In case you’ve been sleeping under a rock for the past few days, there’s a new craze that is sweeping the world and it’s called Pokemon Go. It’s an Augmented Reality (AR) game put out by Niantec Labs, the same people who made the wildly popular and yet still underground Ingress.
Ingress was a genius level game in so many ways, but primarily for two reasons: 1) It incentivized people to document the world around them, taking pictures of landmarks, artwork and historical sites along with providing the company metadata about them and 2) it FORCED people to leave their homes to play. Quite simply, without cheating in some way, there was no way to play the game while sitting on a sofa at home. While I wouldn’t bill it as an ‘exercise game’ like the route the Wii wanted to go, it certainly required people to explore their world a little in order to advance.
Personally, I played Ingress quite a bit for a while, primarily because while traveling it pointed out to me all sorts of local flavor that I would have missed otherwise. It was like a gamified local tour guide and gave me something to do while waiting in lines. But Niantec learned a lot from Ingress and really took it to the next level with Pokemon Go.
Pokemon Go is based on the classic Pokemon card game and cartoon. The premise is simple: There are tiny little monsters (POcKEt MONsters if you will) all around us, and as a trainer you need to find them and capture as many as you can. In fact, the tag line is “Gotta catch em all.” As you wander around, ‘wild’ Pokemon will jump out and then by strategically throwing pokeballs at them, you stand a chance to capture them. There are a few other elements, such as joining one of three teams and trying to take over pokegyms from rival teams. But at the heart of the game, you do two things: Wander around trying to capture Pokemon and finding landmarks (called pokestops) to check in at and grab more supplies.
The game itself is simple. But what’s amazing is just how quickly it has gone viral in the mainstream. Ingress was wildly popular for an AR game, but most definitely still relatively unknown. Even geocaching, as popular and long-lived as it has been, hasn’t come close to the mainstream sensation that Pokemon Go is already. According to some sources, it’s already bigger than Tinder and may have overtaken Twitter (at least briefly).
I’ve found the buzz around the game to be fascinating, particular with respects to how it is being subverted and attributed to so many unusual stories. Take for instance, the story about the person who stopped their car in the middle of the highway to capture a Pokemon, causing a massive pilieup. Sound crazy? Of course. Because the story was totally fake. Or the one about the robbers using Lures in the game to get people to come to dark alleys, only to be mugged. This seems like it must be true, considering it was covered by The Guardian, USA Today, CNBC, Engadget, and SO many other credible sources. Of course, if you look it up on Snopes, you find out that the actual victim states, “I am the guy who was robbed at the Pokestop at Feise and K. In the interest of objective truth, everyone is reporting this wrong. There was never any lure. I was walking down a dark street towards a slightly out of the way pokestop and I got robbed by four kids in a black BMW. Everyone is reporting this as cunning teenagers use a lure to capture unsuspecting pokemon players, and that’s not quite correct.” Not as sexy a story, but there is something to be said for the truth. And then of course the story about the app having full permission on iOS to do everything from reading your emails to stealing your silverware. Reeve, the man making the claims, later admitted “he had never built an application that uses Google account permissions, and had never tested the claims he makes in the post.” HUGE security risk? It sure looks that way… if you don’t understand the technology at all. But in reality? The app could “can only read biographical information like email address and phone number.” That’s it. Much ado about nothing.
I find it fascinating that everyone knows to question Nigerian princess that want to give them money, but will immediately jump on the bandwagon when it comes to stories a company infiltrating our lives and stealing all of our personal information through an augmented reality game. Trust me, they’re more concerned with getting their servers to stay up than to read the emails you send to your grandmother.
Beyond all the distractions, I really do find the game fascinating. When walking around in any major city, you can find people playing the game. EVERYWHERE. It’s not hard to see the players. They’re the ones staring at their phone as they walk, barely aware of their surroundings. As if they’re tourists using Google maps, but needing to stare at that map for an uncomfortably long time. While it’s wonderful that the game requires you to get out of your seat and explore the world to play, I was more than a little concerned that it would just create an army of the walking dead, totally oblivious to the world around them as they hunt these little monsters.
However, what I’ve actually found is that while it does appear to be the case when you see somebody in a given moment, on the whole it has created an incredibly social experience. I’ve seen dozens of posts on Facebook from parents who are all of a sudden going for evening walks with their kids. I’ve seen people sharing that they’ve explore their cities more in the past week than in years prior. And from my own personal experience, it has brought people together unlike any other game I’ve ever seen.
Aiden asked to go for an evening Pokewalk before bedtime. Normally we’d walk around the block, but since he wanted to capture a water pokemon, we drove to a path along a creek. It turns out some people had set out some Lures there, which means everybody in the area has a better chance of finding wild pokemon. So a few people sat down to take advantage of it. Then a few more joined them. And before we knew it, there were about 25 of us, all hanging out and playing, but also talking about the game, talking about our town, and enjoying a shared experiences. Ages 9-60, a group of people that would normally pass each other with barely a nod and gathered together spontaneously and made a connection. Powerful stuff. As we walked around the park later, if we saw other people playing we’d give them a wink and say “Go Team Red” (our team), and maybe chat a bit. It created an instant bond.
And the game is certainly getting people moving. While there’s some wonderful satire about people ‘accidentally’ getting exercise while just trying to play a game, the game is rigged to force people to get out and move around. In order to ‘hatch eggs’, people have to walk either 2km, 5km or 10km (depending on the specific egg). Here in America, that has led to quite a few people wondering exactly how far a 5K is in miles. Someone did a Google Trends search to check the frequency of the search “5km to miles” and as you can see from the image, there’s been a SLIGHT uptick in people searching that since the game was released. Coincidence? I think not.
Is it sustainable in the long run? Will it jump the shark and eventually see the public rail against it? It’s entirely possible. But for right now, I’d say that it’s become as disruptive to society as Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram. And given that it has only been out for barely a week? I’d say the buzz around this game is just beginning.
If you haven’t gotten on board yet, I’d suggest you give it a try. Because it’s most definitely a sign of things to come.