Google Pokemon MAPster: On Nintendo and Mobile

If you have any aspiring Pokemon masters as friends, or happened to open Google Maps up today, chances are you found out about Google’s April Fools prank this year:

Granted, there actually ARE Pokemon in Google maps today: just in sprite form and no traveling required. (Unless you count hopping from Harajuku to Old Faithful via the Maps app travel)

While a collaboration between Google, the Pokemon Company, and Nintendo was a rather ingenious prank to tug on any kid-at-heart’s nostalgia and gain some excellent publicity for all parties, what might not have been expected of the prank was the conversations it brought about to the future of Pokemon, and well – Nintendo games in general.

Nintendo franchises are some of the most beloved and memorable games: Mario, Donkey Kong, Pikachu, and Link (Legend of Zelda) easily spring to mind among others when one is asked to think of a video game. One of Nintendo’s best selling points for its games is the exclusivity of its characters: typically confined to Nintendo only titles with rare cameos to outside titles, and exclusively playable on Nintendo console systems.

Does that exclusivity exclude Nintendo from some successful business ventures? Any console junkie will tell you that when it comes to hardware, Nintendo may have innovative ideas (a controller with a screen? Some of the first motion detection titles?), but their processing power can lag years behind Sony PlayStation or Microsoft XBox. Some mobile devices may even have better processing capabilities and features than current generation Nintendo devices.

Would it be better business for Nintendo to farm out their franchise characters? Or start developing and selling for mobile? Maybe opening up a retro games section of the Play store filled with mobile formatted nostalgia-inducers?
Think of the possibilities mobile could offer: the augmented reality type game described in the Google Maps trailer isn’t so far off – granted it might have to be scaled down a bit since it’s unlikely one will hop a plane to Egypt to finish a game.
Mobile could hit a base of users Nintendo is missing too. Users who love Mario and Pikachu, but can’t bring themselves to shell out the money for a console just to play one or two titles, but would gladly pay the money for those titles on their mobile device. Or even users who would play more classic mobile games a la CandySwipe, Cut the Rope, etc. that would buy extra levels or make a micropurchase for a small game with their favorite characters starring. There’s a potential market left untapped.

Yet for all the possibilities, and all the frustrated Nintendo lovers but non-console buyers who would clamor for mobile Nintendo love, there’s some sound strategy to what Nintendo has done so far. As stated at the beginning, Nintendo built its characters partially on their exclusivity. Only seeing Mario in his Nintendo environment gives an expectation and a context, and it gives a level of quality expectation for the product. Letting Mario run around just anywhere willing to shell out the cash for him could dampen the iconic-ness of him and other Nintendo franchise.

Plus, just like Sony and Microsoft, part of Nintendo’s profits come from console sales. While PlayStation and Microsoft have plenty of great third party developers to contract out games to and are known for a vast array of different games being available to them, Nintendo again breeds its consoles in part for the exclusiveness of their franchise titles – third party developers are almost akin to just gravy. Take the franchise titles and put them anywhere, and when stacked against the competitors with better horsepower, who is going to buy the Nintendo console anymore? They may have novel hardware innovations, but given console sales for Nintendo already are less than their competitors, who can say how much more the scales would tip?

None of these conversations are to say Nintendo needs any advice. Their brands speak for themselves: the company has amassed quite spectacular revenue and while their current consoles may seem in trouble, the company itself is far from likely in the same waters. These are what ifs, and exploring the whys.

The bottom line seems to be that for all the excitement and potential new markets Nintendo could open up by expanding its horizons, it could also become a fatal blow to the company. Dwindled to a halt console sales could potentially rip open any gaming company,  and beyond that the iconic nature of Nintendo franchise characters could get lost in the mix as they jump from game to game, console to console. While it might seem backwards to those looking at the potential innovations ahead of us, Nintendo sticking to what they know may be exactly what they need to continue on their path of household gaming entity.

Plus, if the technology already exists, that means it can always become a part of the next big Nintendo thing. The 3DS already HAS augmented reality features, for example: they’ve just never been that strongly used in a franchise game to my knowledge. Maybe this Google Maps trailer is opening doors to something right in their backyard?

Regardless of what they choose to do in the future, Nintendo is a savvy company who chose to opt out of the console horsepower war and opt into developing further what was already working for them: their characters. I’m interested to see how their business plan continues to unfold, and I’m actually doing a marketing course research survey project on Nintendo and mobile devices, so you may see more blog posts about this from me.

But until then, I’m going to go back to searching for all these Pokemon in….where am I now, Kyoto? And hoping against hope if I find them all Google sends me a lovely little Pokemon master card to hang on my wall, right next to my pile of Pokemon plushies.

