Unless you’re as ignorant as Pauline Hanson trying to order off the menu at a kebab shop, you’ve no doubt noticed an increase in the number of individuals intently focusing on their smart phones of late. Hordes of nostalgia-driven millennials are descending upon the streets and traipsing around town determined to catch every imaginary creature they can find. Pokemon GO was only released a month ago but has spread faster than bird flu, infecting millions of phones and becoming the latest – and perhaps the single most important – cultural phenomenon of 2016. And I hate it.
I hate it with a sense of frustrated futility as I watch every one I know slowly succumb to downloading the game. I hate the attempted commercialisation of nostalgia. I hate the constant server crashing and the glitches that plagued my time with it and I hate the lack of any deep or meaningful gameplay. But more than anything else – I hate myself for playing it anyway.
I spent one whole week with this disappointing, deficient (yet incredibly addictive) game, playing it constantly until I had a near existential crisis.
Pokemon mania arrived in the late 1990s with Nintendo releasing a series of popular Game Boy games and a companion television series. Soon the creatures were absolutely everywhere. I remember being swept up by this craze, religiously watching the show every morning whilst wrapped up in a blanket and admiring my trading card collection. Pokemon GO only features this original generation of Pokemon that I remember from my childhood. As such I enthusiastically downloaded it as soon as it was released, hoping for a trip down nostalgia-lane. I persisted through the myriad of technical problems the game had upon release and set out for a walk in my local park. But no sooner had I begun immersing myself in the fanciful world of my long-forgotten childhood than my phone died. I was to discover that Pokemon GO churned through a phone battery faster than Donald Trump changes his policies.
Later that day, with the addition of a newly purchased portable battery charger on hand, I set back out on my journey only to come to yet another depressing realisation; Pokemon GO is nothing like the games I so fondly remember playing as a child. Sure, Pokemon games have never been particularly complex. The plot of the games revolves around the adventures of children who are actively encouraged to forgo seeking an education and instead to roam the wilderness seeking wild animals and then forcing said animals to fight one another. The combat system of the games has never been particularly complicated and usually just involves the simple strategy of choosing the type of Pokemon your opponent is weak to. Even the Pokemon designs lack any real sense of creativity. There’s a seal Pokemon called Seel, a pigeon named Pidgey and a monkey called Mankey. Nonetheless, the games undoubtedly hold a simplistic charm which has seen the franchise manage to continue for 20 years releasing what is effectively the same game every few years with a make over and the addition of a new bunch of creatures.
But all these gameplay mechanics that made the franchise so popular are nowhere to be found in Pokemon GO. In fact even calling it a game implies a very liberal definition of the term. Using a player’s smart phone camera and GPS signal the game makes it seem as if wild Pokemon are populating the real world. Whilst walking around real-world locations players may encounter these creatures and attempt to catch them. But this action is done with a simple swiping of one’s finger across the phone screen. Pokemon GO also offers an under-developed gym battling mechanic, but that just boils down to tapping the screen as fast as possible.
Yet despite all my criticisms of the game something drew me in and kept me playing it anyway. On the third day I organised to catch up with my best friend so we could play the game together. We walked along the beach for an hour enthusiastically catching anything that crossed our paths. But at the same time there was this strange sense of embarrassment at how public our actions were. Almost everywhere we walked we encountered other people playing the game, but every time our paths crossed the players would lower their phones so we couldn’t see what they were doing and avert their gaze. It’s reminiscent of that awkward exchange you share with a dog owner when you witness their dog taking a shit in public: you know that the owner has no plans of picking up the shit and is merely waiting for you to move out of sight so he can walk on as if nothing happened. And the owner knows that you know this too. That is Pokemon GO in a nutshell – a bunch of adults ashamed of their actions but doing them anyway.
On the fourth night things started getting weirder. At one stage I found myself running out of the house into the pouring rain just because the game told me a rare Pokemon was nearby. By the fifth night – due to it being cold and rainy – I decided to drive around to find new areas instead of walking. I pulled over outside a local playground that happened to house a Pokemon gym and proceed to ‘battle’ there. There’s something profoundly sombre about the moment you realise that you’re in your mid-twenties and sitting in your car outside a playground at eleven at night trying to catch another Pokemon whilst thinking ‘this isn’t how I thought my life would turn out.’
I’m not sure what it was about Pokemon GO that had engulfed me so much that week. Maybe it was just the appeal to my nostalgia, believing that if I kept catching and evolving Pokemon I could re-live some remnant of time when I was happier and care-free. Or maybe it appealed to a sense of completionism, as I desperately wanted to catch every single one of those little bastards. But at the end of the day I wasn’t actually enjoying myself. I was miserable and distracting myself with an overly complicated pedometer.
Now sure, I will admit that there are some positives to Pokemon GO. The game encourages people to get outside in the real world, socialise and to do and see ‘real’ things. But let’s not kid ourselves. In order to play the game you need to constantly look at your phone, and every time I ventured down to a local PokeStop all I could see were players standing around, squinting at their phones and ignoring one another. Nature is intrinsically beautiful, and essentially gamifying such basic pursuits as going outside is not the right way to experience it. I am very comfortable with my game/life balance and I don’t see the need to mix the two or to pretend that playing Pokemon GO is somehow socially superior to playing PlayStation in my bedroom. AR technology is clever, and I suspect we will see many interesting new things as other companies try to cash in on the success of Pokemon GO. But all Pokemon GO is really doing is distracting us from the very environment it tries to entice us into. Instead of sitting indoors staring mindlessly at our screens we are now unwittingly experiencing the outdoors whilst staring mindlessly at our screens.
At the end of the day I’m sure there are many people out there who are having fun playing Pokemon GO. But you’ve got to admit, it’s a bit fucking weird isn’t it?