The Latest (Annoying) Obsession: Pokemon Go

pokemon go logoThere’s a lot about technology that I love, not the least of which is that it lets me earn a living without having to be chained to a cubicle for work or tethered to my couch to watch a favorite movie or TV show. Heck, I’m a gamer too, though my tastes have always run more to board games and interactive social gaming than the typically solo occupation of video or computer gaming.

Of course, if I’d have grown up with a Playstation-4 or an Xbox 360, who knows, perhaps I would have become one of those trapped-in-the-basement adolescent boys who kept trying to convince my parents that “Bill from Latvia” and “Hu from Hong Kong” were my buddies and that I wasn’t actually friendless. Instead, I had real life friends and our weekend adventures involved seeing movies in Hollywood, biking the canyons near us and even hitting Zuma beach, hoping to find some new (female) friends.

So I can’t really judge my kids when I see them getting completely pulled into the brilliant new Nintendo game Pokemon Go. It really is a completely new concept in gaming, an augmented reality game where players search a massive map of the world for Pokemon to capture, rewards to acquire and “gyms” to train their Pokemon and duel with others to level up and gain additional points. The cute little Pokemon show up anywhere – even “in” my car, as becomes obvious in these two iPhone screen shots:

pokemon go augmented reality demo example

Same Pokemon in both cases, the Nidoran, though in the left pic it has a combat power (CP) of 93 and the right is a CP of 206, making it far more powerful than the first one. In a game where Pokemon fight, more powerful is always better. Fortunately you can also use the gyms to train your Pokemon to make them more powerful and, eventually, to evolve into even more powerful Pokemon.

Then there’s the entire fact that the game takes place within an overlay of a street-level world map. It’s a bit hard to explain if you haven’t seen the game yet, but the screens look like this:

pokemon go street view

You can see the silhouettes of the buildings, the streets, and you can also see all the points of interest in the gaming universe too, including a yellow gym about a block away on the left side. You move, your avatar moves. You get close enough to a location of interest and suddenly you can engage in whatever activity is relevant, from getting rewards for the “pokestop” to capturing a Pokemon to visiting a gym.

And here’s what else is cool: in addition to capturing wild Pokemon, you can also find eggs at pokestops and then hatch them! You put them into a virtual incubator then walk a specified distance (the game uses the phone’s accelerometers like a pedometer so biking or driving isn’t an acceptable substitute). Imagine, a game that gets people off the couch and walking around their neighborhoods. I’ve even heard of kids volunteering to walk the dog so they can hatch eggs in the game.

All that’s great. It’s a brilliant game, a really fun idea that helps add a social and physical activity element to a gaming universe that has historically been much more defined by kids slumped on the couch or laying on their beds, twitching their thumbs for hours on end. Nintendo deservedly has a big hit on its hands and it’s invigorating a company that’s languished for the last few years as competitors (Sony, Microsoft) have stolen its video game lunch.

But. But…

Then there’s the actual reality of how this all works. There’s the fact that there might be people out walking, but they’re not walking, eyes up, engaging with others, they’re shambling along like zombies, eyes glued to their phone screen. Or they’re all clustered in a public locale like a plaza, park or monument, all staring at their phones, not interacting. Like this scene from a park in Toronto, Canada:

people playing pokemon go, toronto canada (photo credit @cassadeltesoro on Instagram)
People playing Pokemon Go at a park, Toronto, Canada
(photo credit @cassadeltesoro)

I’ve seen this time and again in the last week too, as my children and I spent some time in Kalispell and Whitefish, Montana, two small towns where you wouldn’t think there’d be much gaming going on, but it was astonishing just how many people were standing around and walking up and down the streets, glued to their mobile devices.

Part of me feels a bit curmudgeonly writing this post, because my children are enjoying this game a lot and so are a whole lot of other people. I even support my girls playing it to the point where we’re driving circuitous routes from place to place to maximize their chance of capturing good Pokemon in the game. But another part of me yearns for an era when children’s attention was on the world around them, not the device in their hand.

And so, at the end of the day, perhaps it’s just a reminder for me to actually parent. To set time limits and constraints, to offer additional time as a reward for accomplishing chores, etc. And to encourage them to actually walk to hatch their Pokemon eggs, not try to figure out ways to circumvent that through driving slowly, etc.

What about you, though? What’s your take on the whole Pokemon Go phenomenon?

2 comments on “The Latest (Annoying) Obsession: Pokemon Go

  1. I’ve been having a ball playing the game when I’m out and about. Yesterday I took my stepson to the farmers’ market which is close to the town square and a lot of Pokestops and a gym. He and my own son, both 10, are growing up playing with Pokecards and wathching the show on Netflix.
    I have played not caring about the lore, just for the yay, I’m winning points.
    Yesterday my stepson, who can’t play on his own yet had a blast filling me in on all of the details about special powers and reason this catch is better than that. It was a lot of fun and he’s looking forward to our next excursion.
    The people who are engaged in the game may have their heads down, but most will say hello or share a conspiratorial grin. It’s kind of fun doing that while getting the weekly groceries and happening to find a pidgey in the produce section. I’ve chit chatted with people far more than I normally would when out and about over the last couple weeks.
    I’m sure there will be people who do dumb things and it’ll get publicity, but Darwin’s Law has been in effect a lot longer than smartphones.

  2. I think the entire thing is silliness.

    Yes, it gets kids outside, but being outside isn’t the thing, is it? When I was outside I was riding my bike, making a fort with the neighborhood kids and playing with the horses behind my back fence.

    I definitely wasn’t staring at a small screen the entire time.

    I’m eager for this craze to pass because while I don’t think it’s bad, it’s just not really the best thing kids could be doing with their time. Our goal should be to get kids away from their screens as much as possible.

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