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Editorial: Radiosport vs. Pokémon GO™

07/22/2016

Though it has only been 2 weeks since Pokémon GO™ was introduced, it is already a social phenomenon. The augmented-reality video game, developed by Niantic for your smartphone, has received praise for luring gamers outside of their homes and into the streets to play. Maybe you count yourself among the players. Or maybe you are feeling a little left out because you are not playing the game, or have vowed never to play the game, or (not admittedly) don’t get it. Well, if you are an Amateur Radio operator (or “ham”), this Pokémon GO article is for you!

It should come as no surprise that ham radio operators are drawing comparisons between Pokémon GO and Amateur Radiosport. If you have not been following the Pokémon GO hype, though, you are going to need a small amount of background about the game. Playing requires downloading the free Pokémon GO app for your iOS or Android device. Players are called “Trainers,” and walk around their neighborhoods using their smartphones to discover and capture small creatures, called Pokémon. The app’s integration with Google Maps data makes real-life associations with your surrounding environment. Trainers (players) visit PokéStops, which are local landmarks, to stock up on virtual supplies needed to play the game. Achievements are earned by advancing levels, by earning badges, and through team challenges at virtual Pokémon Gyms. All of this happens while walking around with your head in your smartphone screen, which is a skill already mastered by most smartphone users. Okay, now you know enough about Pokémon GO to sound like an expert at the office water cooler.

Now let’s compare the video game to ham radio. Hams operate their radio equipment from fixed and portable locations; from home and on-the-go. While ham radio itself is not a game, it is fun. In the findings of a study completed by Readex Research for ARRL in 2015, the most cited reason for becoming involved with Amateur Radio is “fun.” Survey respondents could choose multiple reasons for becoming a ham, and the runners up included, “to expand interests in electronics, communications, or other technologies,” and “to support communications during disasters and other emergencies.” So, in a nutshell, people become ham radio operators to advance their interests in (1) technology, (2) public service, and (3) to have fun!

One particular interest area in ham radio is Amateur Radiosport — an overarching term for on-air ham radio contests and operating events that will earn you various achievements and awards. Take, for instance, ARRL’s year-long National Parks on the Air (NPOTA) operating event, which celebrates the centennial of the US National Park Service. NPOTA encourages hams to operate their portable radios from official park locations. Hams who are park “Activators” are sought by park “Chasers,” who are other hams trying to make radio contact with activated parks. Sounds vaguely familiar, huh? Pokémon GO has trainers chasing and capturing Pokémon; and NPOTA has chasers collecting national park activations.

Similar to collecting Pokémon creatures, the lure of radiosport is logging each radio contact for scores. Hams use computer logging programs, such as ARRL’s online Logbook of The World, to track their radio contacts. Achievements are earned by the total number of contacts confirmed with other hams in qualifying categories.

There is a calendar full of weekend ham radio contests, annual operating events, and ongoing award programs including the premier challenge, ARRL DXCC, awarded for confirming radio contacts with a minimum of 100 countries (“entities”). And, pop-up special event stations entice hams to make contacts with stations set up at lighthouses, on islands, and atop mountain summits.

Radiosport is a tradition as old as ham radio. In the early days of pioneering the airwaves, hams recognized their peers for making the first radio contact across town, and then across country, and eventually across the world. Today, that same innovative spirit is found among hams whose signals travel by wavelengths considered by some to be unusable, or at extremely low power levels that require sophisticated software to extract the weak signal. High-tech fun!

While radiosport is chock full of fun and achievement, the side effect is that hams who participate in radiosport improve their own technical and operating skill, and advance their station readiness. The competitive nature of radiosport encourages hams to assemble better radio stations, build more effective antennas, and to operate skillfully on the air.

I tried Pokémon Go. But I thought, “I’m being drawn into the touchscreen on my smartphone for fun that’s being calculated by some clever computing.” By contrast, hams participating in radiosport have a higher amount of control of the game. The search-and-pounce is shaped by the station you’ve set up, your operating skill, signal propagation, and who else might be listening. Already, for instance, the leading “Chaser” for National Parks on the Air has made confirmed radio contacts with 435 national park activations. Impressive, and it didn’t require any data charges!

Check out Pokémon GO so you can tell your children or the neighbor’s kids that you, too, were part of the fad. But if you’re a ham radio operator, and specifically a ham turned on to radiosport, you know that the lure of the next radio contact won’t fade away as easily. — Bob Inderbitzen, NQ1R, ARRL Marketing Manager, Life Member, ARRL Member since 1984 

 



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