Last week, Niantic Labs released a new mobile version of Pokemon, Pokemon Go. If you haven’t played one of the many previous Pokemon games on Nintendo consoles, the basic premise is exploring a world to capture and train adorable little monsters for a life of battles. Pokemon Go puts a twist on the model, inviting players to step outside and explore their own world while capturing monsters imposed over camera imagery. This makes for some awesome pictures (and selfies with Pokemon pre-capture) as well as for a fun glimpse of what the future of augmented reality gaming might The game is a successor of Ingress, a location-based game where factions competed for control of different resource-producing landmarks, and it has many of the same components.
The basics of play are simple: like in classic Pokemon, players are recruited by a professor to document Pokemon, and get to choose a starter from among three that pop up nearby. After that, you have to get on the move to find more Pokemon in nearby locations and restock on supplies at Pokestops -- near me, they are mostly local parks, churches, bowling alleys, and similar public locales (like the statue shown above). When you reach level five, you can join a team and start battling for control of gyms, which mostly involves sending in your own Pokemon for tap-intensive battles against those left by other players to defend the spot. As you level, more rare Pokemon pop up for capture. Right now it’s not possible to battle others directly, and the actual mechanics are simple. The hardest part is accurately aiming capture throws. Most of the appeal is in the wandering itself. Some aspects, such as the hatching of virtual eggs, are tied to the phone’s pedometer to encourage even more physical movement.
Even if you don’t play yourself, expect to see some Pokemon catching going on in campus (and probably during classes.) In just a few days of wandering, I’ve already run into other players -- it’s easy to spot the other people surreptitiously aiming their phone at odd landmarks or notice when someone uses a power-up, like placing a lure module on a local Pokestop.
The location-driven aspects of Pokemon Go do present some potential problems: Pokemon can absolutely pop up in private property and other areas not welcoming for travel, and it’s easy to get distracted while looking at the screen and moving through physical space in search of something virtual. There’s also some awkward social elements, as holding up the screen for a Pokemon capture can look a lot like taking a photo or video of anyone in that same location. As an exergame, or game that promotes physical activity, it doesn’t match up to the potential intensity of games like Zombies, Run! -- Pokemon Go requires a lot of stopping, and it’s tempting to spend a lot of time staring at the screen even while walking.
However, if you’re interested in the future of physically-integrated games or even in ways to explore the landmarks of your own campus and neighborhood, Pokemon Go is a compelling way to do it. I can imagine it having particular appeal for newcomers to a location, including freshmen arriving at a large university for the first time.
Have you tried Pokemon Go? Share your thoughts in the comments!
[CC BY Photo by Flickr User Happy Come; Screenshots from author’s game]