Each night this week, Kellian Adams-Pletcher and her husband Brian have looked out from their Somerville, Mass., home and seen the same thing: dozens of people, all sitting in the tiny park across the street, mobile phones in hand.

The crowds are, of course, hunting for elusive digital monsters in the augmented reality game Pokémon Go. Turns out the park has four “Poké Stops,” virtual hotspots where the sought-after creatures and supplies can be found.

To her neighbors, this might be a nuisance. But to Adams-Pletcher, who is an educational game designer, the players in the crowd represent a kind of real-time research trial.

Like many educators, she’s watching the huge mid-summer social experiment unfold — the mobile game has been downloaded more than 20 million times since its release last week — and trying to figure out how it might be used for learning.

This wouldn’t be the first time that educators have discovered the charms of Pokémon, originally a home video game and compulsively collectible card game. A leading scholar once credited the card game with teaching an entire generation of children to read.

“One thing this is really showing us is that people want to connect,” Adams-Pletcher said in an interview. “They want to play, they want to be out there. And if they have an excuse to do it, they’ll take that excuse and they’ll go do it.”

Since the game’s July 6 release, teachers have been blogging about how they might use the game once school begins. One observer noted, “Almost overnight, it has gotten a generation that’s most comfortable inside on the couch playing a game outside walking around, getting fresh air, sunshine, and exercise.”

“It’s a great opportunity,” said Matthew Farber, a Denville, N.J., middle school social studies teacher and author of the recent book Gamify Your Classroom.

Teachers, he suggested, could use the game to get students to explore and research important historic Poké Stops near their home or school. After Farber and his wife downloaded the game, they quickly discovered that one of the stops near their home was a previously unknown (to them) historic 1790 building.

Game designer Jane McGonigal noted that scientists are already taking advantage of the game’s millions of users, urging them to take photos of species of bugs, fish and animals that don’t look familiar.

“It’s a slippery slope from video games to citizen science,” she said.

From its origins 20 years ago, Pokémon has always held a kind of arms-length fascination for teachers. After the original trading card game appeared in 1996, teachers who weren’t confiscating the cards were puzzling over their appeal.

Among observers was linguist and games theorist James Paul Gee, who noted that while policymakers debated whether children learn to read best through drill-and-practice phonics or hands-off “whole language” instruction, Pokémon cards were quietly teaching a generation of children how to read. The cards were also teaching them how to analyze and classify more than 700 different types of creatures.

The trading cards, Gee pointed out, were dense with specialized, technical, cross-referenced text. He even went so far as to call Pokémon “perhaps the best literacy curriculum ever conceived.” Gee offered the observation that, though the USA had long suffered from a stubborn academic achievement gap between poor minority children and white middle-class kids, he knew of no “Pokémon gap.”

“Certainly the capitalists who made and sell Pokémon have more trust in nonwhite and poor children than that,” he wrote.

Gee predicted, a bit cynically, that if we were to turn Pokémon into a school subject, “certain children, many of them poor, would all of a sudden have trouble learning Pokémon.”

Farber, the middle school social studies teacher, says one of the most appealing features of the new game is its simplicity.

“In its elegance, it’s simple to learn,” he said. “A lot of really good games are easy to learn and difficult to master.”

Much like a board game with friends or a Tuesday night bowling league, Pokémon Go provides a way to relax and socialize and, for some, a way to get better at a skill they enjoy. It’s “something that’s easy, a low barrier to entry, something that’s simple to talk about,” Adams-Pletcher said.

For adults, sociologists might call the bowling alley or the park outside Adams-Pletcher’s home a “third place” between work and home. For kids it’s just a place to play.

On her blog this week, Adams-Pletcher summed up Pokémon Go perhaps better than anyone, calling it “pointless, childlike and extremely important.”

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Fans of the Pokemon Go app offer their tips on how to master the game on #TalkingTech with Jefferson Graham.
Video by Michael Kofsky

She has been designing games for museums, libraries and other cultural institutions for years, and said these places find themselves in a tricky spot: they want people to take their collections seriously but not be overwhelmed or intimidated. “A lot of these very serious spaces have already explored the idea of how ‘lighter’ entrances can get people to engage with their spaces,” she said.

She and others have noted that the new Pokémon game was designed for Nintendo by an outfit called Niantic Labs, which previously created other augmented reality smartphone apps, including one called Field Trip. Niantic has described that game as a way to “learn about everything from local history to the latest and best places to shop, eat, and have fun.” In other words, a “gamified” way to learn about your city.

The new game is built on a platform Niantic originally created for the cult game Ingress, in which players also use GPS to “capture” cultural and historic locations. That game — its motto is “The world around you is not what it seems” — makes a point of emphasizing important places. So does Pokémon Go.

You’ll rarely find a creature wandering through a parking lot — they hang around “art museums and churches and historical places and parks,” Adams-Pletcher said. “Places that matter.”

Digital monsters might not be a good fit in every place — earlier this week, Pokémon Go players reported finding creatures in Washington, D.C.’s Holocaust Memorial Museum. Officials there and at Poland’s Auschwitz Memorial are calling on Niantic to take their sites off the locations where players can hunt. “Technology can be an important learning tool, but this game falls far outside our educational and memorial mission,” museum spokesman Andrew Hollinger told USA TODAY this week.

While adorable digital monsters might not fit with the Holocaust, Adams-Pletcher said museums are “thrilled” by the prospect of drawing in patrons through similar tools.

“They’re excited about it,” she said. “They want people through their doors. I think they understand the concept of ‘magic spaces.’”

McGonigal, the author of two best-selling books on the power of games, said the appeal of the new game is pretty simple, and something that teachers should pay attention to: it is basically a giant Easter egg hunt.

“It turns the whole world into this possibility space, where at any moment something good could happen,” she said. “At any moment you could discover a new stop. At any moment you can spin the wheel and be given some amazing goodies. At any moment a monster could pop up that you’ve been searching for. At any moment you could run into somebody else who is on the same hunt, so everyone around you is a possible ally. Every mechanic of this game is designed to increase the likelihood that something good will happen, that some positive outcome is around every corner.”

That, McGonigal said, is a powerful motivator. Whenever the brain anticipates that something good can happen, she said, “you get that little release of dopamine,” which generates a sense of motivation and desire for the anticipated outcome. “Our brain discounts the effort or energy required for you to pursue your goals.”

Pokémon Go, she said, “is literally designed for continual dopamine release, because literally every step you take, something good could happen. I’ve never seen a game that is more effective at the sense that every moment of the day and (in) every physical place in the world, something good and interesting could happen.”

Innovative teachers could learn from the game, even if they don’t incorporate it into the classroom. For starters, she said, they might introduce elements of chance into the school day. One suggestion: install a spinning wheel in the classroom and spin it every so often, a mechanic already in use in a classroom management game called Classcraft.

“I have no idea what I would put on it,” she said. “I would not be giving out candy, that would not be good. But the idea that you could generate the sense of ‘Something good can happen, something surprising,’ I think we really do need to take seriously the need to introduce that element in the classroom — because so many students come every day and do not expect anything good to happen.”

McGonigal, who like Adams-Pletcher and Farber has been playing the game since its release, joked that come fall, students with mobile phones will find it difficult to pay attention in class. The Ingress designers and players seem to have tagged a lot of schools as “hot spots” in the new game.

“They accidentally made school the best place to play this game,” she said.

Follow Greg Toppo on Twitter: @gtoppo