The Pokémon Go Effect: An Urban Planner’s Best Friend

How much does this mobile phenomenon really affect our daily lives? Could Pokemon Go make playgrounds out of cities?

Pokémon Go, the location-based mobile augmented reality game developed by Niantic and released worldwide from July to August of 2016, took the world by storm. Thanks to the association with one of the most popular brands in existence, location-based gameplay found its way into the mainstream within days. Since the point of the game is to catch virtual “pocket monsters” that can be found by traversing real-world locations, due to the hype surrounding the game, speculations have arisen in regards to how the game affects daily life and mobility patterns of its users. Eduardo Graells-Arrido et al. of Universidad del Desarrollo took this opportunity to examine how the release of Pokémon Go impacted city life in their research paper “The Effect of Pokémon Go on the Pulse of the City: A Natural Experiment”.

In order to quantify Pokémon Go’s influence on the public, the researchers looked into (anonymous) mobile use data gathered by the largest telecommunications company in Chile, Teléfonica Movistar, which provides 33% of the country’s mobile services. Because the game features PokéStops – crowd‑sourced points of interest that can be anything from statues to businesses and curious landmarks – the authors chose to focus their research on an urban area with lots of PokéStops that have the potential to attract players. They decided to target the floating population (non-residential population that travels for business or recreational purposes) of Santiago, the capital of Chile. They only examined data gathered from devices that were active every day during the two chosen periods, and excluded devices that downloaded too little (under 2.5MB) or too much (over 500MB) data per day to be related to playing the game. After filtering out unsuitable data, 142 988 devices remained on record. The researchers analyzed data with timestamps ranging from 6:00AM to 11:59PM.

The dataset contained records from seven days just before the official launch of Pokémon Go in Chile (July 27th – August 2nd) and seven days after (August 4th – August 10th). August 3rd, the day the game launched, was left out of the analysis because there was no set hour the game became available to all future players in Santiago.

The results show that Pokémon Go did indeed cause a statistically significant increase in the number of people connected to mobile towers in the city at most points in the day, particularly in the city center area where many PokéStops can be found. Throughout the day, the average increase in the number of connected devices was around 6%, with two periods of time turning out to be crucial for Pokémon Go players: the time between 11:58AM and 12:46PM (lunch breaks, with a 13.8% increase in data usage) and between 9:24PM and 10:12PM (at nighttime, with a 9.6% increase). It was revealed that people generally don’t go out of their way to play Pokémon Go but instead adapt the game to suit their daily routine, likely playing on their way to work, during breaks, and so on. At nighttime, on the other hand, players were scattered across the city map, which implies they mostly played in areas close to their homes. Notably, mobile users connected from parks and plazas that were reported to be rarely visited at nighttime a lot more often.

The authors link their research to future possibilities for urban design. They theorize that virtual gamespaces such as the world of Pokémon Go could very well become “third places” in cities. These hypothetical third places stand in opposition to homes, or “first places”, and work or study areas, or “second places”. Third places are the neutral ground where people from different backgrounds can gather and communicate. A previous theory put forth by Jane Jacobs suggests that for a city to be lively and safe, pedestrians have to be outside at different times of day; location-based games like Pokémon Go encourage this behavior, which may in turn decrease perceptions of crime and violence and make people feel safer, making them more social, which may in turn reduce the number of opportunities for crime.

Graells-Arrido et al. conclude that the data from their research, and possibly similar future works, could be useful for urban planners. Where are people likely to go and when? And how does outdoor activity correlate with crime rates? Data from mobile services can help us understand how cities live, and they can help inform public policy changes in the future.


Original Article: “The Effect of Pokémon Go on the Pulse of the City: A Natural Experiment”

Authors: Eduardo Graells-Garrido, Leo Ferres, Diego Caro and Loreto Bravo

Published: EPJ Data Science, vol. 6, 15 September 2017

Original article accessible from