Insight: Do we need a cure for the Pokémon bug?

Jennifer Jones with her two dogs and an Eevee. Picture: John Devlin

Jennifer Jones with her two dogs and an Eevee. Picture: John Devlin

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There’s a Magikarp hovering around an elderly couple in Bell and Felix cafe in the south side of Glasgow. Uninitiated in the ways of Pokémon Go, I am unaware this fish, with its vacant eyes and gormless mouth, is a byword for uselessness, so I am excited by its presence. Jennifer Jones, a veteran gamer and my newly acquired mentor, swipes a Poké Ball towards it: our first big catch of the day. The elderly couple look on, bemused.

Later on, we track an Eevee – a cute, fox-like creature with floppy ears- along Kilmarnock Road, past pubs and bakeries and a shop front full of fruit and vegetables, into Queen’s Park, before claiming her as our own; and I begin to see how people get hooked.

Jones has been playing the location-based, augmented reality game since it was launched in the US on 6 July. She has walked her rescue greyhounds, George and Mini, off their paws as she stalked the neighbourhood, collecting cartoon characters and losing herself in the thrill of the virtual chase. Recently, she bumped into a colleague out with his new baby; it took her a while to pull herself back into the real world and remember to congratulate him.

Given all the hype, he probably understood why she had zoned out. In the space of a fortnight, Pokémon Go has conquered the world (or at least the 35 countries in which it has been released), spreading like a virus through all our public spaces. In city streets and country parks, round fountains, ponds and lochs, the stricken move – mobile phones held out in front of them – with only one aim: “to catch ’em all”.

The phenomenon, which saw Nintendo’s shares more than double, makes previous summer crazes – space hoppers, hula hoops, Beyblades – seem but shallow whims. Besides, this fad is not for kids. Trading on a nostalgia for the original Pokémon cards and Game Boy games, Pokémon Go is aimed firmly at millennials, now come of age and in possession of shiny new smart phones.

“What the creators have done is to say: ‘Here’s this game – the game that was your dream when you were seven or eight – you can have it again. Except now you can sit in the pub , have a pint and catch a Zubat,’” says Adam Scollay, who lives in Wick. “Magic. They’ve made their sale.”

With such widespread appeal comes commercial opportunity. It hasn’t taken long for businesses and charities to capitalise on the game’s success with promotions and fund-raising events. Pubs and restaurants are putting down lures (which attract more Pokémon) in an attempt to boost custom, and a Pokémon Go themed pub crawl in Glasgow sold out within hours. The fact the game takes players to “places of interest” means it is also being seen as an asset to the tourist industry. In the US, national parks have seen a spike in visitors, while Edinburgh Zoo has launched a Pokémon map of the site (though the irony of hunting virtual creatures when you could be looking at real ones is lost on no-one).

But alongside the acclaim, the frenzy around Pokémon Go has provoked a predictable backlash. To its detractors the game is an agent of evil, luring children into peril. There have been sensational stories about young people so immersed in the game, they are blind to risk: a girl run down by a car in Pittsburgh, teenagers trapped in underground caves in Wiltshire, and Jerson Lopez de Leon, shot dead as he trespassed on private property in Guatemala. Osteopaths have warned of Pokémon Go-related back injuries and children’s charities of potential abuse 
by sexual predators. In Bosnia, players have been told not to wander into minefields.

Because Poké Stops (where players pick up goodies – eggs, potions, incense) and Poké Gyms (where Pokémon do battle) are chosen at random from pre-existing maps some are located at dangerous or inappropriate venues, such as poorly-lit alleys and the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC.

Other people insist the game is part of a global conspiracy. In China – where the app has yet to be released – there are fears Japan and the US want to use it to spy on the country’s military bases.

In the US, the website Gawker has claimed Niantic (co-owners along with Nintendo and The Pokémon Company) are linked to the CIA and that the game is part of a government surveillance operation.

As a digital cultures expert and academic, currently doing a PhD at the University of the West of Scotland, Jones is sceptical about the scare-mongering around Pokémon Go.

“From the moment it was launched people were sharing Buzzfeed articles: ‘This is what Pokémon is doing with your data,’ but then I’m like: ‘This is also what Facebook – and other sites – are doing with your data.’ We know this. We need to be wary about what’s going on without taking an extreme stance.”

As for the other criticisms, Pokémon Go advocates point out a bit of common sense is all that’s required to prevent most accidents, though younger children may require more supervision.

On the plus side, people playing the games have also been involved in solving crimes, including a bunch of trainers who foiled a break-in on an industrial estate in Doncaster. “Every new technological advance brings two reactions. It’s either: ‘This will destroy the fabric of our lives’ or ‘This will bring everyone together’,” says Jones.

