Most people don't know the name Niantic, but just about everyone knows the things it has helped create. Ingress, Pokémon Go, and the new Harry Potter: Wizards Unite are all global successes in their own right at this point, each with a different focus while offering arguably similar experiences. These are games you play in the real world, not on your couch, and in doing so opened the door to an entire genre of games we now see available on iOS and Android today. And while several other companies have attempted to recreate the success found here, Niantic is by far the dominant creator of these experiences.
I often find myself thinking not about the games themselves, but of the general social good these games have encouraged from its players. Niantic isn't just a game company, it's got a long and fairly storied history of fairly significant social impact for a company its size. And while the company isn't shy about sharing its accomplishments, it's the interpersonal experiences on the street which excite me the most.
As exciting as Augmented Reality can be, that is far from the most interesting part of these games. It is, and has always been, the people playing them.
My Mom was never really into Pokémon. The Game Boy phenom hit the US at just the right time for my younger brothers, but my younger sister and I missed the craze. They collected the cards and played a little, with more excitement when the game went electronic. I picked up Pokémon Red so I could help them if they got stuck, but that was never really my world. And as much fun as I have had playing Pokémon Go, I admit it's really more because I can spend time with my family out in the world. My Mom is very much the same way, we'll walk around the neighborhood together every once in a while with the grandkids, but that's really as far as the interest goes.
Harry Potter, on the other hand, means something very different to my family. When JK Rowling's books were being released, our family would fight to see who got to read them first. The whole household would talk about the stories as we finished them, and when the movies came out we were always there on opening weekend to see the tale told on the big screen together. You put Harry Potter in a walk-around game like Pokémon Go, and my Mom had an account and was several levels in before I had even mentioned playing it. She was sold, and eager to wander around and play as soon as we came over.
As I wandered around with my family this weekend in search of Traces, choosing what to leave at Greenhouses and teaming up to take on higher level raid-style fights in the Wizarding Challenges, I heard a story that brought me right back to my first interview with Niantic CEO John Hanke. My Mom and Nephew were wandering around town, a place she'd lived for 15 years, and stumbled across a Historical Society office she'd never been in. It's not often open, being run by an elderly man with not a lot of energy, but they happened upon it at just the right time and spent the next 45 minutes learning about some of the incredible history this town had to provide.
Experiences like this are a big part of what make these games so special. This isn't something my Mom ever would have done had she not been out playing this game, and in doing so is now connected to her community in a whole new way. That's a massive part of Niantic's annual Social Impact Report, which last year recorded over 3900 items donated to shelters and seven tons of garbage picked up, all by players who were only in those places initially to enjoy these games. Simply be walking around in the real world to play a game, over 40,000 people across the world became more active in their communities and started working to improve the world around them.
It's easy to get bogged down in the details. When these games are discussed in the tech world, it's often through the lens of the engines powering them. And as exciting as Augmented Reality can be, that is far from the most interesting part of these games. It is, and has always been, the people playing them. The encouragement to explore your local world and occasionally become a little more involved in your community. That's a significant, powerful, fun thing I can't help but feel is often overlooked when discussing the popularity or success of these games. The very human aspect of this experience, whether that's enjoying a piece of history you otherwise wouldn't have known or participating in events leading to 6.8 tons of food being donated to local pantries, is a remarkable thing worthy of celebration.
Harry Potter accessories we love
Hogwarts phone case ($10 at Amazon)
Show your love of the Potterverse, and protect your phone with this beautiful faux-leather case. The Hogwarts crest burns bright on the front with plenty of room inside for some cash and cards too.
RAVPower Ace ($40 at Amazon)
You don't want to run out of juice while battling baddies in Fortresses, now do you? Make sure you've got backup power with this quality but inexpensive
Hogwarts House PopSocket ($15 at Amazon)
Represent your house with a secure way to grip your phone while walking on your magical adventure casting spells and securing Foundables.
Harry Potter Over The Ear Headphones ($25 at Amazon)
Show your love of Harry Potter to the whole world, while shutting that same world out with these funky headphones from ihome.
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