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A Defence of Pokémon Go

Pokémon Go is a phenomenon unlike any other: the media, social networks, businesses, blogs, co-workers, even local politicians — all seem to chime in to make Pokémon Go possibly the most-discussed (and certainly most-hyped) piece of software in recent years.

Either you play the game or you don’t. In any case, you can’t avoid it. And of the people who don’t play it, a sizeable number tends to have strong opinions about both the game and the people who play it.

Cliche suggests these players are virtually glued to their smartphone screens, completely disconnected from their surroundings like mindless husks. It also suggests that playing Pokémon Go is an inherently anti-social endeavour — you interact with your phone and not with your environment after all — and just the latest example of a society that increasingly devalues human interaction.

I found the opposite to be true. But let me give you a practical example:

I have a spot. It’s a promenade along the Rhein river. People run, bike, and walk their dogs there or just stop by to sit on one of the many benches and enjoy the scenery. It’s a lovely place to be — especially in the summer — when you grab a beer at the supermarket or one of the shoreline cafes and sit and talk to friends until it’s dark outside.

As you probably got from my description, I’m really fond of this place. Sadly, I had few reasons to venture there all by myself. It was hard to find the motivation to get up from the couch or the computer and actually go somewhere without having anything in particular to do. And I know that wasn’t just my problem.

But now, every evening, the place is brimming with people like me: Pokémon Go players. It’s got four so-called Pokéstops (places that are highly relevant and sought-after in the game’s mechanic) in very close proximity, with about a dozen more within a short distance.

When a middle-aged man saw the dozens of people sitting on the meadow near the river or strolling along the promenade, all with their smartphones out, he said to what I presumed to be his wife: “This is the downfall of society.” And it’s easy to see it that way if you have no knowledge whatsoever about the phenomenon.

Nostalgia and the Apocalypse

For instance, this couple can’t have the same connection to Pokémon I have. For them, a Charmander is just a funny-looking orange reptile, whereas I have spent countless hours training such a monster in the video games. In the TV series, I’ve seen the protagonist, Ash Ketchum, save this poor critter’s life and then train it to become a powerful fire-breathing dragon even he couldn’t control.

I’m fully aware I’m not impartial to Pokémon: it’s a cherished childhood memory for me. Back when Pokémon were little more than pixelated characters on a tiny Game Boy screen, most kids like me dreamt about being a real-life Pokémon trainer: catching these monsters in our world, training them and competing against other trainers. Now, all that is (somewhat) possible — it’s a childhood dream come true.

But let’s disregard all romanticisation and nostalgia. In media science there is a popular theory by Hans Magnus Enzensberger: with every new form of media, there are evangelists — those who we now tend to call digital natives or early adopters (and a plethora of other buzzwords) who embrace new technology — and so-called apocalyptics. For those, every new type of media is at least inferior to the previous ones — or the final nail on the coffin of culture and the society as we know it.

Luckily, for the rest of us, the apocalyptics tend to be on the losing side of history: the same rhetoric has been spun about the invention of print, radio, TV and the internet. That didn’t impair their success. It seems like new developments will always discourage people who don’t understand them and since Pokémon Go is huge, it serves as a particularly effective divider.

There will be new technologies that I won’t understand. And it has already started: I don’t “get” Snapchat. I know it’s is huge. I just don’t see why. The difference between me and the previously-mentioned apocalyptics is that just because I don’t know how to use a certain piece of software, doesn’t mean that everybody else won’t. While the app might be useful for most people, it’s not for me and neither the software nor the people who use it are to blame for that.

Playing in public

The reason Pokémon Go players are today’s favourite subject of criticism (other than the sheer size of the following) is because they are visible in public. It’s easy to spot groups of people who frequently look down on their smartphone (most of which visibly hooked up to a portable battery), talking about Pidgeys, Pikachus and Rattatas.

This invites critics of all ages to lose themselves in lengthy rants about how Pokémon Go players are essentially anti-social geeks, who — through some pointless game (aren’t they all?) — emerge from the darkness of their basement to clutter up streets, parks and public spaces to take precious room away from the “normal” people. Statements like “I don’t play Pokémon Go, I get laid” (Congratulations! Surely your sex life is the gold standard of personal success) are of course silly, but they perpetuate the cliche of lifeless nerds meeting with lifeless nerds to play a game for lifeless nerds. The reality, of course, is entirely different.

