New report: Cities remix a playful platform

report cover thumbnail: cities remix a playful platformAfter a year of work, I am thrilled to release our report on cities and games. The focus is on five major cities, and how we can build a sense of place by remixing large Augmented Reality platforms like Pokémon GO.  One finding: cities often need to remix the game to align it, including with paper and embedded treasure hunts, and within EXISTING campaigns — like open streets and library walking tours.

Details and pictures are at or see more on the major cities covered.

Any advice on continuing the public conversation, including with city innovators? For example, we wrote “5 provocations” to help read the report:

Our full press release with the Knight Foundation and Niantic follows…

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June 29, 2018

Augmented reality games provide new opportunity for cities to strengthen communities and civic engagement, finds American University report

New research provides case studies and best practices for cities to leverage games like Pokémon GO to achieve local goals

New York City, NY  A new study from American University reveals how cities can leverage augmented reality (AR) games for civic engagement and to build stronger communities. The report, “Cities Remix a Playful Platform: Experiments to Embed Pokémon GO,” offers case studies and lessons learned from trials conducted in 2017 by five cities to engage players in local activities.

The report primarily details a series of experiments supported through a multi-year partnership between Pokémon GO creator, Niantic, Inc., and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which invests in informed and engaged communities. The analysis by American University is based on usage statistics from city events, surveys of players, and extensive interviews with city leaders. This is the first major study to show how cities can harness the popularity of commercial games to draw attention to local areas and shape engagement in existing events.

Among several findings, the research provides a model for city leaders to use platforms like Pokémon GO to shape how players move through a city’s physical space. For example, in Philadelphia, neighborhood libraries integrated Pokémon GO with walking tours of famous murals and local landmarks.

Another finding from the research is that cities can stimulate their economies by incorporating AR games in city events. San Jose recruited 35,000 Pokémon GO players with its open street festival, which reimagines local streets without cars, and, in the process, released more than $450,000 into the local economy.

Top lessons for cities that are considering similar strategies include:

  1. Adapt games for local events. Cities can adapt AR platforms to amplify local strengths and better reflect civic needs. In particular, cities can layer walking tours, scavenger hunts, and other activities on top of the game, adding value for existing players and integrating play with local campaigns.
  2. Invite player networks (not just individuals). Pokémon GO players often arrived in groups, including across generations and with social media networks poised for discussion. Recruiting is also easier through player and fan networks, and cities can help by tapping network leaders, beyond the usual open invitations.
  3. Focus digital activity near inviting and accessible physical spaces. Players often want to interact, but social mixing can happen more easily when cities position play near the right physical spaces with seating and food.
  4. Bring local culture to online platforms. Players can connect to global cultures through AR platforms, including the Pokémon universe. At the same time, games can engage players with local culture, from murals to local history. In a digital age, cities may increasingly invest in the technology innovations that shape how we discover local culture.

“Our findings can help city leaders to identify new tactics to strengthen their communities,” said lead author Dr. Benjamin Stokes, who studies civic engagement at the American University Game Lab. “For example, we tracked how Philadelphia shifted from bringing in tourists to connecting more residents across neighborhood divides. We found that the impact in cities changes, depending on how city leaders embed the game.”

Many of the local initiatives were funded with support from  Knight Foundation, to better understand how cities can shape engagement with technology. Four of the cities studied in the report are cities where Knight regularly invests. “Cities are going digital. This experiment explores how technology can improve efforts to get people out and into the community. We hope leaders use these lessons to take advantage of the inevitable growth in technology to foster more engaged communities,” said Sam Gill, Knight Foundation vice president for communities and impact.    

Most cities collaborated with Niantic for their experiments. Compared to other game companies, the vision at Niantic is unusually civic. “Niantic was founded on the core tenant of getting people off the couch to explore their local community,” said John Hanke, founder and CEO of Niantic, Inc. “Our goal is to provide amazing interactive experiences that not only deliver fun gameplay but help people learn about the history, culture and society of the places around them. By turning city spaces into game boards, we’re hoping to bring communities together in entirely new ways.”

“Many of the players we interviewed were surprisingly networked,” said study co-author Aubrey Hill of American University. “They arrived in groups, and coordinated in live chat, social media, and in person.  This report points to how play can build local ties, and reveals some of the networks emerging through play in our neighborhoods.”

The report is the first analysis to look across these major city experiments, and was commissioned by Knight Foundation and Niantic, Inc. The research in the report was conducted independently by American University, through the AU Game Lab and the Center for Media & Social Impact (CMSI).

Photographs from each city are available on the report website:

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About the American University Game Lab

The AU Game Lab serves as a hub for experiential education, persuasive play research, and innovative production in the fields of games for change and purposeful play. Based in Washington, DC, the lab is housed within the School of Communication (SOC) and the College of Arts and Sciences (CAS). Details are at

About the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Knight Foundation is a national foundation with strong local roots. We invest in journalism, in the arts, and in the success of cities where brothers John S. and James L. Knight once published newspapers. Our goal is to foster informed and engaged communities, which we believe are essential for a healthy democracy. For more, visit

About Niantic, Inc.

Niantic, Inc., builds mobile real-world experiences that foster fun, exploration, discovery and social interaction. Originally incubated within Google, Niantic, Inc., spun out in 2015, with investments from Google, The Pokémon Company, and Nintendo. The company’s immersive real-world mobile games Pokémon GO, which has been downloaded globally more than 800 million times, and Ingress are available on the App Store and Google Play. Harry Potter: Wizards Unite is Niantic, Inc.’s third game and is being co-developed with Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment. For more information on Niantic, visit

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