Most Harborites can’t fail to notice more people out and about since late July. Most are walking in groups or pairs, and keeping their eyes on their phone screens. And if you’ve got a Facebook account or watch television, you probably know why: the popular app Pokémon Go was released to joyful gamers on July 25.
Pokémon, named after the eponymous creatures central to gameplay, is a longstanding, beloved franchise hailing back to 1995 in the form of two video games for Nintendo’s original Game Boy. The franchise now spans trading cards, television shows and movies, comic books, toys, clothing lines – and now the Pokémon Go smartphone app. The gist of Pokémon involves humans known as “trainers” who catch and train wild Pokémon with magical powers, to battle other Pokémon for sport.
This latest app is developed by Niantic and associated with gaming company Nintendo; the latter experienced a roller coaster in stock value as the game was first attributed to, then disassociated with, Pokémon Go’s late July launch. Niantic is on familiar ground with its latest release, having previously produced the augmented reality game Ingress. Ingress, while not as popular as Pokémon Go, relies on the same general schema: superimposing digital characters over real-world data and camera information. Both games bear cursory resemblance to the basics of geocaching, except instead of a handful of physical objects hidden in the real world, Pokémon Go features limitless digital monsters in its alternate universe.
The players you see walking around are collecting powerups (Pokéballs, potions, and eggs) from Pokéstops, as well as finding wild Pokémon and capturing them (using Pokéballs). Players can also battle others for bragging rights to a landmark (called a Gym), which awards the player coins and a powerup called Stardust. The game makes money by selling packages of goods that help either capture more Pokémon (Lures, Pokéballs), incubators to hatch found eggs, or Lucky Eggs that can be hatched for more experience points. Players join one of three teams: Mystic, Instinct, or Valor.
Confused yet? Trust me, any player will likely be more than happy to explain it to you, and show you gameplay. It’s a wildly popular game, and it’s come to the Harbor in a big way.
“I worked really hard to capitalize on Pokémon Go fun!”, says Falisha Zwolinski, Library in the Parks Associate with Aberdeen Timberland Regional Library. “During our HarborCon event, we made sure to put Lures on our very own Pokéstop, and put up a poster asking, ‘Which Pokémon have you caught at the library?’ We had so many kids getting involved. It was amazing!”
She continues, “While at Library in the Parks, I brought Pokémon fitness challenges for the kids, and they were so excited about them that we were hardly able to do anything else! We made the library welcoming to Pokémon Go players, and in doing so, got so many more patrons to visit, and stay, in the library – especially since Pokéstops refresh every five minutes. Our stock of Pokémon books were checked out the first week of the game’s release, too!“
Obviously, Grays Harbor businesses could provoke increased visitation if they did a little footwork investigating the game. Savvy business owners could buy Lures, capitalize on the business’ proximity to a Gym, or promote free Wi-Fi and charging stations on Facebook (a Google search will reveal other creative ways to capitalize on the game’s popularity).
Pokémon Go is not without controversy. People who play it love it dearly, which means inevitably there are those trying to hack the game. Niantic continues to respond to community feedback; there have been reports of players receiving lifetime bans following accusations of using hacked client games to cheat the system.
But for the most part, people are simply having a lot of fun. Lucas Gilman, age seven, is a Team Instinct member visiting Grays Harbor from Battleground. When we run into him on a balmy summer evening, he is playing using a parent’s account. “Because you’re not allowed to Pokémon Go without who?” his mom Katy prompts. Lucas explains, “I’m only seven-years-old and the game is supposed to be played by fifteen year olds.”
When asked his favorite aspects of the game, he cites the exercise as well as the monster-collecting. “I’m walking a lot, and eating healthier, so I can walk faster. I eat veggies and fruits. Sometimes I eat treats and stuff.” Katy adds: “He’s walked about five miles in a two day period. That’s pretty good for a seven-year-old.”
In fact, walking exercise is one of the selling points for the game; unsurprising for Grays Harbor this summer, as we’ve had near flawless weather since the game’s launch. “My dog loves all the extra walks we go on to catch Pokémon”, says Sarah Alvarez, Hoquiamite and Grays Harbor College employee. “I just earned my 100 kilometer badge, which means I am walking much more! [The game] also has an incredible social aspect that brings total strangers together.”
And social media makes an already-popular game even more social. Pokémon Grays Harbor, a Facebook group nearing 400 members, is a perfect watering hole to trade screenshots, tips for good scores, popular Pokémon memes and Vines, and even crafts like Pokémon headbands and crochet patterns for Pokéballs. When I log on today a local young man has posted, “Who has a Snorlax, Lapras, or Dragonite? Where did you find them and what time of day?” and received several responses. The group is an active and convivial one – strangers becoming friends.
Joshua Johnson, one of three Admins for the group, admits “I probably play too much!” When I catch up with him through Facebook chat, he and his wife Heather are on a walk catching Pokémon as we talk. “I’m a lifelong fan – [I love the] collecting and the nostalgia aspect. I’m 20 Pokémon away from completing a childhood dream of ‘catching them all.’”
“Catching them all” refers to the 151 Pokémon available in the app. Even considering the boundless ardor of these gamers, some of the monsters are more difficult to find and secure than others.
Something tells me this “fad” isn’t going away any time soon.