In case you’ve been living under a rock or inside some damp, dark cave for the past couple of weeks, Pokémon Go is the latest worldwide phenomenon – and surprisingly, it’s a positive (and nerdy) development. The free “augmented reality” app recently surpassed Twitter, Snapchat and Tinder for number of active mobile users. When people would rather play a game than overshare their personal lives or get laid, you know you’ve got something special.
Working with the GPS in your smartphone, Pokémon Go allows players to interact with and catch “Pokémon,” colorful pocket monsters with charming names like “Squirtle” and “Charmander.” The video game originally hailed from Japan and was big in the ’90s on Gameboy (the O.G. smartphone). There was also a popular TV series. But the new app kicks things into high gear, cleverly integrating Pokémon into the real world via your phone’s camera. You might open the game and see a Pokémon sitting boldly atop your kitchen table or chilling across the street in front of your favorite pizza joint. Then you launch a Poké Ball at it (a red and white circular prison), hopefully snatching the creature’s freedom away forever. Unlike Tamogatchi – a handheld digital pet also hailing from Japan and a huge toy fad in the ’90s – you needn’t nurture your Pokémon or make sure it sleeps and poops regularly. The game doesn’t teach kids to become responsible parents or dog owners. You can “train” Pokémon to be better warriors, but it’s a hardly an involved process.
There are some inappropriate spots where you shouldn’t try to ‘catch ‘em all.’ The Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Poland (the Holocaust memorial) has had problems with players coming to catch Pokémon on the property, apparently oblivious to the space’s sacred commemoration of the deaths and suffering of millions. The Westboro Baptist Church saw controversy when it was listed as a “gym” in the app (a place where Pokémon Trainers go to train their clan) and one user quickly “claimed” it using a creature named Clefairy with the nickname “LoveIsLove.” Famous for its opposition of LGBT rights, the church wasn’t amused. The game has threatened both lives and relationships: Last week a driver in Auburn, New York, crashed his car whilst distracted by the app, and when the game first launched in the U.S., an employee of the New York Daily News named Kate Feldman (@kateefeldman) tweeted: “A guy just told his girlfriend to hold the train while he caught a Pokémon and she got on and left without him.” This was retweeted almost 10,000 times, as Twitter users reveled in the drama.
Businesses on boardDurango is an active participant in the spectacle so far. Last week, Cream Bean Berry offered gift certificates to whomever took the best screenshot of a Pokémon on their favorite piece of public art. La Plata County Humane Society encouraged people to stop by and walk dogs while trying to secure rare Pokémon or hatch an egg (a task that requires a lot of walking). One of the best aspects of the game – which has people more yoked to their cell phones than ever – is that players have to travel to track down beasts, forced to physically encounter historical landmarks or local parks. Specific Pokémon correspond to where you are geographically; there aren’t many water Pokémon in Durango (unless you’re by the river), but there are plenty of rock and fire types, as we’re in a dry and mountainous region.
The Steaming Bean has used the craze to their advantage, incentivizing customers with a sign boasting free Wi-Fi and an ideal playing position. The intersection where you’ll find the Bean and Irish Embassy has three PokéStops practically on top of each other. “I don’t know what to call it yet, but I’m trying to think of a cool name like “the Bermuda Poké Triangle” or something,” said Stuart Johnston, Steaming Bean employee. “If I stand right here I can hit all three. People normally put lures on them and that attracts Pokémon to the stop. I’ve been at this intersection at 2:30 in the morning and there’s 40 people here. You leave your house to go hunting, like, ‘I don’t have anything else to do right now …’” Though neither Johnston nor Bean manager Erica Fendley has noticed a spike in business, it’s smart to connect with customers this way. Just keep in mind that barging into a business to catch Pokémon with no intention of purchasing anything is frowned upon.
Positive social effects Plenty of players have praised the game’s impact on their exercise regimen and mental health. “It’s gotten everybody outside,” said Tyler Frakes, a 33-year-old Durango resident and avid player. “You can’t play unless you walk. My poor dog. She’s like, ‘Really? We’re going to go again?’ And my Fitbit is like, ‘Really? You hit all your goals? Did I get stolen?’ It came out July 6th and the previous week, I had only done 2.26 miles on a random day. And then yesterday [the 13th], I walked seven. I had to climb Smelter and see if there were any cool Pokémon up there.”
Jessica Dufur, 26, hails from Aztec but was found wandering around Santa Rita Park (the Rio Grande Southern steam locomotive is a PokéStop). “Normally I might go to the park and walk around, but it’s just one park,” said Dufur. “Today I was like, ‘Let’s go to Durango and just go everywhere.’ We’ve been in Durango since 8 this morning. We literally came to walk around and play Pokémon. And tomorrow we’ll be running around Aztec catching them.” The game is also bringing generations together; parents chauffeur their kids around to find Pokémon in different locales, and adults are reconnecting with their former childhood glory days. “I could see my mom playing it, and she’s 66,” said Dufur. “I would have to show her … she wouldn’t even be able to work my phone! But she would play.”
Some responses are almost suspiciously zealous. “I’ve heard people say it has given their life meaning,” said Johnston. “Like they’re so unproductive with their life, and then all of a sudden they have this game they want to go out and play.” In fact, enough Durangoans have been patrolling the streets in the wee hours to attract Durango police attention. “The cops are having fun with it, too,” said Johnston. “I was out two nights ago and I think I was right next to the fire station at 4 in the morning, trying to come home. I got pulled over by a marshal who was like, ‘What are you doing out this late?’ And I’m like, ‘I’m just Pokémon hunting,’ you know.’ Two more squad cars pulled up. They were cracking up. Granted, they were having me talk about it so they could see if I was sober or not.”
The downsidesBe warned: Thanks to GPS, this app can tell where you go, how long you stayed there and which other players were around. “When you log in, there are two options: you can log in with the Pokémon trainer’s club or Google,” said Frakes. “And now they’re not giving out any new trainer club logins, so you have to use Google – and it gives complete access.” Niantic, which developed the game for Nintendo’s Pokémon brand, claims that Pokémon Go “only accesses basic Google profile information (specifically, your User ID and email address) and no other Google account information is or has been accessed or collected.” But you’re still not totally safe. Robbers have already used the game to lure players into a trap.
Two 15-year-old boys who have been playing nonstop since the game’s release (one wearing a yellow Pikachu shirt) assured me the game is crafting solidarity between kids and grown-ups, all frolicking together in search of monsters. It’s a nice vision of community, and a common interest helps foster friendships – but the primary interest here is in an app, not other human beings. The game doesn’t educate players on real world matters or inspire complex thought. “It’s super disrespectful,” said Johnston, who admits many customers order coffee from him without glancing up from their phones at all. The game also tricks participants into spending money. “You could wait and not spend money, but it would take a lot longer to advance,” said Johnson. “You won’t level up as fast.” The impatient and competitive will shell it out.
Complaints aside, Pokémon Go has seen admirable success with lugging cyberspace-addled people off their home computers and thrusting them into the sunlight. It’s still up for debate as to whether masses walking around glued to their phones is a categorical improvement. One hopes people look up occasionally to notice the world’s wonders – but if you look up, you might miss the chance to catch a Mewtwo. And that would suck.