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Understanding player motivations in Pokémon GO


NOTE: This article has been adapted from a detailed user research analysis, which can be downloaded HERE.

One of my most cherished memories of 2016 was almost getting splattered by a lorry while crossing a busy street trying to catch a Squirtle. Pokémon GO (PG) was and still is the most popular Augmented Reality (AR) product since its release. Its combination of merging real-world landmarks with one of the most popular media franchises ever has generated huge revenue. Such a thing has not gone unnoticed as other popular media franchises like Harry Potter have joined in on the AR mobile gaming craze. Despite peak usage going down since release, revenue has only been increasing. How do the developers Niantic manage to do this?

I have gathered data on PG players to provide a snapshot of the state of the game through the lens of player motivations.

Why study player motivation?

Uses and gratifications theory suggests that people take an active role in seeking out and choosing media that satiates their psychological needs. This can be seen as the foundation to assess the usefulness and motivation for using various media or tools. Be it websites or video games. This has ramifications for both the business when trying to improve/create a product and the consumer as they try to improve the user experience. Bartle hypothesised the earliest motivational model by observing Multi-User Dungeons (early online multiplayer games) and highlighted four main playstyles/motivations: Killers, Socialisers, Explorers and Achievers. Unfortunately, the model was not empirically tested until Yee refined, tested and proved the model by studying players in World of Warcraft. Ten motivations were identified, further categorised into three key motivational groups:


Achievement (Advancement, Mechanics, Competition)

Social (Socialising, Relationship, Teamwork)

Immersion (Discovery, Role-playing, Customisation, Escapism)

Players do not exclusively belong to one group but can be a combination of the three. Other studies used this framework to explore motivations for different genres, but there had never been a holistic way to interpret and quantify player motivations until the creation of the "Motives for Online Gaming Questionnaire" (MOGQ). The knowledge from previous studies was combined into the ultimate survey, which settled on the motivations of Skill, Development, Escapism, Coping, Fantasy, Competition, Recreation and Social. This is the model I based my research on. However, the MOGQ and the previous literature discussed motivations in traditional video game environments. There is room for exploration in examining AR games and how the fusion of the real with the digital can influence motivation.

Why Pokémon GO?

As an AR game, PG uniquely positions itself as a merging of the digital and the real. The motivations previously discussed may be altered, neutered or amplified by the extra layers of reality PG has. Using geographical locations and landmarks throughout its game-play means players may interact, socialise and compete with each other face-to-face compared to behind a computer screen.

Personality has been shown to influence motivation and game preference. An early study on PG and personality viewed the game through the lens of "the Big Five" personality traits. Players were found to be more introverted while being highly conscientious. In contrast, a similar study found PG players to be more social while being highly conscientious. The difference here could be attributed to the cultural differences between the samples. As these studies were conducted early in the game's lifecycle, my research aims to provide an updated outlook on the player base and how the game has adapted to current and new players through its updates.


I created a 28-item survey (see Appendix) based on the MOGQ but adapted it to better suit the nature of PG. The language in the survey was adjusted to represent what was in the game. For example, a question about "Acquiring rare items" was split into two questions, one relating to items earned in the game and one relating to items bought with real money. Most questions were answered using Likert scales ranging from 1 (strongly disagree/most negative opinion) to 5 (strongly agree/most positive opinion). The form was then distributed to several gaming forums or forums dedicated to PG. The survey gained a total of 72 responses. 51 (70.8%) respondents were male, the other 21 (29.2%) were female. 44% of participants fell into the 23-27 age range, the 18-22 age range being second at 29.2%. Data was collated into Excel and analysed using R.


Responses for each survey variable - X-axis relates to 5 point Likert-scale


Survey items that relate to motivations of Competition and Power have a mixed level of engagement. Challenge and Skills variables held the least input; however, Strongest and Compete have the highest in this category. This tells me that my sample thinks PG is not a very challenging, highly-skilled game, yet they still wish to remain competitive, perhaps for their bragging rights. The motivation for Achievement had high engagement across the board. As Pokémon has generally built its gameplay on collecting things, it isn't surprising that this has high player engagement. Social variables also have mostly positive interactions aside from OnlineReply and SoloGroup. It is important to distinguish the two types of sociability present in these variables. Some players enjoy face-to-face interaction, but others prefer to interact solely online. There is no explicit link between how someone interacts online and their propensity for in-person interaction. Regarding the motivation of Immersion, the only variable that had a strong response was TimePass. The strong response highlights that people mostly play the game to pass the time.

Another way to visualise the data and explore how each variable interacts with each other is through correlation coefficients. More blue means a stronger correlation. The results express a potent positive correlation within the centre of the graph. This is where variables regarding sociability reside. There are a few strong negative correlations. Of note are the Pokedex and Challenge variables. This reinforces the idea that PG doesn't have challenging gameplay. Perhaps this is part of why so many enjoy it.

Screenshot 2023-09-03 205409.png

Correlation Matrix


Studying user motivations is vital to creating a successful product. In the case of PG, finding underserved users/motivations is one way to increase player count and revenue. Currently, PG players are typically motivated socially. The data may be skewed as the surveys were posted online, and the sample was self-selecting. It makes sense that people already participating in forums would be predisposed to prefer socialising in some form. There is a lack of motivation to engage with the game immersively. Perhaps this is where Niantic could focus its future content and catch players who wish to be more immersed. That being said, immersion in a game like PG could be seen as a hindrance. People often need to watch their surroundings and look out for their safety. In contrast to other studies, the competitiveness of users has increased. This can be attributed to the greater emphasis on Player vs. Player game modes that weren't in the game's initial release. These competitive features exacerbate interactions with other features and motivations. For example, the desire to compete necessitates rare resources. These are sometimes only made available at certain times and landmarks, forcing people together and increasing interaction. This cements the idea that catering to specific user types will increase engagement with the product.


You can download a PDF of the survey questions and codebook for the variables HERE.

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