Reflecting on Pokémon Go: Part 1

TL;DR: Niantic lucked out in a huge way, but they may have squandered Pokémon Go’s enormous potential. Here I explain my feelings and thoughts on the matter.


For almost an entire year before July 2016, Pokémon fans around the world eagerly awaited the arrival of Niantic’s Pokémon Go. We fondly recalled the Nintendo games and TV shows of our youth, and were beyond excited to experience the same joy again on our now-ubiquitous mobile phones.

I remember watching the original trailer for Pokémon Go in 2015 and feeling a lump in my throat — the kind that immediately precedes tears of joy. It was the most amazing video game ad I’ve ever seen, and it spoke to all of my most treasured experiences and associated childhood feelings. I watched the trailer at least 5 times in a row.

This was true for a lot of other people too. You see, Pokémon was more than a Nintendo franchise for us — it was a familiar face, a childhood friend, and a stable constant for our former younger selves. We loved Pokémon like we loved Disney. It was special in a way that Pac-Man never was, even to those of you who spent their formative years in the ’80s. Firing up a Pokémon game was like coming home.

(Side note: In middle school, I was active on multiple Pokémon message boards. To this day, I still know how to type an accented “é” using ALT+130 on the keyboard numpad.)

We had no idea what to expect before Pokémon Go’s release. All we knew was that it was going to be some subset of the things we loved already from the franchise, which included:

  • Collecting Pokémon and filling our Pokédex (721 species were in the franchise by mid-2016)
  • Earning badges and/or achievements
  • Getting items
  • Growing, leveling, and evolving Pokémon
  • Incorporating some real-world VR/AR element
  • Battling and trading with in-game trainers
  • Battling and trading with our friends
  • Mini games

After Niantic’s trailer, we waited month after agonizing month for the launch of Pokémon Go.

Finally, Pokémon Go arrived on July 6th, 2016. I downloaded it immediately.


To be honest, we probably should have been disappointed as soon as we opened the slow app, experienced the constant network issues, and explored the sparse feature set. The actual feature list ended up being the following:

  • Collecting Pokémon and filling our Pokédex for only the original 151 species
  • Earning achievements
  • Getting items
  • CP-ing (?), and evolving Pokémon using…candies
  • Rudimentary AR (that we switch off anyways)
  • Battling in-game static representations of other trainers
  • Battling and trading with our friends
  • Mini games

Guess what? We didn’t even care. Our childhood friend returned — in 3D! We couldn’t wait to greet them with open arms, regardless of trivial matters like “gameplay.”

It’s easy to say this now in retrospect, but Niantic was truly sitting on the holy grail of initial customer engagement. We cared zero about the current state of the product — not the weird CP and candies system, not the lack of features, and not even the stuttering server issues. We had total faith that in perhaps the next month or two, Niantic (backed by none other than freaking Google) will help Pokémon Go grow into the beautiful Butterfree that we knew it was always Go-ing to be.

“It’ll be amazing. All 700+ published Pokémon species will eventually be rolled out. We will finally start trading and battling Pokémon with our friends. Right? Right…?”

Our disappointment is (only slightly) humorously expressed by 3 words:

“Minor text fixes.”


Here we are, almost 4 months later, and analysts are already calling it — Pokémon Go is dying.

Some of these analysts attribute the sharp decline of user engagement to simply the natural progression of mobile game fads. I don’t buy it; I believe that Niantic failed to execute on an enormous market opportunity.

I’ll discuss it more in Part 2.

Thoughts On Onboarding

When new members are introduced to an organization aimed towards a common goal, the early period is critical; it sets the stage for the rest of the members’ relationship with the organization.

It is critical to have the new members engaged in back-and-forth communication, and that absolutely cannot happen without a sense of belonging. This also takes some effort on the part of incumbent members and the leaders of the organization. This is because there tends to be some psychological barriers to treating a newcomer exactly the same as one would treat a long-time comrade. The incumbents must realize that all of this is purely mental, and it may even be useful for the leaders to remind the incumbents of the importance of inclusion.

How can “setting the stage” be formally defined? The latest in psychological literature asserts that when an individual encounters a new situation, new neural patterns are created. These new patterns start off weak and diffuse, with great potential for change, since the patterns have not yet been entrenched in the individual’s brain. Over time, however, as the situation is encountered more often, these neural patterns are traversed again and again, and these previously diffuse patterns grow stronger. The neural connections peripheral to these patterns receive less stimulation; this makes the neural pattern more efficient, but less susceptible to change.

One can make the following analogy of rain shaping and transforming its incident landscape. Rain landing on a flat sloping hill will travel down the hill in numerous small streams that readily shift and change, and initially each individual stream will not obviously be any larger than any other stream. However, as the hill repeatedly experiences rain, some small amount of dirt and silt will be carried away via these streams, deepening channels under these waterways. The amount of earth carried away varies from stream to stream, such that certain channels will become deeper — furthermore, the deeper the channel, the larger the stream during the next rain. Eventually, a much smaller number of significantly larger streams — ones so entrenched in the that they are likely to never change direction — will be carrying the bulk of the rainwater. A very similar process occurs during the formation of new neural patterns.

