By Steve Guntli
You see them everywhere: so-called “Pokémon Trainers,” wandering around the country, noses buried in their smartphones, desperately trying to catch that one elusive Pikachu or Charmander. Since the release of the Pokémon Go app this summer, the game has transformed the way people interact with each other and their surroundings, and has inspired a generation of nerds to get outside for hours each day.
Not being a nerd (suspicious cough), I didn’t know much about this game, but Pokémon Go has captured the zeitgeist in a rare way, and if there’s one phrase that describes me, it’s cutting edge, so I decided to jump on this bandwagon … purely for journalistic pursuits, of course.
For those who’ve been under a rock for the last few months (possibly looking for a bug- or rock-type Pokémon), Pokémon Go is a new smartphone game from Niantic and the Pokémon Company. It’s something of a nerdy spin on geocaching: using your phone’s GPS and camera, you wander around the real world looking for the titular pocket monsters from the mid-’90s video game sensation. You catch creatures by flicking little red and white Pokeballs at your target, build up your library of creatures, collect items at outposts (called “Pokestops”) and battle other players at “gyms” scattered around the world.
The game has quickly proven to be a sensation. In just 12 hours, it reached the top slot in the iPhone store and in the first few weeks, it was the most-used app in the world, topping Instagram, Facebook and Twitter by wide margins. Nintendo’s stock rose 25 percent in five days, despite the fact that Nintendo, which has produced Pokémon games in the past, had nothing to do with this title.
It’s inspired feverish fandom and vocal derision. Police have had to warn people against playing and driving, following a number of accidents; some enterprising young criminals were caught luring players to Pokestops only to rob them at gunpoint; a young man was caught by police in Blaine wandering around wearing nothing below the waist; a young girl in Wyoming stumbled across a dead body while out playing the game; and one man (and this is my favorite) found himself in serious trouble with his girlfriend after she discovered that he’d caught a rare Pokémon … in his ex-girlfriend’s bedroom.
Personally, I’d never heard of this “Pokémon” (cough), so the novelty of the game was largely lost on me, cool, metropolitan chronicler of the world that I am. But the idea of using a game as an excuse to get out into the world and exercise more appealed to me, and I thought it might help me lose those last few pounds I’ve been fighting since … well, birth. So I downloaded the game and set out on my journey to be a Pokémon Master.
The first thing I noticed about the game was that it barely worked. For the first week or so, the servers were so overloaded with users that actually getting the game to load was miraculous. Even if you got the game to work, the chances of it crashing in the middle of a battle were likelier than not. It was frustrating to get it going, but by the time of this writing most of the kinks seem to have been worked out.
The second thing I noticed is that the game came with an instant, built-in community. Case in point: I was walking home from a bar one night shortly after the release of the game, and I stopped along the sidewalk to catch a creature, a stocky anteater-looking fellow called “Drowzee.” I threw a couple of balls and finally snagged my quarry; shortly after, I heard a voice calling to me from across the street.
“What’d you get?” It was a girl, around college age. I’d never seen her before.
“Drowzee,” I replied.
She smiled and cheered congratulations to me. I was fairly stunned. The game had been out for less than two days, and already players could identify their ilk by sight on the street. In the weeks since I’ve started playing, this has happened time and again. Once, while walking my new puppy in the park, I was stopped by a couple of teenagers who couldn’t give less of a damn about my adorable puppy, but were really curious to see if I caught that rare Dratini that had popped up in the park.
Parks, by the way, have become overrun with trainers. If you find yourself walking through a public park and see a person looking at their phone, they are most assuredly trying to “catch them all.” Recently while in Zuanich Park in Bellingham, I saw that every person in the park was perched around a Pokestop, and that is not an exaggeration: it was every person.
Beyond the social aspect, the more I played, the more I found I wanted to be out and about, exploring new corners of the world and logging steps. My favorite feature of the game so far is the egg-hatching system. Using an incubator, players can attempt to hatch eggs, possibly containing rare Pokémon, by fulfilling a certain step count, usually between 2-10 kilometers. I find myself going on runs lately just to hatch eggs, and I’m not the only one using the egg system to get some fresh air.
On July 23, I participated in a “Hatch-a-thon” in downtown Bellingham. The event was a 5k walkathon, mapped out to hit a high number of Pokestops and designed to give players the perfect route on which to hatch eggs. Proceeds from the event went to the Brigid Collins Family Support Center, a charity dedicated to preventing and protecting the victims of child abuse. More than 350 people showed up, and raised nearly $3,000 for the charity. That’s pretty fantastic for a silly little video game.
As I’m writing this, I’m sitting in a coffee shop about 3 miles from my house. I walked here, and hatched a couple of eggs along the way. A month ago, I would have driven, or, more likely, stayed at home, partially because I wouldn’t have had any need to write this article, but mostly because of laziness.
Pokémon Go, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, has inspired me to exercise more, to engage more with strangers and my surroundings. I’ve met some really cool people, even made a few friends. I’ve caught more than 60 unique Pokémon (out of a possible 151) and I’ve even lost a few pounds in the process.
Pokémon Go is more than just a goofy app that’s turning the youth of the nation into a bunch of mindless phone zombies. It’s a certified cultural force that has the potential to do a lot of good. Take it from me, a genuine cool guy (cough, cough).
Steve Guntli is a writer and editor based in Bellingham. He and his wife have a dog, a cat, and not a moment’s peace.