The success of Pokémon Go has taken even its creators by surprise. Technologically, it’s not a game-changer. Augmented reality has been around for years; it has been used in advertising, public health campaigns and in Pokémon Go’s precursor, Ingress, an AR, location-based game in which players have to capture “portals” at places of cultural significance.

There are also glitches; there have been copious complaints about bugs, servers crashing and the drain on batteries and data. But Pokémon Go is more accessible than Ingress; it draws on an established brand and has merchandising already attached. Unlike most online games, which eat up large chunks of time, it can be absorbed into the routine of a working day. And it has arrived at the perfect time: when people are eager for an escape from the never-ending cycle of bad news.

Though it would be difficult for it to live up to its billing as a cure-all for a host of ills, including isolation, depression and childhood obesity, it does seem to be improving lives, enticing people out into the fresh air and strengthening communities. Many of the players I spoke to talked of taking more physical exercise (you have to walk 5km to hatch an egg), and engaging more with the world around them.

Pokémon Go appears to be particularly appealing to children with autism. Until the UK launch, working mother Andrea McCulloch regularly faced a meltdown as she prepared to take son Ryan, 11, to his grandmother’s. Most mornings she had to carry him kicking and screaming to the car while his sisters, Sophie, nine and Lauren, five, sat in the back. Now, he makes the 20-minute journey without a fuss, catching Pokémon along the way. Though he and Sophie have never got on, the pair are finally bonding over the game, and he is even chatting to other boys in the park.

“I’m not saying Pokémon Go has fixed everything, but it’s sparked an interest in him and given him confidence,” says McCulloch. “He still wouldn’t play football with the other boys, but it’s an improvement on three weeks ago when he would have just walked past them with his head down.”

Stephanie Allen, who has schizophrenia, says the game allows her to take exercise without dwelling on negative thoughts and travel on public transport without feeling paranoid.

More generally, Pokémon Go seems to foster social interaction and acts of altruism. One of its defining features is that it comes without instructions, forcing users to think about the technology they are using, and to collaborate with other players.

Samantha Le Sommer, a university researcher in Aberdeen, says members of the city’s Pokémon Go Facebook group have worked together to make an interactive map of all Pokémon stops and gyms across the city, highlighting those in inaccessible or poorly-lit areas to make the game safe for younger players.

Out in the real world, she has witnessed random people drop lures outside the Royal Aberdeen Children’s Hospital so the sick kids stuck inside can still play.

For now, Pokémon Go is all the rage. As the late afternoon sun beats down near the suspension bridge on the River Clyde, you can’t move for players. Goths and skater girls and boys with turn-up shorts and boy band floppy fringes; a woman with Doc Martens and bright blue hair; and a hipster with a bandana and a Dalmatian, all catching some rays and whatever colourful anime should stray across their paths.

Ashleigh Reynolds, 25, has already spent more than 50 hours on the game. “The other night I was out until 4am just driving round Glasgow,” she says. “The Necropolis is a great place to catch them.” Of the Pokémon she has netted so far, her favourite is the Ponyta (a flaming Shetland pony).

Everywhere the app is available, businesses, digital marketers, social media strategists and educationalists are looking at ways to use and profit from its success. With 70 per cent of the world’s population expected to own smart phones by 2020 – Pokémon Go will doubtless influence games development for years to come.

But experience tells us that bubbles that grow too big, too quickly are the first to burst. By Friday, Nintendo shares had already begun to drop. And some of the game’s innocence may be lost in the rush to cash in. At the launch in Japan, McDonald’s was announced as Pokémon Go’s first sponsor; its 3,000 Japanese restaurants are to be Poké Stops and Gyms and its Happy Meals will feature related merchandise.

Jones says her enthusiasm is already waning and Scollay’s Facebook feed has been full of posts complaining about the game’s ubiquity. “To them I say, this is how I’ve felt about football for the last 25 years,” he laughs.

In the short-term, though, players will carry on playing and enjoying unexpected Pokémon Go encounters. Like the one Scollay had with a woman in her mid-sixties on a recent visit to Orkney. “She was level 20 – a higher level than me,” he says. “I sat and had a wonderful yap with her, exchanging information and tips.”

The woman told Scollay her son had recommended Pokémon Go because she was interested in geo-caching (a form of orienteering) but couldn’t drive. Then the two of them headed down to the harbour together to hunt for Squirtles. “She was fully tooled up,” Scollay says. “Two battery packs, one connector charged, one solar charged. She was going for it, five hours and maybe 20km a day, and in the best health she has ever been.”

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