By JJ Ulm
It’s a cooling summer Saturday night in the increasingly hip (read: gentrifying) Grandview neighborhood of Columbus, OH. Walking down the main strip, I pass the usual overdressed couples out for an expensive date-night dinner at The Avenue or Matt the Miller’s. But tonight they’re joined by a new crowd. A quintet of stoners huddles in front of the darkened post office, faces lit by their phones. Others walk alone or in pairs or more, clad in jeans and tees, phones out, stopping occasionally to flick at something on their screens.
In a world layered over our own, the stoners have taken over the street’s Pokémon gym. The others stop to try to overthrow them, or to catch an Eevee that’s suddenly appeared in the middle of the sidewalk, visible only on their screens. Or they continue on to one of the street’s many PokeStops to stock up on Pokeballs and potions.
Pokémon GO is here.
The latest iteration of Pokémon is a phone-based Augmented Reality Game, or ARG, and it’s given up all pretense of being for children. Your avatar, once all of maybe 10 years old, is now no younger than their late teens. It sends you out into the world without a whole lot of regard for how safe it is, and then it encourages you to gather at specific, publicly-available locations. Within just a couple days of the game’s release, at least one group of criminals set up shop by a PokeStop and mugged people as they were picking up their Pokeballs. There’s even a gym behind security clearance at the Pentagon.
It’s also difficult to play for reasons that have nothing to do with the actual gameplay. The servers have been overloaded, and some of the features are still a bit buggy. My stock-Android Nexus 5X is hardly a relic, but the AR Pokémon catching—the feature that’s spawned so many social media pictures of Pokémon where Pokémon ought not be—is stuttery and occasionally locks up on it. Though it’s light on mobile data usage, it has to run in the foreground with the screen on, which devours phone batteries. And by its very nature, the lower the population density near your home, the less there is for you to do.
And if you can get connected, and if your phone hasn’t died in the attempt, and if you live in a place with enough people to actually have gyms and PokeStops, you then have to figure out how to play the game, because it explains nothing. How do you hatch an egg? What is “CP”? What is that contracting circle around Pokémon when you’re trying to catch them? How do you turn off the AR when it keeps freezing the game? You’d better pull up Google because the game isn’t going to tell you.
Strangely, though, it’s still fun. The wiggle…wiggle…wiggle…click! of a Pokeball is a nice little dopamine hit. It gets you to exercise more, which most of us keep meaning to do anyway. And sometimes you actually end up talking to those other people walking around with their phones. Madness, I know!
So it might be worth giving the servers a week or so to calm down and carrying some pepper spray, but Pokémon GO is a fun little diversion. Though much like the card game, the real winners will always be the teenage boys with too much disposable income and time on their hands.