The year was 1998. In the living rooms of houses around the Western world, children gathered in front of their television screens to watch the first adventures of Ash Ketchum and his Pokémon partner Pikachu as they embarked on their quest to scour the world for Pokémon, fight at gyms and train to one day earn the title of Pokémon Master. Granted, the video games of Pokémon Red and Blue appeared in 1997, and before that in 1996 were the original Pocket Monsters Red and Green in Japan. Yet for many impressionable young children, the original exposure to the idea that a ten year old child could one day master the wonderful world of Pokémon began with the adventures of Ash Ketchum.
Fast forward to 2016, with the apotheosis of this vision in Pokémon GO. It is truly difficult to describe exactly what the game is to people that, for the most part, have only seen Pokémon as a peripheral children’s phenomenon.
“So what’s this Pokémon GO thing that everyone is playing?” people ask.
“Well,” I reply, “What you do is you take your phone and you go outside and you catch Pokémon.”
“Okay, cool,” they say, raising an eyebrow. “And how does that work exactly?”
“So how it works is that the game is based on GPS location,” I pass them the phone and gesture with my finger. “And you walk around the real world, Pokémon appear on your screen, you flick this little ball here and you catch and collect them.”
“Neat!” they exclaim. “But what’s the point of the game?”
That moment is when they look away from the screen to a child-like expression of glee that they will never hope to understand, eyes widening into dinner plates with a smile that could melt the coldest heart.
“To be the very best,” I coo. “Like no one ever was.”
In all seriousness, it is almost unfathomable how huge Pokémon GO has become for an app that is, contentiously speaking, a carbon copy of Niantic’s previous game, Ingress. Pokémon GO has ridden on the coattails of the work of the former and only become popular due to the addition of the adorable little beasties. Don’t get me wrong: the game is fun enough, and I am riding the Pokémon GO train until I can finally own my own tiny digital Aggron. What has been itching at the back of my mind ever since I started playing, however, is exactly how influential the game is, or if the game is even fun to play. For starters: is Pokémon GO fun because of the gameplay – the act of exploration, catching Pokémon and taking gyms in far off places – or is it something bigger than the game itself?
To talk about that, we need to take a moment to face a reality of the game: it is not quite finished. That is not to say the game isn’t complete or anything: Niantic has said numerous times that they have only implemented a handful of their expected features, claiming they will support the app for years to come. What I mean when I say “not quite finished” is “slightly broken”. One can argue that the sheer volume of people playing the game is a problem for any server that tries to house over 26 million simultaneous users. What is not as excusable are the cavalcade of bugs that have emerged: the three-steps glitch, the infamous frozen Pokéball fiasco, gym Pokémon remaining on one health for eternity while they beat you to death from half health with their last dying breath. These bugs are being addressed, according to Niantic, but they are massive turn offs for a lot of fans of the game.
Yet for many other players, these bugs are either not noticeable enough to cause concern, or they are, but players simply slog through them. Why? Because the game is spectacularly easy to entry-level players to wrap their heads around, while still having the depth that many hardcore Pokéfans will appreciate about the series. The 26 million figure mentioned above undoubtedly includes people that have never had any exposure with Pokémon before playing the game, and yet these people found the game compelling enough to continue playing.
Pokémon GO makes this possible by harnessing a technique called “gamification”: the process of taking mundane, everyday activities and applying game theory and incentive to them in order to make them fun again. Take the difference between Pokémon GO and a fitbit: while a fitbit encourages you to exercise for the sake of exercising, Pokémon GO incentivises your real world actions with in-game rewards. Eggs will hatch over certain distances and different Pokémon will spawn in far-flung locations, with some even being region-locked so that, outside of egg hatching, they will only appear in the wild in certain countries. Pokémon GO also steals some more ingenuity from its predecessor Ingress by capping the speed at which your device can travel for in-game travel distances to progress. While Ingress is a tad stricter in its methods, actively locking away features the faster you travel, Pokémon GO is best experienced on foot, making walking and jogging interesting again, while maintaining the health benefits of the practices.
Maybe, by this very token, it is fun because of the sheer mass of people willing to partake in the experience. After all, the metagame aspect of the team system, the capturing and contesting of gyms and the little water cooler moments of who caught what have almost superseded the game itself. 26 million people all playing the game means that it is impossible not to find people playing the game in the same space as you, and that is a conversation starter in and of itself. But there is something more to it than simply getting on the bandwagon. Playing any game that is a massively multiplayer experience encourages the player to enter a sort of unwritten contract, in that the world of the game and the world outside of the game are two different spaces that can intersect. This intersection of real world and digital spheres is what keeps the illusion going: something that is enhanced by Pokémon GO‘s Augmented Reality features, which overlays the act of Pokémon hunting onto images of the real world in real time.
Niantic has plans to enhance and facilitate these out-of-game social interactions with the inclusion of legendary Pokémon, if their previous work with Ingress and their amazing trailer showing Mewtwo battling hundreds of trainers at Times Square is anything to go by. It is amazing to see that this is what Niantic had planned from the start. It almost seems deliberate that the in-game lore is limited, and the aim of the game nebulous, because it allows players to write their own lore. The interaction and history between Instinct, Valor and Mystic are being written by their team members, people are coming together to hold gyms as a group, alliances are being formed to topple powerful gyms for mutual benefit. Hell, there are people that have even chosen to not join a team at all, and those participating in the game have christened it with their own name and mascot, being Team Harmony and Lugia, respectively.
All of this is facilitated by utilizing the technology that we have available to a technical and social landmark that is being made possible by the proliferation of smartphones. Games like The Jackbox Party Pack, Candy Crush Saga, and websites like AirConsole are utilizing smartphones as devices that bring people together for party games that everyone can easily participate in, for engagement over short periods of travel or waiting, and as an extension of another device or console respectively. While Jackbox has been partially successful at unifying people through games using a universally accepted device, there has not quite been the level of acceptance for a massively multiplayer smartphone experience until now.
Of course, as these technological experiences travel publicly into uncharted waters there will always be people coming out of the woodwork claiming that technology is bad, fire is scary and that Thomas Edison was a witch, hur dur. With every positive story that details people buying pizza for cold players of Pokémon GO late at night to the blossoming of relationships through meeting while hunting for Pokémon, there are stories of players finding dead bodies, injuring themselves by not paying attention, or abandoning reason while chasing that single rare Pokémon. Blaming Pokémon GO for people experiencing bad things while exploring the world is the same as blaming Go Pros for people injuring themselves doing crazy stunts. Technology does not cause people to do stupid things: people do stupid things all by themselves, and the technology facilitates it. By discussing exactly what these experiences are and how they work, they can provide insight into how people use these technologies, and these discussions can facilitate greater progress in the future.
Pokémon GO is a fascinating and many faceted point of discussion, but one of its biggest strengths is bringing these discussions to the forefront of our thinking. The fact that it has single-handedly reinvigorated the boom that Pokémon enjoyed at the turn of the millennium is one thing, but to repeat the successes it had with handheld RPGs with smartphones is another entirely. It stands as testament to the strength of Pokémon as a franchise, and will almost certainly lead to bigger and better things for smartphone gaming, and MMO games in a similar vein, well into the future.