Monday Musings: Why I still play Pokemon GO

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The video game Pokemon was released for the Nintendo Game Boy, a handheld gaming device in 1996. The game follows a young child as they explore a world filled with creatures called pokemon, that you capture and train to battle in a championship league, while also saving the world by battling an evil team bent on world domination. Pokemon spawned multiple sequels and an animated series that expands on the story of each video game sequel (also called generations). The result generated hundreds of millions of loyal followers around the world. In July of 2016, in celebration of its 20th anniversary, The Pokemon Company released a long-awaited mobile game, Pokemon GO. The fan response was so extensive, that the full release of the game was staggered to give developers time to ensure the game servers were strong enough to handle millions of users at once. I wasn’t able to access the game until early August, but once I was in, I was hooked.

There was a tinge of nostalgia, the enjoyment of a new platform and gameplay engine, and the feeling of actually “catching” these little monsters that used to be confined to one of the many handheld GameBoy systems. The game is still releasing new versions, which means new generations of creatures, and Pokemon GO thus far has a trend of adding one new generation each year. Currently, the game is in the midst of releasing the rest of “Generation 6”, while the traditional Pokemon has released 8 generations. As the slogan says, “Gotta Catch ‘Em All”.

The hook for me was the instant community that formed because of Pokemon GO. Sure, the GameBoy versions have seen hundreds of millions of players, but those were mostly solo adventures or played as a small group of one’s closest friends. The Pokemon GO Los Angeles Facebook group has over 17 thousand members and is still very active daily. The game immediately created massive allegiances around the three main teams in the game: Team Valor (Red), Team Instinct (Yellow), and Team Mystic (Blue). Once a player reaches level 5, they pick a team and instantly have hundreds, if not thousands, of local players on that same team.

Before the pandemic, hundreds of people (many from this community) would gather every month in Montrose and would walk up and down Honolulu Ave during designated Community Days in search of featured pokemon. If there were raids on a legendary pokemon, players would gather at the location and would split into their respective Pokemon GO teams and make sure each raid group is full, which gives every player a better chance at catching the targeted pokemon. It was never a competition, we would all cheer each other on, hoping at least some member of those raid parties would get really strong versions of the pokemon, or even a rare shiny version.

One of the best parts about Pokemon GO is that the game got people out of the house and walking around. Unfortunately, that exact aspect of the game resulted in the phenomenon of the summer of 2016 where there were hundreds of stories of things going haywire. From “zombified” players walking into traffic because they were too focused on the game, driving distracted while playing, and even very unfortunate stories of some players being attacked by predators or, even worse, by other players. None of these stories deterred me personally, because, as tragic as some of these incidents were, the vast majority of them were players not being aware of their surroundings, not the game itself. Thankfully, as time went on the initial buzz began to fade, and these incidents, though still numerous, became less and less. Though down from its peak of 232 million users during its launch, the estimated 166 million players in 2020 is way up from the low point of only 65 million players in 2017, and up from 153 million in 2019.

Community days continued during the pandemic, giving players an avenue of escape during such a trying time. Instead of gathering at locations such as Honolulu Ave in Montrose, many players, myself included, would drive to parks where there are multiple spawning locations and play from the safety of their cars. This past Sunday was a community day for the rare pokemon Gibble, and, as I’ve done throughout the pandemic, I drove to two different parks near town and came away very happy with how many Gibble I was able to catch. Pokemon GO made some changes to make the game easier to play during the pandemic, including allowing friends to participate in raids remotely with friends close to the actual raid regardless of their distance. With this remote ability, I can join raids visible from my house and can invite friends to join in. Thankfully, as the game has advanced, many more spawning locations have been added. These used to be limited to parks, churches, and other locations dubbed “areas of interest”.

I did take time away from Pokemon GO, though I never actually stopped playing for a prolonged period of time. I would go days, maybe a couple of weeks without playing. There was never a moment where I felt I was done with it, but plenty of times when I dropped the game so low on my priority list that it literally was an afterthought. I still participate in the community day because of the environment of being around so many people having fun and working towards the same goal. This community engagement is why I still play. The game has added many new features to keep it fresh, and that is another reason why I still play.

Now I am teaching my kids about pokemon. My daughter was a newborn when the game was first released, and she was introduced to the world of Pokemon through the game. Today, she helps me catch pokemon that she thinks are the cutest, and even interacts with them through the game’s interface. Even my 2-year-old has begun to want to play and be involved in the game. I do like the fact that my kids will also grow up with Pokemon and it can be one of the things we share. That combined with the wonderful social aspect of the game will keep me playing for the foreseeable future, or at the very least until I “Catch ‘Em All”.

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