The new Pokémon augmented-reality game came out last week, and since then I’m sure everyone who’s been playing it has interesting stories to tell about their experiences with it. I think this game is a great example of the increasing power video games have to affect our world and ourselves. As a game developer, I find this sort of thing exciting, so I’d like to add my own stories from my first day of playing Pokémon Go.
Today I went for a walk for the sole reason of capturing Pokémon. If it wasn’t for Pokémon Go, I would have just stayed at home and worked all day. Already, this game had proved to be valuable, if it could incentivize me to spend time outside and get a bit of exercise. I decided to go for a short walk and level up my character a bit, maybe see if I can reach level 5 so I can start battling other people’s Pokémon at the nearby Pokémon gyms. What actually happened is that I ended up walking around for almost two hours, without even realizing it.
I was amazed to see how ubiquitous this game has become within just a week of release. First I went to Jollyman Park, and there two high school girls spotted me walking around with my phone. They asked me if I was playing the new Pokémon game. I said yes, a little surprised that they had guessed without hesitation. Later on I would find out how easy it is to spot someone playing it. They asked me if it’s fun, and I showed them how it works. They were impressed with the fact that each Pokéstop corresponds with an actual location that is photographed, labeled, and described (I showed them the Jollyman Park Mammoth Playground Pokéstop). I told them how I like it because it encourages you to walk around and explore the world, and learn about the places around you. Now, I had begun to also like it for its ability to spark little social interactions with other people around me.
Next I walked to De Anza College, because I could see a ton of Pokéstops and rustling leaves indicating hidden wild Pokémon there. As soon as I got there, I discovered that De Anza College has a model desert for research purposes, which had been turned into a Pokéstop. I live right down the road, and I didn’t know there was a model desert there!
Within a few minutes, I started noticing other people walking around with their phones out. Two kids, who looked about early high school age, longboarded by me. “Pokémon Go?” one of them asked me, and I nodded. “Sweet,” he said. “Have you seen a Growlithe around here?”
“Not around here,” I responded. “Sorry. By the way, what do the Pokéstops with flower petals falling off of them mean?” I had seen a couple of them on the in-game map in De Anza, and I had been walking towards them.
“When someone uses a Lure on a Pokéstop, everyone starts seeing petals falling off of it,” he explained. “Wild Pokémon start getting attracted towards it, so it becomes a great place to find the ones you need.”
I thanked him, and we starting going our separate ways. Within a few seconds however, a wild Growlith showed up in front of me. I started capturing it, and called out to the two kids that were longboarding away. “Hey, Growlith over here!” I shouted, and they turned to come back.
When they got to where I was, they could see the Growlith too. All three of us were now inhabiting the same fictional space, could see the same cute little creature on the pavement in front of us, through the window of our phones. We each captured it (or rather, a copy of it), and it felt like we had participated in something together. This was the first time I had played an MMORPG not with a stranger’s digital representation on my screen, but another physical human being standing right next to me.
I continued towards the Pokéstops that had petals falling off of them. Along the way, I passed several people who were clearly playing the game, many of them in pairs or groups of friends. When I got to my destination, I was surprised to see lots of people there, hanging around, capturing Pokémon. While some were standing alone with their phones, several of them were in conversation with others. I saw boys and girls who spanned ages from high school to working adults. All of them had one thing in common though: they had been brought here together spontaneously, at this time and place, by a video game. I’d never seen anything like it.
Thanks to the numerous Pokémon I caught in the area, I managed to level up to level 5, which meant I could finally pick a team (I chose the blue Mystic team) and battle at the Pokémon gyms. I decided to head back to Jollyman Park and hit up the gym there. Along the way, I saw more people walking and playing; I must have seen over 25 people in De Anza alone, that too at 7 in the evening. I can’t believe it’s already a cultural phenomenon.
When I got to Jollyman, I walked up to the neighboring church that had been turned into a Pokémon gym. I battled the gym leader’s Pokémon, and lost miserably. When I finally gave up, another guy around my age who had been standing nearby walked up to me. “Are you Phillip3?” he asked, referring to the gym’s leader, who was prominently being shown in-game to both of us.
“No,” I said, “I’m trying to beat him too.”
“I just beat him!” he told me excitedly.
We ended up talking, and he gave me a bunch of tips that cleared up a lot of confused caused by the game’s poor tutorial system. He also showed me that the game has more depth than initially seemed. When I told him that I had been walking for 2 hours playing, he said that the previous night he had walked around with his friends for 6 hours. We walked around Jollyman for a bit, capturing Pokémon together. I asked him what he does, whether he’s a student or if he’s working. He said he’s a computer science student at De Anza, but he’s losing interest in school because he doesn’t know what he wants to do within computer science.
When he asked me what I do, I told him I’m an independent game developer. His eyes lit up. “Actually, game development is the one thing I’ve always wanted to do,” he said. “It’s definitely something I’m passionate about. But I have no idea where to even begin.”
“Begin by thinking of a very simple game idea, and then make it,” I told him. “You’ll learn a lot. That’s what I did, and the simple first game I made led me to quitting my job to do this full time.”
We talked about game engines (Unity versus Unreal). I gave him some tips on getting started. I showed him my first game, Orbit, and he really liked it. After finishing the first level on my phone, he downloaded it to his own phone. He took down my number, and I told him to feel free to message me if he has any questions. “Let me know if you ever want to hang out and walk around and play Pokémon,” he said. I replied, “Definitely.”
Within my first two hours of playing this game, I had already made a new real-world friend, a genuine connection wrought by a fictional world. I’m ashamed to say that I’ve never even met the people in my neighborhood, and my family has lived in this house for over 10 years. But today, a video game introduced me to one of them. The crazy thing is, I didn’t get this game to meet people, I got it to play Pokémon. But I met people anyway, because of social environment the game has created as an effect of its design.
Reading the r/pokemongo subreddit, I can see that I’m not the only one who was lured in by the entertainment factor, but found true discovery and meaningful social interaction. One redditor describes his friendly banter with another player at a graveyard which had been turned into a Pokémon gym, and admits, “ive never talked to strangers before.. this is legit awesome”.
When I was thinking about quitting my job six months ago, I read a book by Jane McGonigal titled Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World. This brilliant book made me consider the full potential of games to transform us. McGonigal talks about how good games are fun at the surface level, but through their design get the player to unintentionally participate in positive behavior. Games are not only an art form, but also powerful vehicles to effect change, both at a personal level and a societal level. Today, I experienced an example of this, and it was an inspiration to me.
However, as with all new technology, there is equally great potential for misuse. Already armed robbers have lured people to secluded locations using the game. As users of this technology, we have to remain ever-vigilant, and as a society we will learn over time how to use it more effectively and safely.
We’ll see how the hype lives up to reality, but even with all the growing pains and limitations of the game, I can already say that Pokémon Go has proved to be one of the most unique game experiences in my life so far. It’s not the first augmented-reality game, and it won’t be the last — it’s not even the most well-designed game out there — but with its critical mass of players it will hopefully mark a new path in video games. I’m excited to see what lies ahead.