The importance of setting the stage early for new members of an organization is now clear. The new members must realize the neural patterns of inclusion, communication, and confidence in a group setting, and the neural patterns must be reinforced often to make sure that it is set for all future cooperative efforts in the organization. This positive habit has tremendous value — cooperation now is not only natural, but it also comes at absolutely no extra mental expense to the new individual. The individual’s mental resources are therefore completely free for applying to the important tasks at hand, all while painlessly reaping the fruits of collaborative resources. Without active and focused efforts by the organization’s leadership, there is far too much risk of alternate detrimental mental patterns forming (such as isolation, low esteem, etc.). The leaders must therefore be diligent and not relax standards for communication and inclusion as the organization grows.

Glitches In The Universe

Below is one of my more fun answers on Quora. Most of the things I mentioned are fully explained by science, but in the spirit of the question, it’s more entertaining to call them glitches.


If, as Elon Musk suggested, we’re all part of an alien video game, can you identify any potential “glitches” they’ve made?

Below are just a few glitches I can think of:

  • How bicycles stay upright is a mystery [1]
  • Boiling water freezes faster than cold water in some cases [2]
  • Negative temperature is somehow infinitely hot [3]
  • There’s a lot more matter than antimatter in the universe [4]
  • Dark matter [5] and dark energy [6]
  • The universe is expanding at an accelerating rate, and recently discovered to be even faster than previously expected [7]
  • Almost anything to do with magnetic materials (ferromagnetism, superconductors, etc.) [8]
  • Quantum entanglement (affect one entangled subatomic particle, and observe instantaneous effects on its entangled twin many miles away) [9]
  • Quantum tunneling (subatomic particle has nonzero chance of suddenly being on other side of “impenetrable” barrier) [10]
  • Saturn’s hexagonal polar storm [11]
  • Space, time, matter, and energy may all be quantized, like pixels [12]

Footnotes

[1] A Bicycle Can Be Self-Stable Without Gyroscopic or Caster Effects

[2] Mpemba effect

[3] Atoms at negative absolute temperature: The hottest systems in the world

[4] Baryon asymmetry

[5] Dark matter

[6] Dark energy

[7] Hubble Finds Universe Expanding Faster Than Expected

[8] Superconductivity

[9] Quantum entanglement

[10] Quantum tunnelling

[11] This weird hexagon on Saturn has puzzled scientists for decades

[12] Is time quantized? In other words, is there a fundamental unit of time that could not be divided into a briefer unit?

Finishing Projects

You have probably heard of Jerry Seinfeld, an enormously successful, consistent, and productive television comedian. One night after a stand-up comedy set in the 1990’s, he told amateur comedian Brad Isaac that the secret to success was to show up and produce every day: “After a few days you’ll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job is to not break the chain.” Jerry made no mention of quality, quantity, length of time, or any of the traditional metrics of progress. His only requirement was showing up and producing, no matter what.

We can take Jerry’s philosophy and apply it to any project. The key to a relatively stress-free project completion is to simply start and contribute to them, no matter what, and no matter how insignificantly, every single day. I suggest that you start it as soon as possible – today, in fact, if you can.

For example, let’s say you’re trying to write a book. No matter what, you’re required to make progress. It could be just a couple of lines, or a formatting edit, or even deleting material – just make sure you open and change the files every day. If you are stuck on writing content this week, work on your acknowledgements. If you’re attending to a personal emergency, remove a couple of redundant words from a chapter. If you come across a brilliant article relevant to your work, pop the citation into your references.

For example, on day one, give yourself the minimum requirement of starting the document. Save something like a “book.docx” file and make sure it lives in a backed up location. I highly recommend Dropbox; in fact, for my own personal book project, I synchronized my computer’s desktop with my Dropbox so that my book file is not only perfectly recoverable from any save point, but I can also have a reminder every day to open the file. After that, if you’re up for it, start applying your book’s margins, fonts, spacing, etc. (Or you can push it to the next day; after all, you have already fulfilled your first painless daily requirement.)

Let this strategy be a liberation for you. When you feel particularly motivated to add to your projects, go ahead. If not, simply make a positive change in some small way. No matter what you change that day, be satisfied that you have moved forward in a tangible way and pat yourself on the back.

Some days you’ll be on a roll and work for hours – on other days you’ll only have enough motivation to make small edits here and there.

But whatever you do, don’t break the chain.

Learning (Part 2)

In the previous post, I showed you all a Quora answer I gave about learning based primarily on learning facts. Below is another question I answered that focused on learning concepts and developing a correct intuition. It’s arguably more powerful.


What is the best way to learn and remember information?

The ultimate goal of learning is to take information that exists outside of your mind, and create a robust, recallable, and useable representation of it inside your mind.

Everyone is certainly aware of the “inside your mind” component. But how often do we consider “robust,” “recallable,” and “useable” when we try to learn? When I was a university teaching assistant, I saw that most students barely gave any thought to these.

