Are you a person who uses the Internet on your phone? Let me rephrase this: are you basically everyone? Then you’ve probably seen news of Pokémon Go on all of your social feeds this past weekend.
What the hell? You might be asking yourself. Why? After all, the original Pokémon surfaced more than two decades ago as a Nintendo game and, after that, as popular collecting cards that my little brother used to catch as many Pokémon as possible—charming but, ultimately, not that interesting, especially not when compared to the technology landscape of today, that of VR games and the Internet in general. So why, suddenly, is everyone losing their shit over Pokémon Go?
To get to the bottom of this, first, a Pokémon Go primer: A company called Niantic Labs took the original Pokémon concept—catching various Pokémon characters in a role playing capacity—and applied it to the mobile world by using geo-location technology. (That same company previously developed a game called Ingress that used the same technology to reward its players for leaving their couches and walking around on real streets). Ergo, this same incentive—getting out of the house—is also the magical juice behind Pokémon Go.
Pokémon Go belongs to the varietal of games known as augmented reality (AR) wherein Pokémon characters “augment” your, yes, reality, which is of course your phone screen. (Incidentally, two years ago, Google portended this concept with their April Fool’s joke saying that they created an AR game that uses Google Maps). In today’s real world version, that is exactly what happens: Pokémon Go technology makes Pokémon characters appear on your phone screen, super-imposed onto the actual streets you’re walking on, or the building you reside in, or even on real people standing right in front of you. Once you’ve hunted them down, scavenger hunt style, you collect them—just as the original game intended—and you can also use them to conduct battles against other Pokémon masters (other people good at collecting Pokémon Go characters on their phones). These battles happen in gyms, where Pokémon Go masters reign and you can use your collected Pokémon to take the reigning gym master down.
But without getting too nerdy about rules and game minutia (perhaps too late), what’s the bigger picture: Why is it that, suddenly, a Facebook invite for a Pokémon Go bar crawl, beginning at Spriztenhaus and organized to “meet local players, drink tons of booze, CAPTURE SOME NEW POKEMON,” located conveniently next to a “Pokémon Gym,” already has more than 500 people “interested” in it, and close to 100 people signed up to go? And how is it that a Central Park Pokémon “team battle” event on July 17 already has more than 10,000 people “interested” in it and 2,700 signed up to go? And how are Pokémon Go users “about to surpass Twitter in daily active users on Android” for heaven’s sake? Why, dear lord, why?!?!?!
Primarily, because of this: people love games and fantasy, but more than that, people love when those things—heightened, more alluring versions of reality—are experienced in a manner that mimics real life as closely as possible. Who doesn’t want to actually exist inside of their favorite game? Who doesn’t want that far more interesting and idyllic version of reality to become real life? We may not be able to get inside of our phones and make that happen, but Pokémon Go reverses this process: It brings fantasy to the realm of reality, making both more alluring than they are on their own.
Plus, there’s this: Pokémon Go is just really entertaining. You can, for example, take a screen shot of a Nidoran on your co-worker’s shoulder—hilarious!); Pokémon also employs that age-old human interest, competition, as incentive to sign on up; the technology itself is a cool riot; and, as personal technology has taught us in the past, it is another example of how, counterintuitively, it can be a tool for making us more social. So far, Pokémon Go has been reported to get people who are depressed out of their homes, to discover new parts of their actual cities, like little hidden museums they didn’t even know existed, all in pursuit of capturing animated characters superimposed onto real life. In short, Pokémon Go fanatics are leaving their homes and forming both spontaneous and planned social groups over the collective love of a non-human, even a non-living thing. A simple game. It is, if you will, the family dog of the 21st century. During dark times like these, we could congregate, unite, drink, and be fanatical in public over far worse. So go forth. Catch ’em all.