My brother has been a bit of a Pokemon fan since the franchise came out two decades ago. Growing up in Florida, he had the trading cards and some of the videogames, and watched the cartoon on TV. He used to know all the Pokemon characters from the “first generation” by name (there are now seven generations, and hundreds of characters). Presently, as an enduring videogame enthusiast and recent computer science graduate, he finds himself hunting for the creatures around Orlando.
But you definitely don’t need to be a videogame geek, or even have grown up with Pokemon, to be sucked in.
I had several belly laughs as he told me anecdotes about the app that allows him to play Ash – Pokemon GO. He has run into people around Orlando parks excitedly chasing something apparently invisible, but actually it’s Pokemon they see inside and via their smartphones. The innovation is that they can go to physical locations to find the characters, like a scavenger hunt, through “augmented reality.” My brother and his girlfriend bonded with a stranger in the middle of the night who was yelling from his car, “Are you looking for Pikachu, too?” He kindly shone his headlight on where Pikachu was, just to help them out.
The app was first released on July 6th, 2016, and in less than a week, had already become a huge phenomenon in the U.S. and Oceania: It had surpassed Tinder in the number of downloads (over 15 million as of July 13th) and added $11 billion to Nintendo’s market share. It’s available for both iPhone and Android.
It’s now downloadable in Germany and elsewhere in Europe, as well. It’s already pissing off people at the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, as users “joyously” hunt for Pokemon on the solemn site.
“Gotta catch them all:” More than Pokemon’s slogan
For those of you disconnected, Pokemon are virtual creatures that have cute little furry versions and bigger “evolved” versions with enhanced powers. The human characters in the videogames and cartoons go around trying to catch them with special balls so they can be tamed, trained and do battle. With the app, people in real life can feel like they’re doing the same. It’s become collective madness.
Business-savvy folks have already caught on to the addiction as a new way to make money. Dozens in the U.S. are offering via Craigslist to drive people to their Pokemon catching points (or “Pokéstops”) for a price, possibly launching a new profession. Universities are filled with such stops. Restaurants are throwing Poképarties, paying the app to prolong the Pokéstops at their establishments, so that people will stay longer and spend more, or requiring customers to buy something to be able to hunt there.
Tech titans have been behind the app’s development. Their combined clout and knowledge has no doubt contributed to its pandemic-like intercontinental spread (with impatient demands for its advance to Asia) and physical ground covered: “The idea for the game was conceived in 2014 by Satoru Iwata of Nintendo and Tsunekazu Ishihara of The Pokémon Company as an April Fools’ Day collaboration with Google, called Pokémon Challenge. From that, Tatsuo Nomura of Google Maps became a senior project manager at Niantic, and was the center of the project. Niantic used data from its previous 2012 augmented reality game, Ingress, to populate the locations for Pokéstops and gyms within Pokémon Go.”
People have quickly become addicted to Pokemon GO perhaps because of its augmented reality component. A Business Insider article cites a scientific study that says “[augmented reality] does not separate the user from his reality but instead uses it and realistically transforms it. This effect can cause a high degree of surprise and curiosity in users.” The article adds that “some children who use the technology even think it’s actually magic. It may actually be more alluring than the virtual reality of Oculus and the like you’ve heard so much about in the past year. Nintendo and the team behind Pokémon just found the perfect way to make the form addictive.”
How much responsibility should we, as a society, expect from the tech giants, since they have the power to steer what we see and use, and even what we like and think we need? How much responsibility rests on Pokemon GO’s users?
Whether or not this app sticks, we need to stop and ask ourselves these questions. We also need to evaluate our sense of responsibility towards each other as human beings. After all, other similar apps are likely to come along. No matter the misadventures, demand for them is likely to continue, now that their kind has been invented. The public debate has certainly started. Meanwhile, the intense media buzz surrounding Pokemon GO helps elevate it to mythical status.
The app is beginning to infringe on real relationships. One guy in New York was so enthusiastic about finding Pokemon that he even hunted them while cheating on his girlfriend, at his ex’s house. His girlfriend caught him via the app’s GPS tracking function.
Other anecdotes concern dangerous or scary situations in which distracted U.S. users have found themselves while playing: falling off a cliff, getting stabbed and mugged, stumbling over a dead body, driving. The latter led the state of Washington to issue a traffic advisory. Other U.S. law enforcement agencies have issued warnings related to Pokemon GO activities.
Talking to my brother, I compared people absentmindedly playing this game to Lemmings, but my brother didn’t agree: He thinks people are getting out of the house and walking around when they normally wouldn’t. This could be a tool to fight the obesity epidemic. Plus, the Pokéstops help local businesses increase their revenue.