I remember when I was just in elementary school.
It was 1998, so I was heading into 5th or 6th grade. It was summer, and I was a kid who didn’t really spend too much time outside. It was hot, and it was boring; entertainment was a bit hard to come by (I’m a bit envious of kids these days, but also appreciative of how much I had to rely on creativity and imagination to survive those mundane days of old). I was subscribed to Nintendo Power and EGM at the time–my “cool” cousin got me into reading that kind of material. Except this time, there was a bit of a strange package with that month’s Nintendo Power… A VHS tape.
“This looks dumb.” I thought; boy, was I wrong.
Pokémon was a massive phenomenon, and I was very lucky to have been there for its induction into the American culture. Red cartridge or Blue–pick your side. Of course, we somehow–as kids–deemed it that the Reds were the cooler, better kids and the ones who got Blue came from poor families. Kids were, and still are, vicious. Snorlax was my favorite Pokémon, I watched the show religiously, I consumed so much in the card game, and I even made sure I went to the fast food chain that offered golden tablets of Pokémon. Was it Burger King or McDonald’s? I forget. It was a fun time, and for the next 3-4 years… Pokémon devoured my life. As the years passed, however, other things became popular, Pokémon released another series of games with critters that I just didn’t care for, and life went on sans Pokémon.
Fast forward about 15 years later, once the Pokémon craze settled, in comes this new mobile game developed by Niantec (the same makers of the much better game, Ingress). It’s an Augmented Realite Mobile Game that essentially uses information from your GPS to turn the real world into a game world. Schools, churches, and landmarks were transformed into Pokéstops, and all around the neighborhood were these Pokémon roaming around, waiting to get caught. Police stations and certain businesses became hubs because they were marked as gyms. The streets that I call home were re-purposed overnight.
Now this game seems inspired by a collective idea by all of us silly millennials who grew up watching, playing, and involving ourselves in the Pokéworld. “What would you do if Pokémon were real?” was always a fun writing exercise in middle school; hell, it was a wonderful icebreaker argument/conversation in college too! My buddy Sean and I would daydream about a Pokémon MMO where you would venture off into this awesome world as a no-name trainer and adventure through it all in search of being a Pokémon Master! It was a pipe dream, because we knew how Nintendo felt about online play (at least until recently), and how Pokémon was such a well-oiled machine that breaking away from the norm seemed financially foolish. So knowing the premise of this game… knowing very little from the description and the videos about it. It launched.
The launch, at least to me, was abrupt and unannounced. It was trending on Reddit for a little bit because it was surprisingly released in Australia and New Zealand, then over the next two days in the US. It was messy, the servers were down a lot, it completely devoured my battery life, and there were nothing but Pidgeys and Ratatas around me. Still, I found myself all giddy and excited. Niantec was cashing in on nostalgia, and boy was it accruing a bunch of money over the decades. It has been a while since something that I involved myself so strongly in my childhood had come up.
In the week after the US launch of the game, Pokéfever was back in the US, and it was beautiful, glorious, weird, and terrifying at the same time. Kids were going outside during the summer with their phones out, tracking Pokémon and trying to capture them. People were getting injured as a result of the game. Someone found a dead body while playing. Now I’m reading about how thieves and muggers are waiting at Pokéstops to hold up and rob kids. It’s crazy, but this is all a direct result of the game. There are good, there are bad, but things are happening because of it. It sucks to see people irresponsibly driving to catch Pokémon, or kids who are getting themselves into trouble for not paying attention. However, I still can’t help but feel completely amazed and overjoyed with what this game is doing and bringing to the table.
People are going outside.
The other day I was playing tennis with my good friend Aaron. We went to a park over in Highland Park. We got to play (realizing just how old and out of shape we are) for about an hour, then decided to walk back to his place. En route, we noticed a few Pokéstops and an Abra hiding in the brush. We caught it, and ended up running into a fellow trainer (who clearly wasn’t dressed like he was trying to enjoy the park) who was after the same Pokémon. It was delightful, and we just asked him if he had found the Abra yet. We saw a duo of guys roving through the park with their phones out, letting their devices guide their every step.
People are going outside because of this game, and for that alone it is worth applauding. Video Games were always taken as this sit-down and shut-in kind of event. And you know what? It’s usually been that case. PKMGO is actually getting people off the couch and outside in the world walking and exploring their surroundings (and given the robbery reports, this is not entirely a good thing). What a time to be alive when games are making us leave the house instead of keeping us inside!
It’s becoming a social experience.
My buddy Kit (my internet wifey whom I’ve known since I was a shy and quiet little kid) is over in Long Island and she had a wonderful story to share. She’s a fiend when it comes to PKMGO, and she absolutely is a beast trainer in her neck of the woods. She and her boyfriend have established their dominance for (of course) #TeamMystic over there, and amid her newly established ritual of Pokémon hunting, she ran into a few other kids who were doing the same. This game became the obvious common denominator for these spawns of a different time, and they had realized that she was the famous gym trainer in the area. “You’re Aibi!?” they’d exclaimed, and were completely elated to know who it was that had a stranglehold on the region.
Now the stereotype for gamers is that we’re a very shut in, off-beat, off-putting, and strange group of people to socialize with. This may be true in some cases, others not-so-much, but what PKMGO is a foray for these socially reclusive into the depths of the outside world. They’re meeting each other physically, connecting over their passion for Pokémon! The game itself serves as a very easy ice-breaker for these people to talk to each other and get to know one another (something that I think this country needs more of).
Events are being held all over the world for Pokémon meet-ups: people just gather together and adventure. I’m going to one myself, and I know I know I won’t be the only one. This is one feature of PKMGO that I am proud of: it’s bringing people together. What a fantastic, heartwarming, and genuinely fun experience.
It ain’t perfect, but I’m hopeful.
Now, as a game, this thing has a bunch of problems. For one, it’s not very robust. Ingress has so many other features that PKMGO just doesn’t. It’s not a very impressive game overall, either. You catch Pokémon, you hatch their eggs, you battle at gyms, and you collect things at Pokéstops. The game’s engagement is very limited right now, among the technical issues that tend to always plague something at start. Some bad press is coming out with people exploiting the adventurous nature of the game. Hell, it’s most likely going to be a short-lived fad… but I’m hopeful.
Hopefully Niantec keeps adding to the game. Hopefully they add more Pokémon (I’d not learned too much about the newer generations past Gold, so I have no idea what half the Pokémon are anymore), allow the players to battle each other, and find a way to fill in the voids in the world (because schools, parks, churches, and municipal buildings can sometimes be few and far). Hopefully the game ends up being much more polished. I want to keep playing it, and I want games like this to keep coming out, giving the youth that play them (even though I’ve pretty much seen only twenty-somethings) a much needed dose of a different kind of fun–a natural one.