Around the world, hundreds of thousands of grown adults are playing Pokémon Go: walking around, staring at their phones, repeatedly swiping the screen to throw a fake ball to catch a fake animal in a fake version of reality.
If you're not one of these people, you probably already hate Pokémon Go. You've been oversaturated with Pokémon Go everywhere you turn, with screengrabs of Pokémon Go all over your Facebook timeline and in-jokes about Pokémon Go on your Instagram feed. You're weary of it before you're even able to learn what it is.
Besides, you've seen all those headlines. Pokémon Go makes you exhausted, makes you crash your car, makes you a target for muggers and even makes you discover dead bodies. There have been more clickbait headlines about Pokémon Go this week than about Millennials. (And that's saying something.)
Usually, I'm with you! I am that insufferable breed of person who loudly recuses himself from ultra-popular phenomena on the grounds that it sucks, man, without ever giving it a try. (I never saw Avatar, but I hate Avatar. That sort of thing.) Yet I know that this is obnoxious, and I know I can do better. So with the "new me" in mind, I steeled my too-cool-for-school resolve and I downloaded Pokémon Go.
I played it for two days, and can now safely say that I understand. Let me help you understand, too.
What Is Pokémon Go, and Why Is Everyone Playing It?
Pokémon Go is a augmented-reality game you play on your phone, downloadable as an app. In order to play it, you have to actually walk around outside, staring at your phone. As you walk around, your character on the screen walks around a map of your actual environment, showing streets and parks and creeks and the like. Using GPS and a mapping system similar to Google Street view, the game puts you in a half-reality of your actual city and a strange world of weird little animals.
Those animals are Pokémon, which, as anyone alive in the 1990s remembers, starred in a hugely popular franchise of TV shows, card games, video games and movies. In Pokémon Go, the goal is that you've "gotta catch 'em all" -- capturing myriad breeds of Pokémon whenever, and wherever, they appear. The only way to find them is to walk around the real world until they pop up on your map. When they do, your phone's camera opens, and the Pokémon are suddenly standing in your stairwell, your BART station, you friend's leg, or wherever your camera happens to be pointing. Then you swipe a Pokéball at it and voilá -- it's caught.
Those are the basics, at least. There are refill stations called Pokéstops in the game, located at notable landmarks around town like schools, plazas and benches, and there are huge towers called Gyms, control of which players can battle using the Pokémon they've caught. These places attract a lot of people, and that's part of why the game is so great on a social level.
Much of the activity in Pokémon Go is programmed to happen in big outdoor public spaces like city centers and parks. So after launching our character, my daughter and I went to the park down the block. We immediately met another family, powering up at the same Pokéstop. Five minutes in and we'd already had a friendly conversation with complete strangers, right there on the sidewalk, while cars whizzed by and people back in their homes argued on the internet.
Here's How It's Good for Humanity (I'm Serious)
Beyond the game itself of catching Pokémon, Pokémon Go is designed to get players out into the world. And, let's be honest: a lot of people are shut-ins who spend hours on the internet instead of getting out into the world. Modern culture, and especially modern gaming culture, is definitely not known for being outdoorsy.
Pokémon Go forces people to get out -- and, invariably, talk to each other face-to-face. Often, to laugh and joke with each other.
When my daughter and I ran into the family at that first Pokéstop, we couldn't believe it: we found someone else playing the game!
We were so naïve. EVERYONE is playing this game.
Our next voyage to catch Pokémon took us to a large local park. We quickly found 20 other people walking around with their phones, playing Pokémon Go. We shared tips and strategies, and then formed a posse with a couple of them and walked a half-mile to another park, catching Pokémon and running into other players along the way.
At the second park, we ran into another dozen people playing it, battling each other for control of a Gym. On the screen, these people fought each other. In person, they were laughing, joking, and high-fiving each other after battles. Everyone was talking to each other.
I know I'm over-romanticizing it here, but it was just a certain feeling that I can't put into words, other than to say that after the past week -- full of people arguing bitterly on Facebook about gun control and #BlackLivesMatter and "Shillary" or whatever -- it was very, very reassuring to see people come together, face-to-face, away from the keyboards that tend to turn them into jerks, to share a moment of compassion and humanity. Even if it was over a silly cartoon duck with a constant headache who can control the weather. You know?
Already, informal reports have suggested that the game improves people's mental health. Those suffering from severe depression report how liberating it is to have a reason to get out of bed, get dressed, and go out into the world. I personally witnessed a shy-looking guy and a phone-wielding girl hit it off over Pokémon Go at one of the Pokéstops, and I don't want to be too crass about it, but there's no question that the love life of a lot of formerly reclusive people got a lot more promising over the weekend.
Isn't It Addictive, Though?
Don't believe all the stories you read about Pokémon Go. The one about the guy who caused a multi-vehicle car crash while trying to catch Pikachu has already been debunked by Snopes.
I will tell you, however, that if you're playing it with a child, be on guard.
After downloading the game for my six-year-old daughter, we went out and within one minute caught Squirtle. For me, it was fun: the Pokémon appeared on top of our neighbor's trash can, my daughter swiped the little Pokéball to throw it in Squirtle's direction, and we captured it. My daughter, on the other hand, turned into an immediate addict.
After catching a couple more Pokémon, it was time to go to the grocery store.
"But I wanna go downtown and catch all the Pokémon!" she protested.
"No," I said, "we have to go shopping."
"But then everyone else will catch all the Pokémon!" she howled.
"It doesn't work that way," I said. "We need to go to the store."
"But will there be Pokémon there?!"
You get the idea.
As for myself -- a non-gamer, remember -- I got hooked too. On the drive home from a party last night, I had my daughter open the app "just to see if it works while driving," I said. But when she mentioned she saw a Pokémon on the side of the road, I impulsively pulled over, looked around to see if there were other cars in the area, and backed up a little bit so we could catch it. Yes. I did that.
We got home. It was past her bedtime, but that didn't stop me. "Let's just go down the block and see if we can catch any more," I suggested. "We're almost on Level 6!" I texted my wife saying we'd be a little bit late. We walked around. We didn't catch anything.
While I put my daughter to bed, I sneaked a quick look at the game and saw a rainshower of pink in the distance. Someone had left a lure at a Pokéstop just two blocks from our house! There'd be so many Pokémon there! And it was set to expire in 30 minutes! My daughter could get out of bed and put on some slippers! Gotta catch 'em a -----
It was then that I realized I just needed to close the damn game. I haven't opened it since.
Resources for Playing
If you're interested, it's probably best to start playing Pokémon Go sooner than later. In two weeks' time, judging by the half-life of these types of phenomena, everyone will be "so over" Pokémon Go; the Gyms will all be controlled by super-strong Pokémon, the serious players will turn aggro in person instead of accommodating, and there'll be more reports about the negative side-effects of the game (while I was writing this post, in fact, the inevitable report about how Pokémon Go can access all your personal info and read all your emails emerged). Soon, it won't be fun anymore.
But if you want to start now? Funny thing about Pokémon Go: it doesn't come with any instructions on how to play. Here are a few guides to help.
How to Play Pokémon Go
Via Kotaku, a very clear and simple explainer for the beginner.
How to Pick Pikachu as Your Starter in Pokémon Go
Game Informer breaks down the easiest way to capture Pikachu, a.k.a. the Pokémon that everyone wants.
Pokémon Go Plus
This wristband accessory is coming soon, and will make playing it easier (and make players less annoying to non-players).
Six Pokémon Go Tips for the Ultimate Beginner
Polygon gives a pretty good starter kit here.