It’s called Pokémon Go, and everybody’s playing it.
No, seriously. Everybody. Literally everybody you know is playing it.
Since its introduction a week ago, Pokémon Go has added $9 billion in market value to famed video game company Nintendo. In just seven days, the game had more users than Twitter (which boasts 65 million American micro-bloggers). Nintendo’s share price went up by a staggering 50 percent . The company desperately needed a win, too, posting a whopping $216 million loss for the first quarter of 2016. Something tells me there are a lot of folks at Nintendo high-fiving each other now.
If you don’t know what Pokémon is, you’re not alone – but there are a lot more people who do than don’t. Pokémon refers to “pocket monsters,” adorable creatures with a variety of special powers that are used to pit the monsters against each other in battle. Various incarnations of the franchise have existed for decades. Created in 1995 as a pair of video games for the Nintendo Game Boy, it became a popular collectible card game, a long-running animated children’s television show, various console games and now a smartphone app.
The concept of Pokémon is that players, called “trainers,” wander the world catching the “pocket monsters,” their goal being to acquire at least one specimen of each outlandish breed. Individual pokémon can be “evolved” into more powerful versions, making them better fighters. Trainers spend a lot of time hurling “pokéballs,” the ubiquitous red and white spheres that symbolize the game, at the creatures in the wild. Once trapped in the spheres, the pocket monsters are domesticated by the trainer, becoming both property and friend. Then the trainer pits the monsters in battle against the monsters belonging to other trainers. There is thus a constant arms race, of sorts, to evolve and “power up” one’s pocket monsters to make them more formidable battlers. Players eventually choose one of three colored teams (red, blue, or yellow), an arbitrary affiliation that nonetheless leads to constant trash-talk among the different factions on social media.
Pokémon Go is an “augmented reality,” or AR, game. It accesses the location data and camera of your smartphone (among other things) to accomplish this. Game play is simple, at least to start, and surprisingly addictive. Essentially, it lets players live the experience of being Pokémon trainers by superimposing images on the real world. The player activates his or her smartphone, which depicts a Google Maps-like environment. Pokémon appear on the phone’s screen, and when you touch them in order to engage them, the phone’s camera kicks in. The player then sees a pocket monster superimposed on whatever the camera is looking at, hurls a pokéball to capture it and adds the monster to his or her collection.
A great deal of time can be spent merely locating different pocket monsters, powering them up, evolving them into different, stronger forms and acquiring the necessary “candies” and “stardust” to do so (rewards that accrue in the player’s account for capturing pocket monsters and “transferring them to the professor,” which is basically cashing in unwanted duplicates). But players can also battle each other and take control of various Pokémon “gyms,” way stations designated on the Pokémon map. These gyms and other stops are areas where there are more pocket monsters to be caught, and more activity, than in other locations, making any area designated a stop or gym one of greater importance to players.
This is where the world of Pokémon intersects with the real world. The sheer enormity of tagging various locations to serve as stops and gyms would have been prohibitive had Nintendo done it from a centralized location. Instead, the designations were imported from another platform. Sam Prell explained it in Games Radar:
“Niantic [Labs, which developed Pokémon Go] was once part of Google, and its founder and CEO, John Hanke, worked on the technology that powers Google Maps. That tech was used in Niantic’s previous game, Ingress.” The stops and gym locations were imported to Pokémon Go from Ingress’ database. “Ingress is a game of geolocation,” Prell continues. “Players must travel to specific locations to capture portals, which link with other captured sites to form zones controlled by whichever faction holds those points. Hanke and his team chose some of the first portals based on sites with historical or cultural significance, such as the Washington Monument, Big Ben, or longstanding museums. Other locations were chosen based on geo-tagged photos from Google. … Many more portals were submitted as suggestions by Ingress players. Hanke recently told Mashable that there are approximately 15 million player-submitted portal locations, 5 million of which have been approved.”
The result is that some locations are more appropriate than others. A great number of churches and other landmarks are part of the network of Pokémon stops and gyms. Lore is quickly growing of less wholesome stops, like one at the 911 Memorial and various stops at strip clubs and other less than family-friendly locations. The point, though, is that no matter where you are in the United States, there is a network of these locations sprinkled across the map. This has led to crowds of people in public places, from local shops and businesses to New York’s Central Park, wandering around “catching” Pokémon.
The traffic driven to local businesses has been a boon in and of itself, but already, private enterprise is seizing the opportunity to glom on to the Pokémon craze. Driving services are offering Pokémon-catching tours, allowing the passengers to focus on their smartphones while they are conveyed to various Pokémon stops. And sales of Pokémon accessories, such as hats modeled on the one worn by Pokémon cartoon star Ash Ketchum, have gone through the roof on eBay and Amazon.
Why is Pokémon Go so popular? We are all driven by the desire to escape. Pokémon Go represents exactly that. It is accessible to anyone with a smartphone. It is devoid of politics (although there are already rumblings from the left that Pokémon Go is somehow racist). It is easy to play. But most of all, Pokémon Go superimposes the game on real life, immersing players in an almost-virtual-reality that, as the name implies, enhances and augments that real life. Pokémon Go is just the first of what is certain to be a flood of AR games – and until the libs ban them, this blurring of the line between technology and “meatspace” will only deepen.
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