If a student’s learning strategy consists only of memorizing whole passages of books and lecture notes via repetition, would they do well?

The sun rises in the east and sets in the west. The sun rises in the east and sets in the west. The sun rises in the east and sets in the west…

Perhaps…at first. But what happens when the material grows in size and complexity? Over time, this strategy is doomed.

Let’s return to the main goal of learning; we are not satisfied just with any mental representation. We need a great one. Our goal is to fix it in your brain so well that it becomes as real and readily accessible to you as any physical tool in your hand.

Breaking it down:

  • For your learning to be robust, it needs to be connected to your world view. The concept needs to be real beyond all doubt, no matter how you look at it.

Sunrises and sunsets are determined by the motion of the earth. People wake up in New York before they wake up in Los Angeles. Sundials are oriented northward, and their shadows’ movement inspired the design of clocks (clockwise). This all only makes sense if the sun rises in the east and sets in the west.

  • To make your learning recallable,  you need to have the ability to pull it from your memory without any external cues to the answer. Be honest with yourself and consciously avoid illusions of competence.

I just heard the above sunrise/sunset explanation from a friend, and it makes sense. I should see if I can reproduce my friend’s explanation after lunch. If I can’t honestly do it at that point, I’ll review and try again after dinner.

For your learning to be useable, you need to apply it to problems. Furthermore, you must monitor how easily you were able to employ that concept and arrive at the correct conclusion. An example problem: which direction (east or west) should you direct a rocket that is deploying a satellite in orbit around the earth?

A satellite needs to go at high speeds to maintain orbit. The earth is already rotating in a particular direction, so that is an automatic boost in speed; if the rocket goes in the same direction, it can use far less fuel, so the rocket can be much smaller and cheaper. Since we know the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, the earth must be rotating eastward. Therefore, the rocket should be directed east.

This is how you learn.

A final word on learning — your mind works just like a muscle, and therefore it needs to be exercised. Space out your learning and use it often.

Now go and be unstoppable.

Learning (Part 1)

I was an ineffective learner for a long time; my study habits were nonexistent when I started college. Since then, I have been steadily training myself to become a better learner. I’m not sure if I’ll ever become a learning expert, but I’m going to try.

A person on Quora asked me the following question, and it deeply resonated with me. It’s what I would have loved to tell myself a decade ago.

 


Why can’t I learn anything? Or why do I feel that I don’t learn?

Thoughts On Mental States

From my archives, 2016/01/27:

As of this writing, I have a mild headache and slight motion sickness on board a bus that’s taking me home, and yet I still decided to write. Inconvenient sensations and situations happen all the time to everyone, and it would serve us well to be able to switch between different useful mental states so that we can get things done. I have heard of a football player that was able to play through massive hangovers and extreme pain and win championships for his team. If mental states can be induced at will, then there is extraordinary power here that can be tapped; after all, pain is only a signal to the brain.

Let’s identify some useful mental states first. Jordan Belfort, of Wolf Of Wall Street fame, mentioned in his talks that clarity is an important mental state. I believe that what he was getting at was the state of mind that you, as someone who wants to work towards your goals, would ideally be in. Many of us are hindered by worries, distractions, discomfort, or other limiting factors, and clarity is the state that you occupy if all of those negative factors are stripped away. We’ll keep this mental state in mind while we go through some of the others. Clarity is the state needed for taking in all of your available information and formulating a solid, structured strategy for moving forward.

Another state that I want to be in is the flow state. When experiencing flow, we are naturally in the moment and accomplishing our goals almost effortlessly. Typically it is very difficult to enter flow (because of procrastination), but once we achieve flow we can sustain it with relatively little willpower. Before we master a particular skill or action, it is difficult, or perhaps impossible, to achieve flow, since there is a certain level of detachment that is needed for flow to occur. I believe that the state of flow is distinct from the state of clarity — rather than deliberately steering your mind, you allow your mind to do things that it is already set up to do. If clarity is writing a computer program, then flow is executing the program.

The next state that I’d like to discuss is the state of passion. This is where you’re energized about what you’re doing or communicating. Enthusiasm is invaluable in social contexts and in leadership, so it’s important to call upon it at a moment’s notice. This can also bring about a boost of motivation to allow someone to spring to action, or even generate the energy required to move into one of the more difficult mental states.

Let’s use these three mental states — clarity, flow, and passion — as a starting point. It may be that the benefits of multiple mental states are necessary at the same time. This is where the ability to switch is critical. Similar to how it has been found that humans can’t multitask effectively, I believe that we can’t occupy multiple mental states at once. Each one of these states is meant to resound through the entire brain, and each one’s impact is maximized if applied maximally. The only solution is to switch quickly and totally. Imagine that you have an agent — a thin wrapper for the hardware and software that is your self — and it is the part of you that you assign control of choosing your mental state. The goal is to therefore train this agent to recognize the need for a particular useful state and execute decisively.