Student Success Insights Blog

4 things Pokémon GO taught me about student success

by Keith Vejvoda

For four months, I’ve taken a quick break at 2 p.m. to step out of the office. But contrary to what my colleagues may think, I’m not grabbing a coffee at the Starbucks across the street—I’m catching Pokémon.

I’ve spent those daily 15-minute breaks walking around the block collecting items from the "Pokéstops" at the corner and capturing the local "Pokéfauna." With that habit, I’ve managed to reach level 27 (several levels above my 11- and 15-year old children, to their embarrassment). For the uninitiated, Pokémon GO is a smartphone game that layers the classic 1990s Nintendo handheld game of catching digital creatures called Pokémon onto a virtual reality rendering of the player’s actual surroundings.

Hold your judgement. What began out of sheer curiosity into a popular craze has evolved into a professional fascination and surprising source of inspiration for my work as a user experience designer: how can virtual “hooks” create new behaviors? After all, if the emergence of cartoon animals on a map could get me to take a walk every day, surely there are mechanisms to instill “success habits” in our students. Here are my four biggest lessons:

1. Learning the game is the only way to be successful.

Pokémon GO doesn’t come with any instructions. You learn by walking around, encountering Pokémon, and seeing what happens when you tap, swipe, and flick. Similarly, college doesn’t come with an instruction manual. While you may think that your institution lays out clear requirements for graduation, there’s a whole hidden curriculum that goes unexplained.

For example, your students may not realize that visiting professor office hours isn’t just a way to clarify course material, but a chance to develop valuable mentoring relationships with faculty, or that an unpaid parking ticket may prevent them from registering for courses next term. Colleges can help more students succeed at their "game" by teaching them the unspoken norms and rules.

Explore four ways to demystify the rules of college for first generation students

2. We are all driven by core human instincts—including students.

Pokémon GO is successful because it harnesses our instinctual drive as humans for hunting and gathering. In other words, it’s really fun to collect and find stuff! As we design academic, career preparatory, and social experiences in colleges and universities, we need to connect these activities to our students’ driving motivations. Do they care most about mastery of a subject? Making family and loved ones proud? Laying the groundwork for a promising career? Whatever these motivations may be, college leaders must act as experience designers to detect these different drives and design student experiences accordingly.

3. Maintenance tasks are a drag—make it easier for students to get them out of the way.

In Pokémon GO, your storage space for items and Pokémon is limited. The most tedious part of the game is performing basic maintenance: clearing out space so that you have room for new things. As an advanced player, I find that clearing as I go (e.g. trading in worthless Pidgeys the moment I catch them) is a better habit than waiting for everything to pile up.

Similarly, students may dread refiling their FAFSA forms to maintain their financial aid. But getting those “not fun” responsibilities out of the way ensures that they won’t encounter more difficult challenges later on. In our user research, we found that breaking apart these maintenance tasks into smaller, more manageable items helped facilitate their completion.

4. Success involves figuring out how to “incubate” long-term goals.

One of the ways to acquire rare Pokémon is by hatching eggs. The trick is that you must incubate the eggs and then walk a specified distance (five to 10 kilometers) to hatch them. (That’s why I think the game may be the ultimate stealthy FitBit—it gets players on their feet, outside, and moving.)

The eggs remind me that we have to teach students how to prepare the groundwork for long-term goals. For example, in EAB's student-facing mobile app, the Major Explorer feature has students fill out a short questionnaire to help determine which careers and majors best match their interest, and therefore facilitate more intentional thinking about their curriculum planning and work experiences. By “incubating” their post-graduation plans, this technology can teach students that the decisions they make now contribute to “hatching” that longer term goal.


As I take my daily 2 p.m. stroll, I’m always impressed by how Pokémon GO creates a captivating representation of my real life in a digital experience. As higher education institutions continue to pursue their mission of helping more students succeed, my hope is that they too may find compelling applications of the game’s principles.

Have you seen our breakthrough results?

Our Student Success Collaborative members have seen gains in first-year retention from 2 to 12 percentage points, and graduation gains from 3 to 11 percentage points. The Case Study Compendium details a range of approaches to improving student outcomes through the success stories of 10 diverse institutions.

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