Sudbury Lessons From Pokémon GO

pikachu_credit_etnyk_via_flickr_cc_by_nc_nd_20_cnaThe mobile video game Pokémon GO is a sensation.  It has attracted 30 million users practically overnight.  Some predict Apple will make $3 billion on in-app purchases over the next two years.  But what we found most interesting, in relation to the fundamental education philosophy of freedom one finds at Sudbury, was this quote from an article about the history of the game:

Which is why it is somewhat strange that Pokémon Go is successful despite – rather than because of – the actual app. “The hardest part of this game is not hurling your phone on the ground when it crashes just as you’re about to catch a very rare Pokémon,” says Sarah Jeong, a writer and lawyer who has been obsessed with the game since its release in the US a week ago. “It also has no explanations for any of the mechanics,” she adds.

It’s true: everything from how to fight in a Pokémon gym, to the specifics of catching Pokémon, to almost the entire user interface is unexplained. But for Jeong, that adds to the joy at the heart of the app – its relationship to the real world.

The funny thing is that the user unfriendliness just means that players will talk to each other more in physical space when they run into each other – asking for tips and tricks and basic explanations.” Like the kids on my street, it’s hard not to want to talk to other players you meet on the go – a seemingly accidental quirk of the game, but one that helped it go superviral.

In other words, people are teaching themselves and each other how to play this game without any prodding.  It reminds us of the groundbreaking research by Sugata Mitra who discovered how quickly young people in rural Indian villages would teach each other how to use computers despite having never encountered one before.

The anecdotal and academic evidence that freedom is the key to learning and education just keeps piling up.  Young people free to follow their passions do so with gusto and share what they know with others.  They’re excited to share their knowledge.  They’re excited to learn from each other.

Pokémon GO is only the latest example of how quickly people learn and teach each other the things which capture their passion.  It may not seem like a particularly useful passion.  Or merely a fad.  Or perhaps even dangerous.  But Pokémon GO can still be appreciated for what it reveals about the vital link between freedom and learning.

To think of it another way, imagine that everyone was required to install Pokémon GO on their phones so we spend more time outside for health reasons.  But before we get to use Pokémon GO we have to take a four week online course and pass a test.  Those who fail have to retake the online course.  Only those who take further online courses and pass more tests have access to the all of the features.  Does this sound like a winning formula for harnessing the joyful passions of a free people so they are excited to learn and share with each other?


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