2016 is the Year of the Nerd.
It could hardly have been doubted. Six films based on superhero comics will have been released by the end of the year, not to mention new installments in the Star Wars, Star Trek, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle franchises. But few if any of this year’s films have generated the buzz that Pokemon Go has, or the Facebook tension.
What is it?
For the uninitiated, Pokemon Go is a mobile game that is an extension of the Pokemon franchise, which was at a height of popularity in the late ’90s and early ’00s, but has never completely died down since its creation in 1995. Pokemon (which is Japanese for “pocket monsters”) are essentially animals or other creatures that you catch in Pokeballs, then train them and battle for control over gyms (not the kind you work out in. These are where the champion Pokemon trainers are, and you challenge them if you think you’re good enough).
That is an extremely simple rundown of what Pokemon games typically consist of. What makes Pokemon Go different is that it is an augmented reality game, meaning that when you go looking for Pokemon, you don’t do it from your couch – you go out into the real world. The game uses your GPS location and imprints the game’s data onto that map, almost like a game inside of Google Maps. Pokemon will show up on your screen as you walk around your neighborhood, or the mall, or the zoo, and that’s when you’ll have a chance to catch them. Gyms correspond to real world locations, such as parks or memorials. Pokestops (places where you can get items, like more pokeballs or potions to heal your pokemon) also correspond to real-life places, and sometimes results vary based on the type of location. I have yet to find a pokestop at a church that does not give you a potion.
Is it good?
That depends, to some degree, on who you are. The game is a huge hit, but also features departures from the mainstream games it somewhat significant areas. When you fight other players for control of gyms, the fighting style is real-time, rather than turn-based, turning game of (admittedly mild and simple) strategy to rapid-tapping chaos. There’s no way to train your pokemon outside of the gym, and you cannot level up your pokemon without collecting more of them and getting “candies” specific to that pokemon. As a result, if you want a Pidgeot, you have to catch dozens of Pidgeys, rather than getting one and training it.
These hardly cancel out the thrill of finding a Pidgey in your own backyard, but they are flaws to the game. There are also common issues with the Pokemon Go servers, which can result in being knocked out of a gym battle, losing the result of a pokeball throw, or simply not being able to play the game for a while. Some of this, I suspect, will be remedied with time – the initial release is only for North America and Australia, making this somewhat similar to a beta version.
Why Should I Play It with My Kids?
Augmented reality games are unique in that they encourage players to get out into the real world and interact with their surroundings. Pokestops, for example, contain some information about the real-world places they correspond to. Exercise is also implicitly encouraged – you won’t find any Pokemon on the interstate, and it finds ways to discount travel if it can tell you’re going so fast that you must be in a car. Because of these two things, it makes a great medium for a family activity.
I am a Pokemon fan. My wife is not. I also happen to have a phone that is about five years old, and so the software isn’t compatible with the game. My wife initially said I could download on her phone and play it sometimes. That very quickly turned into (*gasp*) both of us playing it together. After getting dinner one night we spent almost an entire evening exploring downtown. We discovered numerous pieces of local art we didn’t know existed, cemeteries I hadn’t seen before (which my wife enjoys), and even discovered that a famous clown was from our area. Since that night, we have taken fairly regular walks around our neighborhood with our son in the stroller. Since pokemon aren’t popping every second of every minute, in the in between times we (*gasp*) talk.
Yup. We’re taking family walks and talking as a family because of Pokemon Go. If that seems pathetic and ridiculous to you, think about whether you have ever used a game as a family bonding activity. What makes this different? That it takes place on a screen? It also happens to take place outside, and helps you discover local landmarks and ever-so-subtly leads you to parks, zoos, and other outdoor locations. Games have often had this added benefit for families – the fact that it takes place through a “nerdy” franchise or mobile game is not scandalous.
So why I am I seeing so many negative things about it?
Some of the complaints are simple stereotyping – that Pokemon Go players are unemployed and irresponsible, or that because it is based on what is primarily viewed as a children’s franchise, teenagers and young adults playing it are acting like children and need to grow up. These are so obviously straw man and non-sequitur fallacies that I’m not going to dignify them with a response.
Potentially more significant is the concern that because it is an augmented reality game, it is endangering public safety, because players will play while driving, or will walk out into the street while playing, because they aren’t paying attention to their surroundings (some have raised concerns regarding digital security on smartphones. I am not a technology expert, so I won’t be addressing that concern).
There are two things I want to say about this. The first is that actual cases of these situations happening are highly exaggerated. Some of the reported stories about traffic accidents and other stories have been proven to be false (read this story for more details). Many observations are driven by assumptions rather than fact – as one friend of mine stated (paraphrased) it’s not like nobody was staring at their phones before the game came out.
The second is, realizing that the reports are exaggerated, attention to surroundings should be stressed. In fact, the game itself stresses this on its opening screen, asking users to always be aware of their surroundings. The game does not compel you to be irresponsible, and users should be held responsible for their irresponsibility, not what they’re distracted by. That said, if you know your child is prone to obliviousness, by all means take that into consideration. That’s another good reason to encourage playing the game together. It’s harder for an adult (or two) and a child to be oblivious to surroundings than it is for one child to be.
In short, Pokemon Go is not the devil. Nor is it a public safety hazard. It’s a game that has sprung from one of the most innovative technologies we’ve seen in recent years, and could be a fun family activity, rather than another household ban.