In any other time, if your kid brother, grandmother or slightly wacky Uncle Ned had said, “I’m going down the street to capture imaginary critters,” you would have immediately dialed up the doc. But nowadays, in this new age of augmented reality games, well, you might just join in.
The mobile game Pokémon Go is quite literally sweeping the world in flash-mob style. And whether the game ultimately has the long-term footprint of a Mega Rayquaza or fizzles out fast like a flopping Magikarp, this new Pokémon-in-your-backyard amusement is certainly grabbing people’s attention today.
Let’s start with a dash of history. Anyone who was paying closer attention to fads such as Beanie Babies and Furbys in the ’90s might not have noticed when Pokémon phenomena first washed up on our shores back in 1998. The game was reportedly inspired by creator Satoshi Tajiri’s love for insect-collecting as a boy. His game concept centered around a fantasy video game world full of magical creatures (instead of crickets and beetles) that players would collect, then “train and evolve,” before sending them off to battle against other trainers’ charges.
After twenty years of games (as well as ancillary trading cards, TV shows and movies), that basic concept is still the focus in Pokémon Go: Players collect Pokémon, evolve them, and eventually use those powered-up creatures to take over Poké Gyms from other players. The difference this go around is that it’s all done in the real world.
You see, your smartphone and its camera become the “magical” eyepiece, so to speak, that help you spot the creatures out and about in your neighborhood. The app “skins” Google Maps with a virtual, treasure-hunting overlay. And as you walk down the street, the screen displays playgrounds, landmarks, businesses and parks (among other things) that have been assigned as PokéStops—places where you can acquire Poké Balls (little virtual devices used to capture the wandering critters), as well as other healing and power-up prizes.
PokéStops are also great places to find Pokémon. The creatures can actually show up anywhere, from your bedroom closet to local landmarks, but PokéStops are surefire gathering grounds. Other trainers with phones in hand will often toss down a virtual “lure” at those stops that will cause Pokémon to start popping up for the next 30 minutes. And then it’s just a matter of spotting them through the magic of your phone and tossing a Poké Ball at them with a finger stroke on your touchscreen.
Then, repeat that process several hundred times.
There are scores and scores of Pokémon to be found. And you’ll need to find multiples of any given creature to make the first one you capture stronger. Every one you collect comes with accompanying stuff called “Stardust” and “Candy,” and large quantities of those virtual substances are required for an upgrade. Only after many hours of collecting and traveling can you evolve your, say, Pidgey into a more powerful Pidgeotto.
But why go to all that trouble, you ask?
Well, besides the collecting challenge, you’ll want to power-up and evolve your magical “Pocket Monsters” (which is what Pokémon is short for) in order for them to have enough “Combat Points” to stand even the slightest chance at competing against other trainers’ Pokémon during battles. When you take your pumped-up Pokés to a virtual Gym (denoted on your phone’s map), you’ll find that someone has already claimed it with a powerful creature or creatures of their own. They don’t even need to be there to join the battle, their Pokémon fights all on its own as you tap-tap-tap the screen in an effort to take it down and replace it with yours.
Then, repeat that process over and over, too.
A lot of people have rightly praised Pokémon Go for its meet-folks-in-the-park social interactivity and its ability to push young gamers outside to play. And those are cool elements of the game—especially if parents are deepening relationships by playing with their kids. But Pokémon Go is also a massive time-gobbler for anyone who really wants to be competitive at the Poké Gyms. There’s no finesse in the battle side of things. You either have the biggest, baddest, pumped-up Pocket Monster around or you get virtually beaten to a pulp (though not in a graphic way).
And if you don’t want to spend the myriad hours trying to maximize your Poké’s virtual muscles, you’ll can always spend actual cash. Ah, yes, that’s how game’s creators at Niantic hope to monetize this new augmented-gaming reality. At the app’s built-in shop, players can use real-world money to buy everything from better Poké Balls to exotic Poké Eggs to special XP-boosts that help young gamers cut back on the time requirements. And that could potentially be an expensive proposition if not overseen by a level-headed adult.
Of course, we haven’t even spoken about people walking off cliffs while glued to their phone screens in search of a rare find. (Really. That happened to two oblivious players in California.) Or kids encountering unsavory sorts during their hunts. Or the problem of buggy servers that crash over and over.
And then there’s the overarching Pokémon worldview, one that has always revolved around an Eastern-inspired blend of mystical creatures combined with evolution. In the case of this game, that spirituality has been dialed back considerably since there’s really no story to tell here. But it’s still part of the franchise’s overall milieu.
So, it seems only wise to suggest that those planning to jump on this new “gotta catch ’em all” bandwagon take a little time to consider their steps, both figuratively … and in reality. If you need more help navigating the obscure world of Pokémon Go, download our Pokémon Go Guide for Parents that highlights discerning discussion points to help you decide what is best for your kids.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.