It doesn’t matter if something is free, fun and helping people get exercise. If it involves Smartphones and young people, it’s got to be evil.
Up until last week I wasn’t playing Pokemon Go. I didn’t have great memories of Pokemon from when I was a child. The TV show was a weird blur of high-pitched noises and bright colours and the card game was too confusing. I could barely remember what any of them were called so I tended to give them names which described what they looked like (Horse on Fire, Plant Thing, Scary Dude… actually, a lot of them ended up being called Scary Dude).
I was in a bad mood last week so I decided to give it a try. And it’s… been really good.
But it turns out you can play only one of two games at the moment: Pokemon Go or Let’s Sneer At People Who Play Pokemon Go. Apparently by enjoying the game I’m essentially hurling myself into traffic in slavish pursuit of a Pikachu because I’m a brain-dead zombie without an independent thought in my head. Smug memes have been popping up on my Facebook constantly since the game was released, reminding us that if lots of people are enjoying something, they’re probably all stupid.
I don’t have a lot of patience for people who criticise things without actually knowing anything about them, so if you’re not up to speed, here’s my plain language guide to the game:
Pokemon Go is a game where you walk around collecting Pokemon (li’l animals) using Pokeballs (containers). When you’re out and about with your phone, you turn on the game and it’s like looking at a cartoon version of Google Maps. There are roads on it and shapes where buildings are in real life. You walk along the road and your character walks along the road on the screen. The only difference is, when you see an animal on your phone, it’s… not actually there in real life (but I’m hoping that’s obvious).
The object is to collect the animals with the containers but first you have to get the containers. You can only get the containers from Pokestops (specific places around the city). If you run out of containers, you can’t have any more until you find the next Pokestop. It’s a bit like running out of milk and needing to find the nearest corner shop. There are lots of them all over the place and you can see where they are on your phone.
Then you can catch the animals. They sort of appear at random and some are rarer than others, so people tend to get excited when they find the rare ones. Like how people like to look at peacocks but not pigeons? It’s almost literally like that. Once you have enough of one type of animal, you can evolve it (change it into a slightly better version of the same animal – I’m not really bothered by this part as it pretty much just translates to Scary Dude Becomes Even Scarier Dude in my opinion).
The point of making the animals stronger is so you can fight them against the animals of other players. You do this at places called Gyms which again you can see on your phone. I’m not so bothered about this bit either because I’m not that competitive, but it’s something you can do if you want. I prefer the walking around, collecting stuff part.
And that’s more or less it. The benefit for me is the walking around, the colourful pictures of animals and the fact that I’m learning things about the city I live in from playing this game. When you find a Pokestop, a little picture appears on your phone which tells you about the real-life place you’re standing in. (I did have a pang as to whether a Spanish war memorial is an appropriate place to be collecting virtual spangly raspberries to feed to virtual jumping animals, but then again I didn’t even know the memorial was there until the game told me. Swings and roundabouts).
There are also bonuses the game gives you for walking certain distances which gives people an incentive to get outside and go for a walk or a jog. I walked into town and back instead of getting the bus yesterday. It’s a walk I usually hate because it’s incredibly inaccessible for pedestrians. You have to choose between a scary secluded underpass and a very busy Pelican crossing (where many drivers seem to see red lights as optional). There’s an unbelievable amount of traffic and therefore lots of lovely fumes to breathe in. If you’re a woman, it’s also a hotbed for street harassment. In fact, while I was walking yesterday I was accosted by a White Van Man who thought it’d be funny to make high-pitched noises of arousal at me while he was driving past. Luckily, I’d just caught an Electrabuzz so that gave me a decent enough distraction.
And therein lies the beauty of the game; it makes it easier for anxious or vulnerable people to go outside. You’re not worried about what people think of you, you’re focused on getting to the next place where you can collect the shiny things. You’re not anxious about talking to people, you’ve already got something in common. In fact, the only self-conscious feelings I had yesterday were about being judged negatively by people who don’t play, people who may sneer at me should they happen to glance at the screen of my phone. And it hit me: The only negative thing about this experience is all the people who are being negative about it. (If you’re going to bring up stories about people being hit by cars in pursuit of a Jigglypuff, people have been dying in stupid ways for a very long time and I’m not convinced that Pokemon Go is to blame. If you don’t know that looking forwards while you walk is important then there’s not much that can help you.)
I walked far enough to get a decent amount of exercise and avoid paying a fare to sit on a germ-covered bus full of screaming kids which is travelling at roughly 2 miles an hour. But I wouldn’t have done it if I hadn’t been playing the game. That has to be a good thing. So if you want to sneer or draw a cartoon where Pikachu is stamping on my face or something, go ahead. I’m not about to start feeling disgusted with myself for going outside and feeling better.