Pokémon Go, capturing your world

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The allure of augmenting your reality with your imagination is clear enough. Now, add some nostalgia, cute creatures, your favourite neighbourhood, a recurring reward structure, and you have a phenomenon that's a real walk in the park.

“I just saw a guy jump out of the bushes to catch an Ekans,” a friend told me on the phone last week. After joking about having to “evade real-life snakes to catch digisnakes”, he told me to hop on the bandwagon already. As a long-time fan of the cartoon series, the games, and the Pokémon world since I was a kid, I immediately downloaded the .apk file of Pokémon Go off the internet. I was hooked within an hour. It didn’t hurt that this was free.

Pokémon Go, in case you have not already been inundated with information on the subject, is a mobile game that uses augmented reality — animated graphics are superimposed onto the real world as seen through phone cameras — to allow players to “catch Pokémon” using GPS navigation and real-world walking (with your real feet).

^ The thrill of finding cute little rewards, popping up in places that familiarity has rendered mundane, is Pokémon Go's appeal. | Reuters

Pokémon, or “Pocket Monsters”, are digital creatures with different powers depending on their type: water, fire, rock, psychic, and so on. Based on Nintendo’s wildly popular games of the nineties, 146 of the original 151 Pokémon are currently available for capture. Once caught, Pokémon can be trained and made to evolve with the aim of fighting battles for the player at virtual “Pokémon gyms”. In the animated series, protagonist Ash Ketchum travels around the globe, collecting these creatures in order to become the greatest Pokémon Master in the world. Today, Pokémon Go is allowing us to live his dream. Since they are not real, the ethics of stuffing your digital pets into little Pokéballs — you can procure these at virtual Pokéstops — and using them to fight for you is not really a problem.

The arguments against buying into this particularly capitalist dream aside, the game personally allowed me to make my dream of achievable goals come true almost instantly. All I had to do was walk.

I live just outside the more metropolitan areas of Bengaluru, so I slipped on some flip-flops (silly move) and left my house, excited to leave my apartment for the first time in a while. I have an avatar I could customise to suit my preferences, but over time I hope the creators expand on that by including a more diverse set of looks and styles. At first glance, the game play isn’t particularly challenging either — there’s barely any strategising required, and the pay-off is immediate. Phone batteries everywhere are suddenly feeling the burden. There are several games that have genuinely stunning graphics and artwork, and this is not one of them. What makes it tick?

I caught my first Pokémon in five minutes and felt a little thrill. It was a good start. What I naïvely didn’t expect (but was swiftly reminded of) was that I would have to avoid not snakes, but the decidedly unabashed men on the streets. The beauty was that I was too distracted by the freshness of augmented reality and cute little animated creatures to care very much. I felt empowered by the task at hand, truly believing that if I had a friendly conversation with the most approachable looking lech, I could convince him to give up his day job of upholding the patriarchy and get himself a little monster too. By day three, I found that I had walked a good fifteen kilometers. I went around to five different parks, intriguing older joggers who probably assumed that I was just ridiculously obsessed with selfies in grassy nooks.

^ When the prospect of capturing a Pokémonster beckons, your feet have a mind of their own. | AP

When I was a kid, my brother and I used to make our parents buy us Pokémon cards and we’d walk around the neighbourhood, trying to trade them for better cards. I still remember holding a Mewtwo (an extremely rare psychic Pokémon) in my hand, with its glittery background, ecstatic that I was its owner. Of course, a few days later I discovered it was a fake. But in Pokémon Go, it can’t be! Fictional pets are now digitally legitimised and cannot officially be disregarded anymore. Being in my ’twenties did not prevent the childish glee with which I took on the mantle of “Pokémon Trainer” and my natural instinct for competition solidly motivated a quick two-kilometer jog. I attribute this to augmented reality, which is undoubtedly the future in a post-Pokémon Go world. AR, while not as extreme as VR (Virtual Reality), is the perfect platform through which to channel the fantasy of seeing a Pokémon in real life — a long-held dream among fans. To participate in something this futuristic is an interesting experience and looking through a mobile phone screen to see a magical creature on your bookshelf is some pretty powerful stuff.

