The latest “unless you’ve been living under a rock” craze of 2016 is a simple augmented reality game starring one of Nintendo’s most lucrative ensembles, Pokémon. Once it hit in selected markets, the rest of the world clamored to get it through any means necessary before it saw proper release in their market. It’s been the highlight of countless kids’ summer breaks, and pushed as many adults outside into the hottest temperatures of July.
Is the game any good? Not really. It’s actually bad in many aspects.
But that’s not what’s important here.
Fueled By Nostalgia
Growing up in the nineties I remember the way Pokémon swept through my elementary schools. I saw the little batches of animal-shaped pixels and colorful trading cards supplant the death-grip POGs had upon our school yard. Frankly, watching unexpected coworkers and acquaintances hunt the same creatures in the middle of my daily routine is very similar.
Back then, I asked for the Game Boy games as gifts; whether my parents had heard what a deep rabbit hole of cash it was, or we couldn’t afford them that year, or what, I never did end up joining in on the fad. I claimed I was too old for such a childish property to hide my outsider angst and peeked over the shoulders of friends and cousins when they battled gyms or sought Mewtwo in his lair. Later I caught up with the franchise on the DS and have since amassed a “living dex” in the current generation of games. So I approached this game with some interest: being Canadian I had to wait a week for the opportunity to play it legit, and I wanted to see what the hubbub was about.
After a week of playing it somewhat casually, I’m still not sure what it’s about. The game caters to the nostalgia of my specific generation while exploiting our dependence on our smartphones, or simply offers children something neat to do with a new technological experience. Once you’re hooked the compulsion to reach higher levels will push you to wander your neighborhood, catch stronger monsters, and challenge gyms.
Look past the gimmick and the mobile game hysteria, however, and you begin to see the game’s massive flaws. Players are forced to capture hordes of useless, weak, and undesirable monsters like Ratatas, Pidgeys, and Weedles just for the chance to capture slightly stronger clones of the same species, and maybe a rarer breed in the process. The actual battles are best played as frantic screen-tappers with the barest minimum of strategy. Team development is a joke, a tedious experience that shames many old school RPGs – catch monsters for candy, “transfer” monsters for candy, repeat.
And yet, despite this shallow gameplay, the world is hooked.
The Medium is the Message
It’s not the game itself that’s important; it’s the experience. Pokémon Go may shamelessly appeal to your inner child to lure you in, but it also fulfills the greatest daydream of those halcyon days – finding those monsters in your everyday life. You could find your beloved Charmander on your own front step, or Ponyta in your backyard, or the Magikarp you eventually evolve into Gyarados at your favourite real-world fishing spot. For many, it’s a childhood wish brought to life.
Debatedly, the most important feature is its teams. The war between the three coloured factions does so much to add incentive and replay value. When players aren’t playing, they’re debating which team is better and strategizing with teammates to take down local gyms.
The most tremendous thing it has accomplished is getting kids out and about. Older generations like to complain about how kids are glued to their smartphones and televisions, rarely leaving the house or engaging in the old pasttimes; now kids are glued to their smartphones outside, exploring their neighborhoods. I have seen such a dramatic spike in the number of kids outside enjoying the summer over the last week, like roaming packs of scooter-bound Pokémon hunters. Coworkers have marveled at the family time they’ve spent, walking 5-10km in a single night with kids who, a week prior, complained of boredom while refusing to do anything fun.
It’s the ultimate compromise between the old ways and the new, like a grand scavenger hunt, a turf war, and an MMORPG rolled into one package, played in the real world. Players are exploring the real world with a technological tool as a lens, and in the process enhancing their engagement with both worlds. The game itself may be a piece of trash in its current state, but it’s also so much more than the sum of its code; as an overall experience, it’s the most influential game in decades.