From my experience, players are very diverse: I’ve seen people half my age and people twice my age and everything in-between, I’ve seen people of different religion, ethnicity, education and social standing — all playing peacefully together, sharing insights and tips or just chatting about their achievements and experiences. I’ve had fun discussions with total strangers. I’ve helped people advance in the game, and in turn have been helped. And Pokémon Go, though at this point with only limited multiplayer capabilities, is a game that’s meant to play with others.

A quick explanation: there is a mechanic in the games called lures. These are rare objects that can be placed into various sights, points of interest, murals – any sort of landmark recognized by the game (of which there are many) – that will spawn Pokémon (the critters the game is about) for 30 minutes. When one person places such a lure, everybody benefits: the appearing monsters can be “caught” by every player in proximity.

These lures are visible on the map, effectively not only luring Pokémon but Human players as well. Certain spots (like my previously-mentioned promenade) are almost permanently equipped with those lures, making it pivotal points of gameplay and points where a lot of players gather.

While the game technically rewards players for playing parallel to each other (though not necessarily together), the game is most fun in a group of friends. Strolling around town with your friends, catching Pokémon on the way and sharing stories with people who know and don’t know – that’s just plain fun. And with solitary players in a vast minority, describing the game as an anti-social activity won’t work.

More so, the game itself becomes background noise and the social gathering of people is the true success of the game. It’s fun because there are so many people playing it. Yes, the Pokémon Go app might be open and the smartphone readied, but permanently looking at the screen is in no way mandatory. Much rather, you’ll check the game periodically to see if anything new popped up, then resume whatever you were doing in the first place.

The Smartphone Zombie Myth™

Still, there’s this myth that Pokémon Go converts us players to the Human equivalent of a horse with blinkers. From my personal experience, I find that I’m more aware of my surroundings than before, especially when it comes to landmarks, architecture and murals.

In this first week of playing the game alone I discovered (thanks to Pokémon Go):

  • A new burger place that now ranks among my favourites in town
  • An interesting looking store for collectors items
  • Some beautiful half-timbered houses that contain a small local museum
  • A half-circle/plaza by the riverside where you can chill and meet with your friends

All of that in a one mile radius of home. When was the last time you and your friends met and said: “Let’s take a four hour stroll around our neighbourhood”?

Idiots will be idiots

Of course, there is criticism that is justified. There are various accounts of Pokémon Go players putting themselves (or others) at risk, or just breaking the law: a Bosnian Pokémon Go player stepped into a minefield, two American players fell down a cliff trying to a catch a rare Pokémon, people were mugged and stabbed after being lured to certain spots, and I wouldn’t want to imagine the numbers of traffic accidents and trespasses Pokémon Go players have caused.

By it’s funny how people blame an app when it’s just people blatantly ignoring common sense. We are being taught, from a young age:

  • Don’t go in dark alleys at night
  • Don’t venture off too far from civilisation if you don’t know the way
  • Try to stay in crowded areas in potentially dangerous neighborhoods
  • Pay attention to your surroundings

These rules still apply. Laws still apply. A video game is neither an excuse nor an explanation for unlawful (or plain stupid) behaviour. People who play Pokémon and drive are – quite simply put — idiots. So are people who run into traffic or fall from cliffs. The game is not worth putting your life (or that of others) at risk. Most players realize that. Still critics feel it’s somehow justified to lump the rest of us with a few bad apples.

But for every terrible account of Pokémon Go players misbehaving, there are innumerable accounts of situations where Pokémon Go has brought families, communities and total strangers together. And I think that’s a good thing.

The best about it: I found Pokémon Go to be an app that’s not exclusive, but inclusive. So for every person who’s quick to judge people: join the community, if just for a day. Download the app, go to a popular spot and ask one of the players to explain the game to you. And perhaps you’ll find you’re the ones missing out, not us.

(header image copyright: ©2016 Niantic, Inc. ©2016 Pokémon. ©1995–2016 Nintendo / Creatures Inc. / GAME FREAK inc.)

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