Karla R. Hamlen, PhD
Cleveland State University
For years, people of previous generations have complained that millennials and new media consumers just stare at their phones. They’re lucky they don’t walk directly into oncoming traffic what with their Tweets, Vines, and Snapchatting. But in July 2016, Niantic, an American company affiliated with Google, teamed up with Nintendo and gave us Pokémon GO. Now, it isn’t just kids with faces fixated on their screens, but everyone—from kids to 30-somethings to entire families—walking around with their forefingers heroically capturing the imaginary pocket monsters lurking all around us.
Pokémon GO is fairly straightforward—you walk around waiting for Pokémon to “spawn” (pop up). When one does, you sling a Poké Ball in its general direction and, should you hit it, you have a chance of capturing it. If you should run out of Poké Balls you can walk around and find local landmarks, where you may find a Poké Stop. There, you spin the photo disk and receive rewards, which help you continue to succeed at the game. There is also a social aspect. Once you reach level 5, you are asked to join a team: Instinct, Mystic, or Valor. I am currently at level 25 and on Team Instinct whose very unofficial but popular slogan is “Instinct or Extinct!” These are global teams and once you join you cannot switch. As a member of a team, you are able to send your Pokémon into battle at gyms which are also located in public spaces like parks and churches.
So what is different about Pokémon GO, and why its rapid and enormous popularity? Several factors are at play making this game unique to the average casual gamer and more appealing to those who may not normally play digital games. First, this is a location-based game—you cannot just sit on your couch and play it. The only way to catch different types of Pokémon is to go to different locations; the only way to keep gathering Poké Balls is to find Poké Stops, and the only way to fight other teams and earn coins is to go to local “gyms.” The only way to hatch an egg, which gives you more Pokémon, is to walk. For most people, these factors add some extra exercise and outdoor activity to their lives, which is particularly appealing to parents who do not like the idea of their children sitting around watching TV or playing video games inside all day.
The second factor, to me the most intriguing, is the social aspect. While you do not interact with others in the game itself, you inevitably run into other players when you are gathered at local Poké Stops and gyms. This differs significantly from most digital games where you are only interacting online and never see another player in person. Playing Pokémon GO, I have met families going Pokémon hunting together in my local town, and I have fought a gym only to have another member of my global team, a stranger to me, join in and help me defeat it. It is also easier to defeat and defend a gym if you do so with a group, whether with friends or strangers. Again, this must be done in person in a physical location and all at the same time—which differs greatly from how the average digital game is played. Many businesses that are lucky enough to be located close enough to a Poké Stop have invested money in placing “lures” on the Poké Stops to lure both virtual Pokémon monsters and customers at the same time. Customers who play Pokémon GO are attracted to businesses that provide lures because it gives them a free way to boost their game play while they dine or wait.
Third, there is a slight blur between the virtual and reality. Since the game uses a navigation system, it contains maps of all roads, terrain, and buildings, including your own home. If you look at the game map and see a Pokémon spawn on your front lawn, you almost feel as if you could look out your front window and see it there. In fact, if you have given the game access to your phone’s camera, you can actually hold your phone up and see a Pokémon jumping up and down in your own yard. It makes for a fun and realistic way of playing the game.
Fourth, there is the media buzz which always comes with a bit of fear mongering. If you have not played Pokémon GO, you probably know it as the game for which people trespass, break the law, and get into car crashes. It is true that an element of danger comes with playing a game that has you walking around and simultaneously looking at your phone. Make sure you look up enough to know where you are going, not step into oncoming traffic, and never play while driving. But to the average media consumer who has not experienced the game, it sounds like a dangerous and harrowing experience, and it is definitely a topic of discussion by the water cooler.
Finally, there is an element of nostalgia. Many of the 20- and 30-something players also watched the show and played Pokémon with cards as they were growing up. Having this experience actually helps these players to know the strengths and weaknesses of each Pokémon and how to best use them in battles. Pokémon GO brings life to the creatures they grew up with.
While I am not sure how long the Pokémon GO craze will last, particularly in the US when colder weather arrives, it is clear to me that this combination of characteristics has ushered in a new era of digital mobile games. Digital games can now use the real world around us to bring life and reality to the game; they can also be played in physically active ways and they can encourage connections with other people. Game developers have explored these elements before, but this is the first game to combine them in a way that has taken off with such popularity among gamers and among casual mobile phone users of all ages.