You probably think of Pokémon Go, the augmented reality game app that has taken the world by storm, as a Japanese creation. The original Pokémon was, after all, launched by videogame giant Nintendo, a Japanese company.
But Pokémon Go’s creation was in fact led by an American company, Niantic, and the story of its conception and design is a quintessentially American story, with a lesson about diversity and inclusiveness that’s particularly timely in this year’s deeply divisive presidential election.
Niantic founder John Hanke has long loved video games. But he is also profoundly curious about the world and its diverse cultures. These two interests came together in Niantic’s pioneering work to turn the globe into a colossal game map that can be explored on foot.
Instead of escaping reality, Hanke envisioned games that help players see the world “with new eyes.” To accomplish this and make Pokémon Go the truly global phenomenon it has become, one that could cross borders and cultures, Hanke needed a diverse set of outlooks: a team that reflected and embraced the world and its diverse cultures, beliefs, and sensibilities. As a former product manager at Niantic responsible for populating Niantic’s augmented reality game map with cool, hidden, and unique real-world places, I had a first-hand view of that team and how it operated.
We curated Niantic’s virtual world by vetting millions upon millions of geotagged photo and text submissions, but it was a tremendous challenge to screen them for meaning and significance. For example, on the approach to Machu Picchu on Peru’s famed Inca Trail are hundreds of abandoned pre-Columbian stone structures. We had to ask ourselves: Which of these were historically significant? And should the structures making up the Wiñay Wayna ruins be grouped together into a single point of interest (Pokestop)? And in Prague’s famous Wenceslas Square, we had to decide how to honor the memory of Jan Palach, a student who set himself on fire in 1969 to protest the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and after whom many monuments are named. How could we accurately present history, while being cognizant that the emotional scars from the Soviet era are still raw for many Czechs today?
We scratched our heads. Fortunately, Hanke made nurturing diversity a conscious goal in the assembly of the team, and Niantic consisted of team members who had lived in over a dozen countries and spoke over a dozen languages. Taking advantage of this, we split the world into multiple regions and assigned team members familiar with each region’s local culture and language to help with the trickier cases. We received a photo of an impressive Golden Moon sculpture in Hong Kong’s Victoria Park, for example, but a team member was able to discern its reference to the Mid-Autumn Festival and correctly guessed that this was a seasonal installation and thus not a good location for the game.
We also had to understand deeply how expectations of privacy differed around the world, how people might feel about a virtual layer being overlaid above their homes and places of worship, and how communities would respond to the introduction of augmented reality commerce via sponsored locations. Because we saw the world through so many different eyes, we were able to anticipate and design for cultural nuances that would have escaped a more homogenous team.
I wrote earlier that Pokémon Go is an American creation, and that’s true, but it’s not the whole story. It’s an American creation but one that reflects the world. Niantic was able to succeed in captivating half a billion people around the world only because we as a society have decided to let the world in: to welcome it, in all its messy diversity, and not wall it out.
The xenophobia and fear-mongering that have reared their ugly heads during the current election can, if we give in to them, cut us off from the disparate ideas and worldviews that have fueled America’s ability to create and export innovations loved by the whole world. From the invention of the cotton gin to the success of Pokémon Go, diversity hasn’t threatened us. It’s given us the edge. Don’t let anyone take that away.
Yi Henry Han is a product manager on the Debug Project, Alphabet’s latest global health moonshot. He was formerly a product manager at Niantic Labs focusing on geodata and monetization.