SPECIAL: Pokémon Go

So, Pokémon Go launched in Japan last Friday, July 22nd, well later than most other major markets in the world. Now, some of you may be wondering how that came to be: surely Japan, of all countries, should be out of the gates first when it comes to Pokémon-related releases. Well, rumours were abound as to the reasons why, from settling lucrative deals with McDonald’s so their restaurants double up as PokéStops, to seeing how the game played out in other markets so the launch in Japan could be smoother. In the end, the correct answer was probably a combination of these, plus timing it for the summer holidays which started on that very day.

Except Pokémon Go doesn’t really aim itself at kids, not really. For one thing, it’s a smartphone app, and the typical audience of Pokémon don’t have their own phones, or at the very least aren’t old enough that their parents are comfortable letting their offspring wander the streets waving an expensive piece of hardware around. The fact that the Pokémon roster is, for now, the original two generations, and Pokémon Go is throwing itself squarely at the late-20-somethings and early-30-somethings, who grew up with the original games and see Pokémon Go as a way to not just massage the nostalgia glands but fulfil a childhood fantasy: to wander around the world for real and actually capture Pokémon Go, albeit in an augmented reality.

I’d heard of how Pokémon Go had reignited Pokémon fever in my native UK well before it had hit Japanese shores, seeing updates on my Facebook feed of friends boasting their captures and my family’s shared chat hustling their way across town when they caught wind of a rare Pokémon sighting, like a cross between bird-watching and a military operation. But it was only when I visited New Zealand recently did it really hit home: Albert Park in central Auckland was full of people wandering around with their phones in hand, laughing and chasing invisible creatures. I saw pubs and shops with signs at the door declaring wearily ‘There are no Zubats in here’. The morning news ran a whole segment on it. Once again, just like that chilly autumn in 1999, the rumbling steamroller of Pokémon fever had charged over the world again, and once again, I was on the back end of it, only this time I was in Japan watching the outside world fall under it’s spell.

I didn’t mind too much that it came out late, really. Personally, I was just delighted to see the world completely immersed in Pokémon again. I’ve always been a cheerleader for the franchise and I have fond memories of the Christmas 1999 through to Summer 2000 immersed in the Pokéverse. But when the app finally came out here, it was time to put aside the rose-tinted glasses, take to the streets with my phone in hand and try it out.

The first thing that struck me was just how minimalistic the gameplay is. In fact, I’d struggle to even call it a game. Sure, you can collect Pokémon as they leap out at you, and there are Gyms that you can try your hand at, but that’s about it. There’s no trainer-to-trainer communication in the game yet, so no trading and no peer-to-peer combat. You don’t even fight wild Pokémon with your own: you just toss Pokéballs at them, with maybe a few extra luring items thrown into the mix for good measure. Essentially, it’s a beefed up version of the Safari Zone from the first couple games.

For many, including myself, this lack of some of the key mechanics we’ve come to know and love from the Pokémon franchise means that Pokémon Go isn’t just minimalistic: it’s unfinished. There’s very little meat in the way of the game.

At first, this frustrated me. The fact that I can’t properly train my Pokémon, only bulk them with items called stardust and candy – which feels artificial somehow – means I have so far failed to get in any of the Gyms. I’m competing against Japanese folk, after all, which means I’m working against people who are committed to often unhealthy levels in games like this. But as I wandered my neighbourhood collecting Pokémon and passing Pokéstops, I realised that none of that really mattered. I would look up from my phone to see hundreds of other people out and about, many f whom were playing Pokémon Go too. It was like people had emptied out into the streets to find that everyone else was listening to the same song or reading the same book as you. As thin as the gameplay for Pokémon Go is, it is the ultimate icebreaker for socializing, and even better it happens outside, in the real world, not over the internet.

That’s a huge benefit for everyone around the world, of course, but in Japan it could prove especially wonderful. Without meaning to sound judgemental, a good portion of the people I saw wondering around were, well, nerds. Pale, socially awkward guys and gals who would otherwise be cooped up in a dark room playing some other MMORPG were instead striding through the streets and grass, sometimes with one or two friends in tow. I was genuinely heartened to see this, and it’s not just me: there are hopes that Pokémon Go could entice Hikkikomori (the Japanese word for people who are shut-ins who cut themselves off from society) outside and improve their mental health.

And let’s not forget the physical health benefits, too. My favourite part of the Pokémon Go right now is simply finding the different PokéStops littered about the place. I mean, I’m fond of walking at the best of times, but I usually take the quickest, most direct route to where I need to go. Now, with Pokémon Go in hand, I don’t mind taking a meandering route to the supermarket if it means snagging a couple more PokéStops on the way. The GPS map constantly teases you with the promise of more PokéStops on the horizon, daring you to venture into new corners of your own neighbourhood.

And boy, have I learned a lot about my neighbourhood in the past 72 hours! I have discovered at least two shrines, one temple that doubled-up as a kid’s playground, a small pond and a local restaurant I didn’t know existed before. And I’m not the only one: the normally quiet backstreets are suddenly fortified with other trainers plunging into new parts of town. Without even realising it I had walked 10 kilometers yesterday, and I am sure it would’ve been more if the game wasn’t so hungry for battery power.

Of course, with a  phenomenon this big it was bound to catch the attention of the news outlets around the world, and Japan is no exception. And, news being news, if feels compelled to find the negative, no matter how miniscule, and blow it out of all proportion in the name of ‘balanced reporting’. I’m sure you’ve all heard of the incidents of trespassing, car accidents, finding dead bodies and landmines as a result of playing Pokémon Go. But lets keep a sense of perspective here: these are isolated incidents, dwarfed by a much bigger narrative of positivity. Japan is a nation of 128 million people, and this weekend well over half of the people I passed on the street were playing Pokémon Go. We don’t have official figures yet but, engagement figures above that of even Twitter, it’s safe to say that at least millions of Japanese people are playing Pokémon Go right now. And yet I still keep seeing the same news article of negativity, of the one and only bad incident caused by Pokémon Go in Japan: of a uni student taking a tumble down some stairs.

Why focus on the negativity? Why keep highlighting the stupid and the tragic? You could literally replace any dumb activity that ends the sentence with “while playing Pokémon Go” with any other verb and I guarantee that’s also happened. Newsflash: if people are flocking outdoors for this game, you’re going to see a lot more outdoor accidents. As with literally any game in the world, virtual or real, there are always going to be people who take things too far.

And these negative incidents really shouldn’t put anyone off of the game. Not only are they miniscule in the grand scale of things, but the goodness that Pokémon Go brings to the table is well worth it, regardless of who you are. If you’re a lone wanderer, it gives purpose to your wanderings. With mates you have a framework to your socializing as well as a buddy to back you up in taking down a gym. Between parent and child, you have that essential bridge of communication, with a parent who has that essential smartphone and the child aching to play it, and together they set out in the sunlight on the ultimate bonding exercise. For Japan, a nation of full of shy and socially-awkward people, this is crucial stuff. Here’s hoping it lasts. As long as they add in training and battling soon!

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