This is not the first time AR has been used in gaming, but this is the first time it has hooked the mainstream in such a huge way. Pokémon Go isn’t just “viral”, it’s super-viral. And that is an understatement.

Before Pokémon Go, there was Ingress, also owned by Niantic (originally an internal Google project which utilises Google’s complex and controversial mapping technology).

Pokémon Go has surpassed Twitter in the number of daily active users. People spend more time on the app than on Facebook. And all this is before the game has been officially released in Asia.

Ingress is a multiplayer online “exergame” that requires players to join two teams and move around the real world to capture “portals”. It didn’t have this level of global reach, though it was a modest success. Integrating Nintendo’s already well-established world of Pokémon with the mapping data collected by Ingress and Google is a stroke of business genius, and has all but ensured global domination.

It has shrewdly hit the sweet spot of our Americanised (originally Japanese — credit where it’s due) nostalgia and growing obsession with virtual reality. Freud would want to witness this.

And what about the game’s social aspect? Walking to various “Pokéstops” — location-specific areas that allow you to collect Pokéballs, Revives (Pokémon medical treatment), Lures (these attract Pokémon to you) and Eggs (un-hatched Pokémon you birth by walking a set distance) is an adventure in and of itself. I bumped into two young men in running shoes at the local Pokéstop, and we gave each other thumbs-ups as they sauntered past me in the middle of their quest. This means I made acquaintances without having to make small talk. Can I do this forever?

The implications of the game in general have provoked a lot of questions. Niantic requires that you submit personal details if you sign up with a Google account. As someone who generally tries to keep my personal information away from the all-consuming Google eye (while having several Gmail accounts, and I don’t even cover my laptop camera with tape), I wondered if I should quit and stop >feeding more information to the tech giant on a principles-only basis.

^ Perhaps Pokémon Go was not designed with Indian roads in mind. But then again, few things are. | K.R. Deepak

It’s not officially out in India, and as I sat by the liquor store next to Ganesh Temple (Pokéstops are curiously either near parks or religious landmarks), I thought more about what it meant to play this highly interactive game as a woman. It annoyed me to realise that I couldn’t walk on the road late at night to catch Fairy Pokémon. Walking into a lonely park is not advisable, and having to constantly be on alert for catcallers and gentlemen without boundaries can get exhausting. It was also important to keep in mind that residing in a country heavily delineated by socially constructed notions of class and caste debilitates the universality of Pokémon Go. While avoiding the fiftieth pothole on the sidewalk, it struck me that the virtual world we engage with is not tailored to suit the real one. Or is it the other way around?

But wait, I hatched my first Bulbasaur! This means I walked five kilometers “incubating my egg” until a little plant monster was born. I cracked a couple of menstruation jokes in my head just to give the adventure a little more edge.

Players have claimed that Pokémon Go has had a >positive impact on their mental health. I will grudgingly agree with this. The game is too fresh for me to show scientific studies as “proof”, but I can safely say that the distraction really improved my own outlook on 2016 in general. People who suffer from depression often find it difficult to motivate themselves to exercise, even though the benefits of fitness and physical exertion are almost universally known. A (probably unintentional) side-effect of Pokémon Go is all the endorphins. The game also requires players to explore outdoor surroundings. Pokémon can be found in parks, playgrounds, near lakes and in your bedroom if you are very lucky. I’m personally hoping that Pokémon Go players will soon rise up in revolt over Bengaluru’s unchecked destruction of lakes and gardens even if it is to save their Pokéstops. Where will all the Water Pokémon go without >Bellandur Lake?

Meanwhile, when we’re all busy exploring the world in our running shoes, collecting imaginary creatures, Nintendo’s stock prices have surged by 25% as of this week. If you’re never going to get into actually playing this game, Nintendo’s ability to catch us all is a fascinating story in itself. At present, the market value has risen to $7.5 billion and it continues to rise. It has surpassed social media giant Twitter in the number of daily active users, >people spend more time on the app than on Facebook (finally!), and all this is before the game has been officially released in Asia. The numbers are staggering. Another pleasant surprise — it has more daily active users than popular dating app Tinder. Who needs love when you can have Pokémon?

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