Every summer has its craze, and this year it was all about Pokémon Go. I’m still playing, even after the initial hype has died down, so it’s an interesting time to think about the impact of Pikachu and friends. Pokémon Go has been a revolution in mobile gaming, leading to several interesting disruptions — in terms of how location-based games work, who plays them, and expectations about data sharing.
Before we start, this’ll be an easier read if you play yourself (it’s free — why not try?) but in essence, your phone becomes a screen through which to view the world of Pokémon. When they pop up, you can catch them, using Pokéballs, which you get by visiting Pokéstops, landmarks varying from cathedrals to hipster street art. One aim is to try and catch all 250 Pokémon, like a butterfly collector. The other is that, as you advance, you can put the Pokémon in the gym to fight on behalf of one of three teams.
First disruption: the game took an extremely nerdy framework and made it mainstream. The joy of seeing Pokémon pop up at the bus stop is certainly a great novelty. But much of the system, like the location of the Pokéstops, has been imported from earlier games, like Geocaching and Ingress.
Geocaching — or as I like to call it, sci-fi orienteering — consists of using coordinates, and usually GPS, to find hidden boxes in the real world containing a log book and some trinkets, as this charmingly hyper woman explains. Ingress, an earlier game developed by Pokémon Go creators Niantic, pits two teams in an eternal battle that relies on players “capturing” “portals” in an augmented reality and, occasionally, wearing matching T-Shirts!
Geocaching and Ingress both sit comfortably in the Venn diagram of Settlers of Catan, Vibram shoes and his’n’hers fleeces. That’s an awesome space, but not a guarantor of mainstream cool success. Pokémon Go somehow subverted that and became a worldwide hit — and even, thanks to the Pokéstop information pulled in from Ingress, a great way for people to find out about quirky architectural features in their area.