What is 'Pokemon Go' and why won't everyone shut up about it already?
Last night, I was on the Disney lot for a screening of Pete’s Dragon, and I had both of my kids with me. Both before and after the film, Allen had one thing on his mind, the same thing he’s had on his mind since the beginning of the weekend when I downloaded the Pokemon Go app to my phone.
He’s been a Pokemon fan for the last few years, and he’s managed to put together an impressive mountain of the cards. He and his friends are all avid players, and I was impressed to see just how robust things are for Pokemon in general. When it first popped up in pop culture, I was way too old to care at all, and that was true until the day my kids discovered it. Even then, it was something that they did, not something that we all played together. There were plenty of other games we shared, and this one was their own private world.
Hats off, then, to the creators of Pokemon Go, because it instantly became a total-family activity, one that has obviously struck a nerve with people everywhere. If you’re on social media, it is unreal how quickly it became an omnipresent thing, but there are plenty of things that go viral that don’t translate into any kind of real world impact. This is something else. This is a flash cultural moment, and it almost doesn’t matter how you feel about Pokemon itself. There’s something happening here that is worth noting.
Geocaching is nothing new. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s a sort of hobby/sport where you use a GPS to play hide and seek with items or objects that you can record your interaction with, like a notebook or a flash drive. It’s a fun evolution of a much older game, and the intent is the same… you are sent out into the world to interact with it. It’s that simple. In a world where we increasingly spend our time in screens, it can be tricky to instill the habit of going outside, and my kids are as guilty of that as anyone. I love that they play sports, but they’ve both picked up lots of media as part of their diet because that’s how I live, and I’m certainly no paragon of physical health.
I give Nintendo and Niantic Labs credit for creating something that immediately sends families scrambling for their shoes and out the door. When I downloaded it, Allen immediately asked to go outside. We all got ready, my girlfriend and Toshi and Allen and me, and we headed out into the neighborhood I just moved into last week. We got as far as our front gate, stepping out onto the sidewalk, before we ran into another family doing the exact same thing.
“You guys hunting Pokemon?”
“Ha! Yes! You, too?”
As with geocaching, you are supposed to walk to certain places that your mobile device’s GPS identifies on your map, and in those places, you can either find an actual Pokemon creature or various items that will help you, like the Pokeballs you use to catch them or eggs or special lures you can use to bring them to you. At the items, you’ll actually find an image of the real place and a description. For example, we live right next to a stretch of Fairfax called Little Ethiopia, with restaurants and stores and a ton of foot-traffic, and just south of LACMA, and the map is positively rotten with Pokemon all over the area. We walked over the restaurant row, crossing between the blocks a few times just to narrow things down. Both Allen and Toshi were curious to see how things worked, and it was Allen who seemed to intuitively figure out the controls the quickest. We caught three or four Pokemon the first time we were out, and the next day, we had a basketball game to go to where Allen was playing. We got to the park where the courts are early enough that we could run around and catch several more of the creatures. And once again, we ran into plenty of other people doing the same thing, and every time, there was an immediate joyous response, a recognition that was really lovely.
Watching him run and figure out clues and get that huge reward when it all comes together, he was as happy and as lost in play as I think I’ve ever seen him. That’s huge. There’s a joy to the game play that reminds me of the simplest childhood games like tag or hide and seek. He had his first taste of failure, though, and he was genuinely upset by it. While were on the Disney lot, as I mentioned, Allen asked for my phone. He turned on the game as we started walking back to the car, and sure enough, there were Pokemon everywhere. One of the Pokestops on the menu was the Old Animation Building. One was the camera department. One was the classic original multiplane camera used on Snow White that resides in the lobby of the Frank G. Wells building. One was a statue of Roy Disney and Minnie Mouse. Fun, right? At each of them, Allen found something different, and he was getting more and more excited.
Then he started to jump up and down, thrilled, yelling, “Daddy! It’s Pikachu!” I may not be an expert on the old series or the card game, but I know enough to know that Pikachu is an iconic character, one of the most recognizable elements of the entire franchise. And there it was standing on the sidewalk in front of us. When you open the game on your phone, you use the camera app to look at the area in front of you, and you see the Pokemon there, a lovely use of Augmented Reality tech. So my son, a massive fan of the overall game, suddenly finds himself virtually standing there face to face with a real Pikachu, and watching him try to catch it, his excitement was as palpable as if it was completely real.
And then, suddenly, Pikachu was gone.
Allen had tried at least six or seven throws, and then the Pokemon was just gone. He caught a different one between there and the garage, but he was deflated. He leveled up to level 4, still just getting started, but that didn’t seem to make it any less frustrating to him that Pikachu escaped. What struck me about it most is that he had a real experience, and yes, there was a phone screen involved. But it was a real-world moment for him, and he wanted to go outside at every opportunity all weekend. I’m more than willing to play along, too, and encourage the game and even learn the nuances of it, because it’s a group physical activity that will help us learn our new neighborhood and that may even help Allen and Toshi meet kids in the area.
Now, there is also an immediate sense of how this game can cause some real world problems. If you’re at Arlington National Cemetery and you’re playing on your phone, stop it. If you’re at the Holocaust Museum and you’re playing a game, then you’re in the wrong place. Use some common sense. Don’t go someplace you wouldn’t go otherwise. Don’t be unsafe. Be aware of things like cars and cliffs and rivers. It seems silly to have to say that, but there have been several days worth of silly stories in a row now, and I’m genuinely fascinated by just how quickly it’s become bigger than apps that have been around and embedded in pop culture for a while. Will it continue like this? Will it burn out quickly? What’s going to happen at events like the Republican National Convention or Comic-Con with this? There is an absurdity that is introduced by this being laid over reality in certain places. I don’t know what to make of the crazy photos taken by people who played the game in the midst of the explosion of Black Lives Matter demonstrations over the weekend. It seems crazy. If people had this in the past, would we have photos of Charmander at MLK’s “I have a dream” speech or Squirtle standing on the Berlin Wall as it fell? That’s insane. As with any game, I hope people aren’t idiots about this.
And I do think there’s something really beautiful about a game that encourages not just community but a physical real-world participation. The reason you’ve heard so many people, even people you wouldn’t expect, talking about the game in the last few days is because it’s something new, combining older ideas and new technology into something that offers an experience that feels fundamentally different. Chip Zdarsky mentioned this today on Twitter —
I want a SPIDERMAN GO app where I have to get pictures of spiderman for a furious j jonah jameson— Chip Zdarsky ;) (@zdarsky) July 12, 2016
— and that’s a great way of imagining how this might morph into other games and other experiences. This interests me most because of what it promises and what we might see because of this. Pokemon is not the end of this line of thinking about gaming. Far from it. This is a turning point, the start of something exciting and fundmentally different, and I suspect ten years from now, there will be some game or app or tech breakthrough, and the creator of it will give an interview and say, “I was only ten when Pokemon Go came out, and it blew my mind and made me want to do what I do today.”
For now, though, it’s back to hunting Pikachu for TeamMcWeeny. How about you? Are you going to embrace the idea of this one, or is this something you simply don’t want in on?
Pokemon Go is available for free right now from Niantic and on both Google Play and the Apple App store.