Thursday, August 4, 2016

Pokémon Go: A Trainer's Report

This is an unusual review for me, because Pokémon Go is a very unusual game.  I'm not accustomed to games that require me to leave my house; those are usually called "sports", and the less said about my relationship with them, the better.  But if catching pocket monsters is ever classified as a sport... well, that's actually a more disturbing possibility than I thought.  Best not to pursue it.

If Pokémon were a sport, my Lapras would be the best there ever was, maybe.
Pokémon is a series of games that seems to have been waiting for the technology of "augmented reality" from its earliest days.  The original Red/Blue versions for the Gameboy were essentially games about amateur naturalists, enthusiastic plant and animal lovers who combed the long grass looking for specimens to complete an encyclopedia.  The combat aspect is really only a means to an ends within the conventions of the genre: the thrill of Pokémon is in the collection, not in the fight.  Now, by removing the monsters from fictional long grass and replacing them amongst real human communities, the engagement of the player is theoretically even stronger.

You may also discover your home is full of ghosts, which just raises more uncomfortable questions.
Granted, it is technically possible to play the game without leaving home, in a limited way.  Certain items can bring the Pokémon flocking to your location, and if you happen to live next door to a Pokéstop (lucky me!), you can easily replenish basic items like Pokéballs and potions.
That really is about the limit of it, though.  To really engage with the "augmented reality" of Pokémon, you need to find a way out into the sunlit space of ordinary reality.  To play this game to its full potential , you need to learn to engage simultaneously with both.

This purple Pokéstop is just within range of my apartment, which I consider its primary value as a residence.
Once you've physically placed yourself in the right locations, Pokémon Go becomes a little more interesting.  At designated locations called gyms, players can battle the Pokémon left by other players, and capture the gym in the name of one of three teams.  Following the map, you can see where other players have established lures, hot spots for Pokémon activity.  And the game encourages long walks with the egg-hatching mechanic, essentially a reward for going to new places, or even just moving around in a big circle.

I walked 10 kilometers for you, egg, show me what you've got...
But what about the other world?  The one where most people can't see the colorful monsters we're chasing around?  Due deference to this reality is required, not least because it is full of cars and creeks and other unfortunate things to walk into.  The stakes of Pokémon Go are pretty high when you consider an outing might end in some sort of real-world disaster.

Someone tell this Venonat not to play in the street!
Prudent players must keep their wits about them, not only for safety but for etiquette as well.  Pokémon Go may lead you through busy pedestrian areas, so you've got to be considerate in sharing your space.  If the gym you're battling for is adjacent to a local restaurant or coffeehouse, perhaps the polite thing to do would be to patronize it now and again.  And if you chance upon a real animal on your journey, it's considered good form to let them in on the action.

No, cat!  Look back at the bird!
By far, my favorite aspect of Pokémon Go is how it has affected the way I see the city I live in.  I moved to this town about six months ago, and social anxiety has mainly kept me indoors during my free time.  With the excuse of a video game, I'm not only going outside more often than before; I'm also visiting locations and seeing remarkable sights that I might easily never have known about.  It turns out that there are beautiful parks, ponds, and architecture all around me.  And as a bonus, they're all just filthy with Pokémon.

It would be inhumane not to catch this one...
 Is there a downside to this?  Well, we already knew being outside was dangerous; it's probably best to play in nice safe groups.  Public spaces aren't always very accessible for disabled people either, which can keep them out of the potential fun.  And as any rural resident can tell you, the game is a bit less exciting when you are miles from the kind of landmarks that get marked as Pokéstops and gyms.  So unlike most video games, Pokémon Go cannot provide an identical gaming experience to all players in all places.  That might be mitigated in the future, but for now it seems like an unfortunate consequence of the basic design.

There's no guarantee you'll find a Meowth chilling in your friend's place, but it's always kind of nice when you do.
If you do have the means and the time, catching Pokémon on your phone is a great pastime.  Battling for the glory of your team, training up an impressive roster of fighters, or just stumbling upon rare Pokémon in unexpected places, all evoke the childlike excitement this franchise carries so well.  It still has some bugs that need to be worked through, but the core experience is solid.  At least when it's not infested with Rattatas...

No, Rattata!  That's unsanitary!

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