“Video games are bad for you? That’s what they said about rock-n-roll” – Shigeru Miyamoto

Pokemon and respective characters (c) Nintendo, Game Freak, and the Pokemon Company International; Mario, Luigi, and other characters (c) Nintendo

GHC Reflections: “Why Are We Still Geeks?” Panel – Part 3

(Trying to work toward graduation AND remember to blog is hard – sorry for the delay!!)
My favorite segment of the “Why Are We Still Geeks?” panel at Grace Hopper, part three featured professor Kim Surkan of Humanities & Gender Studies. Her discussion revolved around the current issues surrounding women in technology today, and steps being made toward remedying them.

Very early in the speech she made a memorable statement: “You have to remember, I am humanities, trying to step into your world – and let me tell you, your world is troubled”. With that statement alone, despite her not being a woman in the CS field today, you could tell how deeply she understood the problems plaguing women in technology today and hoped to remedy them.

She went on to discuss several distinct points hindering the cause of women in CS. For instance, both genders have a habit of correlating gender with ability in STEM fields, which regardless of actual skill causes a decrease in interest and  hinders abilities, which continues to increase our gender gap. In  simpler terms, both women and men perceive men as better at programming, thus women lose interest, stifle or hinder their own skills, and create an even wider divide to perpetuate this stigma.

She then cycled this concept into another called “symbolic annihilation”. She argues that the struggle there is for young women to see other women in computer science makes it difficult to protest the fact that they are underrepresented. It’s a difficult concept to wrap one’s head around at first: the best phrase for it is “It’s hard to protest an image that does not exist”. If we’ve never seen it, we have trouble conceptualizing it as a real problem.How can we address the problem of women entering STEM fields, if we have barely any women at all to turn to in the field for a frame of reference? Out of sight, out of mind as they might say.

One fact Dr.Surkan shared that I found startling was that Computer Science is the only STEM field that has seen a decrease in women joining in recent years. As a woman in the Computer Science field, I know we are few and far between – but to hear that trend is only becoming worse is something that makes me very sad. Any woman can be good at whatever she so chooses, but there is nothing about Computer Science as a field that makes it strictly male. I can think of plenty of areas that women can actually have an easier time conceptualizing than men due to how we process information. For instance, concurrency and object-oriented relations/definitions are things that I’ve seen women grasp more quickly. And for those who enjoy a human element – data analysis, human/computer interaction, usability, and user experience are all realms where a craving for “social” work can manifest in Computer Science – and are areas that sorely need workers, yet few Computer Science majors are as interested in. Not to put the genders in stereotypical boxes of course – I mean Grace Hopper developed the compiler – that says just how much women can contribute to the field in any area they choose!

Surkan continues by discussing subtle differencing in the language of Computer Science that one could also say contributes in part to the lack of women. The term hardware did not originate until 1958 – prior to that, computers were operated almost entirely by women! The word hardware versus software brings about a play on masculine versus feminine roles (men are “hard” and women are “softer”), and defined women solely as switchboard operators rather than “able to build computers”. This language change may have helped solidify the gender divide within Computer Science – where women are thought to be able to use the computers, but not build them or program on any level of real depth.

She follows this up with a case study of several events in the Computer Science world that have alienated women – and for me, these case studies were a turning point in how I viewed the CS world for women. I had known things can be bad, that we were few and far between – but some of these stories were beyond me. There was the 9-year-old girl at the TechCrunch Disrupt hackathon: who when other apps were inappropriate for someone of her age to have to see (and at least a touch objectifying to women) during demonstration, was blamed for being there – despite having built her app herself at the event. There was Anita Sarkeesian, receiving death threats for an attempt to kickstart a YouTube channel about female representation in video games. Adria Richards, who was harassed and then fired from her job for tweeting about some men making sexual jokes at a Python conference. And the more I Googled after the panel, the longer the list of stories became.

The above tied in with what she calls “brogrammer” culture – more and more startups and popular tech companies are modeling themselves in a fashion to attract young and thrill-seeking twenty-something males – to the point where the office culture resembles a fraternity house party more than corporate.<br />
Now, there’s nothing wrong with a fraternity house party, and there’s nothing wrong with a woman wanting to be a ninja or a wizard or a Jedi (as advertisements for these job may question if you are when it comes to coding), but there are elements of those environments and words that can cause women to automatically feel excluded. Perhaps when promoting jobs companies should use a second, more general, or even women-targeted ad set in addition (calling for code queens, Python princesses, and scripting sirens) if they wish to correct these images – and let their house party style be more like game&amp;study night on the co-ed dorm floor.

When I discuss the issues of women in Computer Science today, I am constantly brought back to referencing something I learned or heard in Surkan’s panel segment and branch out my discussion from there. No one has all the answers to these issues – but she definitely helped to raise some of the problems and questions, which is always a necessary first step. More than likely I will revisit some of these issues and pose some thoughts for the future in the future – but this blog has become long enough just revisiting Surkan’s panel points.

Is there a current problem with getting women into Computer Science, and the environment for women in the field at certain locations? Certainly.
Can we fix it for the future? Definitely.
Will it happen overnight? Probably not – but if we persevere, we will overcome.

“Computer science is no more about computers than astronomy is about telescopes” – Edsger Dijkstra