Unsurprisingly, I’ve been playing Pokémon Go.
I use that word, “playing”, as though there’s any similarity between how one plays Pokémon Go, and how one plays another, more traditional video game, like, say, The Witcher 3, which I also finally completed this week. There isn’t. In the couple-hundred hours I spent hunting monsters with Geralt of Rivia, not once did I find any drowners, ghouls or wraiths hovering imperiously over my kitchen toastie-maker, which I caught a Zubat doing just this morning. I spent the next couple of hours outside, walking; two kilometres to hatch an incubated egg, five more to hatch another I’d found along the way, and then the whole distance in reverse because my phone was smouldering and Adam from O2 Customer Services was concerned about my data usage.
One of the most insidious things about Pokémon Go is that, unlike most smartphone games, it only records your progress when it’s open onscreen. You’d assume that this, like the constant crashes and server issues, is another symptom of the app being half-baked and unfinished, which it undeniably is. But I’m sceptical. The game’s loading screen – a silhouetted Pokémon trainer staring obliviously at his phone as a Gyarados rears in front of him – implores you to stay aware of your surroundings. Niantic Labs, the game’s developer, expect you to keep the app open. And when the app’s open, it has you.
Pokémon Go isn’t the game kids wanted in the mid-90s, when Pokémon Red and Blue crash-landed on Nintendo’s Gameboy and swept a wave of hysteria across the globe. It isn’t a particularly good game, even when it manages to work how it’s supposed to, which is rare. But the central idea at the core of Pokémon Go is absolutely what kids envisioned when they first ventured out into the long grass. It literalises the life of a cap-wearing, rucksack-toting, bike-riding Pokémon trainer. The clues are all in that loading screen, which you’ll see a lot of. The silhouette is dressed like a traditional trainer, the kind you might steer around in one of the previous Pokémon games, before this one rewrote the rulebook. But he’s looking at his phone. He’s the player, too. And that, I think, is the secret to Pokémon Go’s success. It blurs the lines. It doesn’t let you imagine yourself as a Pokémon trainer – it lets you, however temporarily, actually become one.
The term for this is “augmented reality”, which is a fancy way of saying that Pokémon Go uses GPS tracking to pinpoint a user’s location and build a stylised map of their surroundings. Local landmarks become Pokestops, which offer a handful of Pokeballs, berries, eggs, and other such items every time you visit; and Gyms, where players over Level 5 can join one of three teams – Mystic, Valor, or Instinct – and battle to control the Gym, leaving a Pokemon behind to guard it against rival players. Because Pokémon Go uses Google’s Maps API, visiting a ‘Stop or battling for dominance in a Gym actually involves the player physically visiting those locations, leading to hilarious (but vaguely terrifying) incidents like this guy’s house becoming a Gym.
Go also populates your environs with Pokémon that become visible once a trainer enters their radius. To catch one, players tap on the creature’s likeness to initiate a mini-game which hijacks your phone’s camera, thus creating the illusion that the monster is frolicking about in real life, its little cartoon face floating along supermarket aisles, on buses, in bushes, and wherever else. Would-be Pokémon trainers have walked off cliffs, crashed their cars, and (incredibly) stumbled across dead bodies, all in their quest to be the very best. (The inevitable Law & Order episode has almost written itself).
This is a compulsion I understand – it’s the same one I’ve had since I was a kid, and now, at twenty-six, I’m still not immune. Yesterday I stalked the frozen section of Lidl in search of a Lapras for so long that my daughter managed to open a packet of biscuits two whole aisles away. The Lapras escaped. To catch a Pokémon the player must throw a Pokeball at them with a well-timed swipe of their finger, but some monsters, as you level up, are more difficult to catch, and need to be dosed up on berries first. It was just too much to think about in the middle of a supermarket. I even had to pay for the biscuits.
You might have noticed, but the actual act of catching Pokémon in this game isn’t particularly interesting. Battling isn’t much better. The player swipes left and right to dodge incoming attacks, and taps on the opponent to deal damage. There’s nothing more to this other than being able to perform a secondary attack once a meter has been filled, but it hardly matters. What battles really come down to is a Pokémon’s Combat Rating – CP – which determines how effective they are in battle. Just like the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, the shortest path to the top of a Gym is a high CP. Pokémon Go is, by design, incredibly shallow.
The question remains, then: Why is this game such a phenomenon? And that isn’t hyperbole. Pokémon Go is the most successful app of all time. In one month it has reached 100 million downloads, which, for context, is almost double the second-most downloaded app over the last six months, Facebook Messenger. The dating app, Tinder, took four years to hit 100 million, which is a rather depressing statement about the human race, and Angry Birds, arguably the most popular mobile game ever, took almost a year to reach just 50 million downloads. What’s more, Pokémon Go has thus far only been released in 32 markets, not including some giant ones, like China. Local businesses jumped on the bandwagon early and are continuing to exploit the app for increased revenue, while Niantic CEO John Hanke told the New York Times that the company has plans for sponsored locations in the future. Nintendo’s market value skyrocketed immediately – then sank again when investors realised the company didn’t make or own Pokémon Go – and since the app’s mid-July release has doubled its share price on the Tokyo Stock Exhange – an increase equivalent to billions of U.S. dollars.
It isn’t just facts and figures that measure the success of Pokémon Go. Take a look out of a window. Stroll through any built-up area. Everyone is playing this game, and the people who aren’t are just being cagey about it. Parks and shopping centres are flooded with trainers, and it’s amazing to see the smiles and nods of solidarity between these people who have never met and ordinarily would never speak to each other. The only time I’ve ever seen anything remotely comparable was when someone in my high school had a video on their phone of a hostage being beheaded by a terrorist; that drew crowds, but it was back in the day when only one model of mobile phone had video capabilities, and the thing to do was prove your mettle by using it to share heinous acts with your classmates. I still have nightmares about that video, and another I saw in which a woman fired a rugby ball out of her vagina.
Still, though. This is a completely new thing. And I think the secret to it is that Niantic have found a sweet spot between nostalgia and newness. Pokémon Go only features the original batch of monsters, the bulbasaurs and charmanders and squirtles that people of my generation grew up on and grew out of. But it’s delivering them to us in the most modern of packages. The game feels revelatory because we’ve finally reached a point where we can experience first-hand today what we could literally only imagine 20 years ago. It hardly even matters that it’s Pokémon, because tomorrow or next month or next year it could be any other formative obsession of our childhoods that have been suddenly brought to life. And that’s an exciting thing.
I don’t like Pokémon Go. The game’s mundane and the app’s a catastrophe. But I love what Pokémon Go represents. It’s a child’s imagination made real. And Niantic aren’t even selling it – they’re giving it away. There’s no such thing as being too old or too mature or too busy for that kind of experience. Even if you only play for ten minutes, you owe those ten minutes to yourself. If this childhood dream can come true, maybe all your others can too. Even if it’s only for a moment, Pokémon Go can make you believe that’s possible.