Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Fad or Fantastic? Niantic’s Pokémon GO

It’s a sunny afternoon on a quiet residential street. Two adults pass each other on the sidewalk, each buried in a smart phone. One tosses a furtive glance over her shoulder and stops walking, seemingly stepping aside to send a text message that requires all of her focus. The other does the same a few feet away, casually leaning on a fire hydrant and pretending to check some Important Business Meeting information in his google calendar. They make eye contact and exchange an embarrassed glance before chuckling nervously, finishing their business, and walking away.

Welcome to the world of otherwise respectable grown up people playing Pokémon GO, the revolutionary augmented reality gaming phenomenon developed by Niantic for iOS and Android operating systems, based on the 1990s Nintendo video game and television series. The game is simple: using your phone’s GPS capabilities, Pokémon GO superimposes a game map onto a map of your current location. Pokémon (collectable “pocket monsters”) appear as you move around in real time and can be caught, indexed, and “levelled up” to battle against other players. Different Pokémon can be caught in different locations, depending on the type of terrain. The game makes further use of GPS technology by highlighting real life landmarks in your area, transforming museums, murals, and libraries into shared gaming hubs that serve as either supply caches or battle arenas. Reality is further “augmented” by Pokémon GO’s innovative use of the smart phone camera—when you encounter a Pokémon, they appear up close and personal in front of whatever real life backdrop your phone happens to be facing.

Whether it’s your cup of tea or not, Pokémon GO is undeniably ground breaking; however, the buzz it generates in popular media isn’t always positive. Since the game’s launch in July, reports of gamers trespassing are a daily occurrence. Likewise, news of tweens wandering into traffic and drivers crashing into trees, poles, and each other are ubiquitous. Recently, a woman in Newmarket, Ontario was caught shooting at Pokémon GO players with a pellet gun. Players putting themselves into dangerous situations in hopes of acquiring a rarer reward than their peers has been an unsettling trend since the game’s launch; yesterday, for example, a group of young Pokémon hunters were rescued off the coast of Bristol where they had trapped themselves on a condemned Victorian pleasure pier in Somerset. The stories sound like clumsy accidents made by a legion of brain-dead zombies, fatally incapable of handling the technology being offered to them on a silver platter but mistakes are surprisingly easy to make, even for fully grown adults who are otherwise capable and intelligent. I taught my mother how to play. My mother, who constantly reminds me to zip my purse in public and keep my eyes off my phone when I’m walking, damn near chased a Pidgey into a parked SUV. “Oh,” she said, “I see now that that’s easy enough to do.”

To counter its reputation as an agent of natural selection, the latest update to Pokémon GO now boasts a warning screen when you launch the app, reminding players to neither trespass nor enter dangerous areas (presumably, Victorian buildings crumbling into the ocean fall into this category). Whether this reduces the level of Pokémon-related problems in the world or not remains to be seen, but in the meantime players are not deterred from “catching ‘em all,” as the kids say. The game, for all the eye-rolls it garners from holier-than-thou technophobes, is entertaining. It’s simple but requires just enough strategizing to stay interesting. More than anything, Niantic knew how to hook a devoted generation of players. While there are more Pokémon now than I can count, Pokémon GO focuses only on the original 150 (142 in the game at present; some are still MIA). Millennials, notoriously glued to their smart phones, grew up with these characters in the mid-90s. We played the games, we memorized which Pokémon evolved into what and how. Niantic’s deliberate choice to eschew the later, arguably irrelevant Pokémon appeals to us on a nostalgic level and the game’s design makes it easy to squeeze into our hectic lives, even for those of us who have actually managed to secure careers. Opening up your phone for a little clandestine Pokémon hunting on your way to work is a quick way to make boring old walking immediately interesting for a generation that feeds on multi-tasking and instant gratification. But will Pokémon GO’s delightfully casual, passive quality be its undoing?

This gamer says “probably.” The problem with massively popular, supremely accessible games like Pokémon GO is that there will always be a small subset of fanatics hell-bent on leaving everyone else in the dust. The game relies on these outliers: while Pokémon GO is free to play, it follows the precedent set by every mobile game worth its salt by offering players the option to make in-game purchases that give them a leg up on their competitors. The casual gamer finds in-game purchases abhorrent—they’re here to have fun, not to win—but only a month into the official, legal game’s release in Canada, the skill gap between the serious and casual Pokémon GO players is wide enough to make gym battles a lost cause, particular in densely-populated urban city centres. Keeping up with the Jones's takes on a new meaning as the average player struggles to keep up with what is, essentially, Pokémon GO’s “1%.” As taking over Gyms becomes an insurmountable task for the casual gamer in the implementing new game features will be what keeps Pokémon GO relevant in the make-or-break months to come.

Danny McMurray has a B.A. in English Language and Literature with a minor in Anthropology from the University of Western Ontario. She is particularly enthusiastic about science fiction, horror movies, feminism, video games, books, opera, and good espresso – all of which she can find in spades in her home base of Toronto, Ontario.

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