One of the fondest memories of my childhood is marathoning all 10 (at the time) Pokémon movies in a 24-hour period. I wept when Entei sacrificed himself for Molly and cheered when Latios and Latias rocketed over the city of Alto Mare. From the half-broken Pokémon Red cartridge I acquired at a garage sale to the Pokémon Diamond game that I bought two full guidebooks for, I have long been a Pokémon fan.
Now, Pokémon Go has swept over the world, but I remain skeptical. I have been in Europe for the past 11 days, so after hearing whispers of Pokémon mania sweeping Vancouver I thought that returning home would be like Jim waking up in 28 Days Later — the city barely recognizable. OK, so returning has not been that dramatic, but there has been a noticeable change. Many friends have downloaded the game, and I constantly see strangers chasing their next catch around campus.
Pokémon Go may require players to explore their surroundings in real life, but it would be a stretch to claim that this is actually encouraging social interaction or exploration.
Look at any picture of one of the many Pokémon Go meetups currently happening around the world and you’ll see large gatherings of players. One might even think that this is a positive thing. But a group of 100 people staring blankly at their phones while ignoring each other does not constitute a ‘social’ experience.
Look at the outrageous headlines about Go players getting run over by cars, wandering onto private property, or even onto SkyTrain tracks in Vancouver. This doesn’t seem like the behaviour of those who are truly experiencing the world around them in an attentive or meaningful way.
The game uses the world as its game environment, without any regard for the real world’s complexities and dangers.
Instead of living in the real world, Go players are stuck behind yet another screen. Moreover, exploration in the game isn’t about exploring new areas or things, and even if that were to happen it wouldn’t be a direct consequence of the game.
There are simply too many dangers and risks associated with this game for it to be excused entirely. So far there have been numerous incidents of individuals getting hurt while playing Pokémon Go, which include a sexual assault during a Go meetup, and even a teenager being shot and killed near Guatemala City. The game’s PokéStop feature has been exploited in many cases, with a memorial site for a toddler, the US Holocaust Museum, and cemeteries attracting large groups of ‘trainers.’
The danger with an augmented reality game like Go is that it uses the world as its game environment, without any regard for the real world’s complexities, dangers, and sensitivities. This is far from the sanitized and picture-perfect lands of Sinnoh or Kanto.
So, where does the game go from here? Part of me believes that, like many crazes, the Pokémon Go fad will fizzle out in a couple of months. On the other hand, it is one of the most downloaded game apps of all time and may stay with us for a while yet. In this case, the developers need to improve the game to make it safer, and implement features that ensure players don’t engage in risky behaviour while playing. This will at least mitigate some of the harms I’ve mentioned.
I also wonder whether the game’s popularity is simply a sign of the times. While I err on the side of social networks making us more social rather than less, Go seems like an entirely different beast. Perhaps it may be time to accept that games like Go are the new status quo: technological innovations that promise social interaction, but instead provide only meaningless distractions.