Pokémon With Friends

The pocket monsters' revival is fueled by something beyond nostalgia and technology

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Illustration by Kagan Mcleod

Last weekend, I traveled to my childhood hometown of Downers Grove, Illinois, for my mom’s birthday.

A sleepy, picturesque suburb of Chicago straight out of a John Hughes movie, with wide, grassy lawns and a growing number of McMansions, Downers Grove is not exactly my ideal weekend getaway destination. I go crazy with boredom after a few days.

But my parents are there, and a few of my childhood friends still live nearby. And so it was that I found myself waiting for said friends in a townie bar on Saturday night, ignoring the sportsball on TV in favor of my iPhone, where I was absorbed in a very different game: Pokémon Go. Not unlike my hometown, as it turns out, with its vast, immaculately green fields and lack of people out on the streets.

Comparison of Downers Grove in Google Maps to a separate Pokémon Go location

I’d just downloaded the mobile phenomena a few hours earlier, much to the chagrin of my wife. And when my friends eventually plopped into their chairs across from me, I discovered they too had joined the Pokécult.

This isn’t so surprising. Us heathen snake people in our late 20s and 30s vividly remember the original Pokémon craze in the late 1990s, the Nintendo Game Boy game that quickly evolved into a franchise spanning trading cards, TV shows, and movies, among other merchandise. For years, Nintendo has shunned bringing it or any of its other popular franchises (Mario, Zelda) to the smartphone. To have Pokémon suddenly return to us in the form of a new game, designed for the devices we carried everywhere, was an irresistible lure.

But I think it’s more than simple nostalgia that’s powering this current Pokémon revival. A combination of technological leaps and limitations inherent in the game makes it so that players must engage with one another in reality, much more so than any other video game in recent memory.

For one thing, the new game differs markedly from its Poké-predecessors in requiring you to get up and move around outside to succeed (inside the app, the target Pokémon are spread across a Google-powered map of the real world, complete with labeled landmarks).

This is, in some ways, a darkly hilarious indictment of how sedentary many of us are (“Sore Legs Become Pandemic as Pokémon Go Players Accidentally Get Exercise,” as one brilliant headline at Gizmodo, where my wife works, put it).

Yet it may also be key to the game’s popularity, and why it’s clearly resonating with millions of players young and old.

In the days since Pokémon Go launched in the U.S. on July 6, there have been numerous posts written about the serendipitous interactions between players in real life. Some of these interactions have not been positive — the young men robbing players at a real-life location that became popular in the game is probably exhibit A.

Still, for every one of those instances, I’ve seen far more testimonials of people being surprised, charmed, and delighted to discover strangers in their community playing the game at exactly the same time and place. Pokémon Go is quite literally bringing disparate people together in service of a common goal, albeit a frivolous one (“Gotta catch ‘em all!”).

Interestingly, Pokémon Go, at present, lacks the kind of built-in multiplayer features that are common among other mobile games. Your character’s avatar appears alone on a grassy landscape mapped to reality, surrounded only by identical physical structures indicating landmarks, and the Pokémon themselves, when they choose to appear.

The only time you encounter other human players is briefly, when you challenge them to a head-to-head battle at a virtual gym, or when you pull up on your profile page and see the list of usernames nearby. There’s no other built-in way to chat, contact, or otherwise interact with, another player (though the ability to trade items and Pokémon with fellow players is reportedly coming in an update). Instead, if you want to talk to your friends about Pokémon, you have to do so by other means…including (Gasp!) in person!

Spotting a fellow player in real life isn’t too tough, either. That’s in part thanks to the deceptively powerful technology at the game’s core. Pokémon Go employs augmented reality (AR), a blanket term for technology that layers digital characters and information over your view of the real world. Snapchat’s popular face-distorting “Lenses” are probably the most prominent example.

In the case of Pokémon Go, the AR uses your smartphone’s camera to make it appear as though Pokémon are jumping around right in front of you. To try and catch them, you drag a finger across your smartphone screen and “throw” a virtual Pokéball toward the target. Seen at a distance, the effect is that of a person standing in one random place outside, squinting and concentrating very hard on their smartphone screen, and then flicking said screen violently.

Everything I’ve just described sounds positively ridiculous until you’ve actually played the game for yourself, and even then, it’s still absurd. It’s also challenging and fun and yes, more than slightly addictive.

There are some halfway decent arguments to be made about physical safety issues surrounding a game that asks you to enter the real world, then diverts your attention from it, specifically in the case of children and those operating heavy machinery. There’s also been a slowly churning tide of anti-Pokémon Go sentiment on other grounds, much of which seems hysterical to me.

Frankly, it’s too early to tell whether Pokémon Go is just another short-lived fad game, like so many mobile franchises before it (Angry Birds, Flappy Bird, I’m looking at you! Side note: why do so many hit mobile games feature birds?). Several of the game’s features are, on a technical level, quite rough, incomplete, or questionably designed (the graphics are an odd mix of 3D and 2D styling).

Nonetheless, I’ve still found myself playing the game every day since I downloaded it, even back in New York, as well as talking with friends about our progress through the game, sharing tips and strategies and making plans to go on Poké hunts together (as nerdy as that may sound to you, I’m hardly the only one).

And on that first Saturday night, when my old crew and I spilled out of the bar in the early evening with nothing better to do, we went for a walk around my old hometown. Half drunk and a little buzzed on some “grass types”, laughing under the streetlights, faces lit by the glow of our smartphone screens — catching Pokémon seemed like the perfect way to end the night.

To me, that’s the real genius of the game: Pokémon Go is a social lubricant for friends new and old. Maybe it’s even more than that for some people, though I can’t say I’ve found it particularly romantic yet. (My wife still refuses to download it.)