When people started talking about Pokemon Go I was extremely skeptical. It sounded a little like Ingress and a little like Neko Atsume, and I never really “got” Pokemon the way people 5-10 years younger than me always did. I never watched the cartoons, I never played the card game, I never owned a handheld gaming device (until a smartphone), so I just never “got” Pokemon. I have to admit, I still don’t “get” the other games.
But I get Pokemon Go. Not because I care particularly about the “battle” aspect of the game (which is where the origin of the cards comes in), but because of the way it’s utterly transforming the way we’re interacting with each other. Yesterday, I went out for a Poke-walk (yes, that’s now a term) with my husband, just to try this crazy thing out. And I get it. I get why there are thousands of people in Central Park all playing PG.
There are also a lot of people sharing hilarious AR overlay photos of the Pokemon they’re catching… in bathrooms, in Subway on the sandwich fixin’s, on cars, next to their cats and dogs… on their laptop while looking at TLF…
We live in an historic district, so, lucky for us, there are Pokestops pretty much all over our neighborhood. Pokestops, for those of you yet to jump on the Poke-train, are geo-tagged spots that give you resources and items (Pokeballs, which catch the Pokemon; eggs which hatch Pokemon; incubators for the eggs; revive crystals for when your Pokemon are knocked unconscious in battle; potions to restore health; etc.). A quick 10-minute jaunt around the neighborhood thus has a high-yield of in-game items. We’re also pretty close to a couple major monuments, and those have Gyms (battle arenas in which Pokemon can fight each other). We’re also within pretty easy walking distance of a museum with a garden open to the public for free, and it’s a veritable PG haven. Yesterday there were easily a dozen people playing PG at any given time in that garden.
The two best parts about the game, however, have absolutely nothing to do with its mechanics, despite being caused by them.
First, it’s getting people out walking. It’s a geocaching game (made by the people who made Ingress and using the same portals, if you’re familiar with that), so in order to do a lot of things in it, you have to get out and walk (or run–we saw a jogger stopping at all the Pokestops along the street). In order to incubate eggs, you have to walk a certain distance (and it uses step-tracking, not just location, so driving around in an effort to hatch Pokemon will not work). People who are seriously into playing are getting a LOT of exercise. We talked to a lovely player yesterday who had already logged over 15,000 steps. I did laps of a reflecting pool just to hatch a Squirtle, and I barely even know what a Squirtle is or why I care so much about hatching it.
In that sense, PG is a reaction against the so-termed “obesity epidemic,” but, more than that (because I’m not into fat-shaming and I don’t particularly care what weight people are so long as they’re happy and healthy), it’s a reaction against a kind of workaholic culture that traps people inside all day at work (or school), and then encourages them to be passive media consumers at night, placing themselves in front of the television and binge-watching Netflix for hours on end (something I’m very much guilty of myself). PG encourages you to go out and go for a walk, even if it’s not very far or not for very long, if only to replenish your Pokeballs or to try to gain another egg at a Pokestop. And that’s not a bad thing (although I do wonder what it does for people in a wheelchair–do they log distance even though they aren’t “walking,” strictly speaking?).
But, even more importantly, PG has suddenly reversed the “trend” of smartphones and media causing us to be insular and less social (I use scare-quotes because I’m not actually convinced that technology has made us more insular and less social, but it has certainly resulted in a different kind of sociality, and an annoying habit of people to be on their phones during meals and other social times). Yesterday alone, we waved at, smiled at, said hello to, and joked with at least two dozen people we never would have noticed if we weren’t playing. And players are pretty obvious–people staring down at their phones (which is fairly ubiquitous, admittedly) with a very intent expression, and all stopping to “hang out” in very particular areas (by Pokestops, especially if someone has put a lure there, which attracts Pokemon at an increased rate for 30 minutes). We encountered several restaurants who had clearly set up lures on purpose next to their patios (a brilliant business strategy on a hot summer afternoon), as well as other places with Pokeballs drawn on their outdoor chalkboards.
We also sat down in the garden and had conversations with several people we never would have given a second glance to without the game. People with knowledge about the game were sharing it with complete newbies (like us), explaining strategy, talking about how to catch Pokemon, explaining the mechanics of items, and so on. Because the competition in PG is restricted to combat, everyone can collect the same Pokemon in an area–it isn’t a race to see who can get them first, and that means that people congregating in an area are going to be much more inclined to cooperate with one another, to share ideal locations, even to “team up” to search together. This game is a way to encourage people to meet other people in their own neighborhoods, restoring a kind of localized community in a way that we’ve lost with the domination of globalizing technology.
It’s also a way to create camaraderie by creating teams–red (Valor), blue (Mystic), yellow (Instinct)–to compete over Gyms. Teams are factions, but they’re more like sports teams than they are tribes or nations. They matter for control of Gyms, but that’s about it. The fact that I’m Valor and someone else is Mystic isn’t really important; we can still collect the same Pokemon or benefit from each other’s lures. We just can’t take a Gym together. I’d recommend that if you have a regular group who likes to walk together or lives near one another, you should all choose the same team, just so that you can take a Gym if you want, but it isn’t going to “wreck” the game if you aren’t.
What is important is that the team gives you an opening to talk to other players. You identify them as PG people, then you ask, “What team are you?” If you share a team, that’s an immediate connection. If–like us–you are still below level five when someone asks you this question, you ask “What does that mean?” and the conversation about how to play can start, and experienced players become teachers instead of being annoyed with the newbies who “can’t do anything,” because it doesn’t really matter in PG whether or not someone is “good” (except in Gyms, but those are only in select locations). And if you’re on another team, friendly banter can ensue, because, again, it doesn’t really matter.
The reasons that PG is revolutionary thus have nothing to do with Pokemon itself and everything to do with the way that it’s taken an existing franchise and used that community to kickstart the revitalization of local connections and social interactions with strangers that are friendly, rather than hostile. And that is something this world desperately needs right now.