I was standing on a platform, waiting for a train to come and take me into the heart of Washington, D.C., when I received the text from my friend. “Plenty of Magikarp down by the waterfront,” he said. That was the first I had heard of Pokémon GO.
A quick primer for those who are not familiar with the mechanics of this app: your phone renders fictitious, fantastical creatures called “Pokémon” over a GPS map of the real world. There are 150 species of Pokémon in total. It is your job, as a Pokémon trainer, to catch as many of these critters as you can.
Some are based on animals. One of the most common, known as “Pidgey,” is a simple brown and gold pigeon-hawk mashup. Other designs are based on dogs, cats, bugs, fish, plants, ghosts, dragons and even inanimate things such as rocks, magnets and gastric ooze.
And these are no ordinary critters. They possess special powers, with which they attack and fight one another.
Little of the six-member-team role-playing game remains. In the original games, you “train” your Pokémon by making them fight other Pokémon. To represent Pokémon growing stronger, they advance through an integer-based level system, 1 being the lowest level and 100 being the highest.
In GO, we see a resurgence of the level system, albeit with a twist: Pokémon grow by being fed candies, which can only be obtained by catching other wild Pokémon. The result is less violence and more running around shopping malls and public parks.
It should be noted that the placement of these creatures is seemingly random. They might appear in homes, schools, museums, hospitals, parks or government institutions. The first and only Pokémon I ever caught on Pokémon GO was in a driveway to a house that was not mine. During my summer internship at a well-known natural history museum, I heard rumors of fellow interns wandering into restricted collections areas while giving chase to some more elusive Pokémon species.
That scene holds all of the irony that this app represents. Think about all of the natural wonder that a single level of a single wing of any museum holds: fossilized critters from eons ago; pickled fishes from deeper within the oceans than the sun reaches; skins and bones of mammals found deep within jungles never heard of by most ice-cream licking museum patrons.
And the thing that draws well-meaning interns to risk federal prosecution by wandering into forbidden areas of Neolithic knowledge and Silurian secrets is a digital projection of a Pokémon: a creature that does not exist and never will.
So should we be worried that Pokémon GO is distracting players from the real world around them? On the contrary, the app manages to do something the GameBoy game never could: force its players out the door.
If anything, the proliferation of Pokémon trainers should signal some sort of shift in our cultural priorities. Adventuring, collecting and gaming now have an impetus beyond for the sake of the thing itself. Should a museum care whether a group of students is brought through its doors by awe and inspiration of a displayed Mercury landing capsule or a Pikachu hunt, so long as they profit?
What is the harm in drawing someone beyond the confines of their home if the alternative is to sit in front of a different phone app? If we assume that the typical Pokémon GO player is more of a phone-addict than a Pokémon-enthusiast (and as one belonging to the narrow latter group, I can assure you that this is more than likely the situation), this app will move people to become more aware of their surroundings than has been the narrative around this game thus far.
The Pokémon franchise itself consists of 24 games, or “versions” as they are called by Nintendo, which are divided into six Generations and have spanned the lives of four gaming consoles (GameBoy Color, GameBoy Advanced, the Nintendo DS and the 3DS).
It is not unreasonable to complete any one of these games with a log time approaching 100 hours of play. Then consider the fact that these games have spanned 20 years; there are some players now (myself included) who received their first game as a child of eight or nine years old, and are now paying for their current game with money earned from a job.
Many of those 8 or 9-year-old children have fantasized since the beginning that they could walk outside their own house and find a Pidgey there, waiting for them, or wander down to a stream and see a school of Magikarp flopping around. Pokémon GO is a long-awaited fulfillment of these fantasies.
As far as the graphics go, they rate somewhere between Pokemon Colosseum 2 and the current lineup of Generation 6 games.
The mechanics are clunky; battles and wild encounters are as smooth as your hands are steady. The GPS world will often fail to match the “real” one. The servers crash. The app runs your battery into the ground like a Rock Slide on a Charizard. The basis for three “teams” make no sense given the context of earlier games.
It does not matter. What the Pokémon Company has created is a game that has no end. Scores of children who were too disappointed that they could not bring their GameBoys on road trips or airplanes or to school or work are now satiated.
I loved the original games for the worlds themselves—the unassuming cheer of Kanto cities, the environmentally-attuned peoples of Hoehn, the strange and many caves and dungeons of Johto.
Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer to meet Pokémon in their own world, on their own terms. I want to meet my first Onix in the dark, labyrinthine Rock Tunnel, not out on the Gator Quad. And a Magikarp flopping along a waterfront in Portland, Oregon is just a fish out of water.