twitter and Facebook these days, and it probably sounded silly to say we were “tweeting” or “friending” one another before that became commonplace.

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I’m not sure I’ll be spending much more time on Pokémon Go myself—there are much deeper Pokémon games out there if I’m the mood for one—but based on the number of trainers I saw immersed in it around Steppenwolf last weekend, I think it has some staying power, at least for the near future. And if it fades, this is still just the beginning of what will soon be a mobile market offering numerous augmented reality games, and a new network of businesses competing across various digital worlds to appeal to as many customers as possible.

Theater must embrace augmented reality.

The theater industry is often notoriously resistant to technological change, but this could be a rare chance for theater to be among the first to take advantage of new technology, and reach out to audiences whom they wouldn’t have had contact with through traditional methods.

After all, isn’t the excitement of augmented reality in the illusion of impossible things unfolding live in the world around us? That doesn’t sound so different from theater to me.