I know something has hit the zeitgeist once my mother starts a conversation about it, but last night showed me something more. We drove to our local park to unwind after our respective workdays, and found literal hundreds of people playing Pokemon GO. On a weeknight at 10 p.m., all of them were in packs, checking their phones. A stranger asked through our car window if we saw the Ponyta nearby, which my mom caught while I took the park’s gym for my team. Our family bonding became a group activity.

Pokemon GO is the zeitgeist, and the statistics don’t lie. Within days, it was more downloaded than Tinder and more used than Twitter. Nintendo, who’s only indirectly involved (non-majority shareholders in developer Niantic and publisher The Pokemon Company), doubled their value in 2 weeks, and had the best stock market day anyone’s seen this century. GO became the most popular and highest grossing app within 24 hours. Video games are pushing into the mainstream elsewhere– Street Fighter 5 just had tournament finals on ESPN2— but Pokemon GO is on your Facebook wall and just down your street.

“Why” has a counter-intuitive answer. Pokemon GO is the epitome of a trend, one which recognizes that while people aren’t inherently evil, it’s easier for them to be selfish. This is the kind of game that wants to bring people together, and one would expect Niantic to reward the social, and punish the antisocial. But instead, Pokemon GO is so popular because it throws out moralism altogether. Nothing is necessarily gained or lost by however you choose to play with others, and in that situation, most people play nice anyway. Pokemon GO is a fascinating response to problems the entire game industry has struggled with since its inception.

Pokemon GO

Some context: These are the dying days of playing games with someone sitting next to you. They’re losing their physical presence just as much as literature is. Video games have been social since Pong, and that socializing has always been limited. You’re not having meaningful discourse with your enemies, and you rarely do more than strategize with, compliment, or …”critique” your teammates. People discuss single-player games, but that isn’t exceptional from other storytelling mediums.

The real problem is the gaming community. “Gamers” are stereotyped as “hardcore” or “casual.” If you like a movie, and someone accuses you of “entry-level knowledge” about it, the average moviegoer would call that person an asshole. But you can basically expect it joining most gaming communities. The “average” gamer is how companies talk about “hardcore” gamers, the ones who they hear from most. And then there are the types that send developers death threats for delaying a game two months.

Playing further into that community division, there’s the execution barrier. In poker, you can bluff and raise with a word. In Street Fighter 5, try to recognize, let alone pull off, a jump-in high kick, medium kick, high kick, right, down-left, right, high punch into EX Shoryu OR confirm into Ultra on a 5-frame wakeup. That’s an actual, and fairly basic, 4-hit “b&b” (bread and butter) combo— meaning you should be able to pull it off mid-fight, at will. And if you’re spectating, you have to know this flurry isn’t button-mashing, and know what it represents.

You don’t have to understand the plays to enjoy watching football, but unless you do actual research, watching high-level competitive games is usually a frenetic mess. And this isn’t an outlying problem for games– remember, Street Fighter 5 was just on ESPN2. This is one of the mainstream ones.

Street Fighter V

It’s not like video games are the only medium with an antisocial problem though. Facebook and other massively social media often reward pithy comments more than personal messages. Most aren’t as successful for making friends as they are for connecting with current ones, and if you’re going to communicate with a stranger, it’s usually not going to be through a conversation, it’s going to be a like on a comment on a meme.

So how can a game like Pokemon GO offer a gaming and social experience nothing else can?

Pokemon is a cultural touchstone; everyone knows Pikachu. Pokemon GO realized, brilliantly, that this allows divergent in-game experiences still immediately recognizable to other players. If you saw a coyote on the way to work and I saw a fox, we’d talk about it. Now say you caught a Growlithe, and I caught a Vulpix. Same idea.

Even without cultural standing, the game’s incredibly accessible. Catching Pokemon is simple, but dramatized to be fun. Pokemon get Combat Point ratings, but also XL or XS size and weight, so if combat doesn’t interest you, collect cute or swole ‘mon. Gym battles are simple taps, holds, and swipes; they’re kind of broken, but anyone can get into them. And the “Candy” system keeps players catching redundant Pokemon. Even once you’ve caught them all, you can always catch more to power up.

And simply put, Pokemon GO’s limited systems are its greatest social impact.

Pokemon GO

Pokemon GO forces you to communicate. The poor tutorial pushes real-world communication about how the systems work. This led to discoveries, like forcing Eevee evolutions, and even how to throw the ball well. In a similar way, once you figure out how to play, the awful ‘nearby’ tracking is, perhaps, intentional. The game places PokeStops at exact locations, but only gives you ambiguous paw prints as a distance marker for Pokemon. The vague tracker forces you to get lost and, presumably, group up and explain where that Ryhorn is hiding.

The game rewards foot-traffic through busy spaces. Pokemon locations will refresh when standing still, but you’ll find many more by traveling. Movement improves Incense’s efficacy, for instance. But mainly, Eggs hatch some rare Pokemon and practically spill Candy, but they require almost a daily walking regimen to meet the 2-10 km requirements.

You can buy most items, but the only way to get some (and the only free way to get others) is PokeStops. They’re concentrated in busy areas as designated by Niantic’s previous game Ingress, and because which items and how many you get are randomized, you’ll need to hit a few to get what you need. You can wait for one to refresh, but walking to the next is more efficient.

And cars aren’t going to help you. Any movement above bike speed won’t contribute to Egg hatching, and because of server delay, you’re usually too far from Pokemon or PokeStops to activate them by the time the game loads them in.

Pokemon GO

Pokemon GO necessitates being around people for its best sedentary features. Gyms require proximity, and when you fight a Gym, you can see any other Pokemon fighting with you. To take or hold a Gym usually requires a few people training there or attacking a Gym at the same time, also in close proximity– fighting a 10-Pokemon Gym over and over drains too many items.

The teams are a mixed bag, because some people will always overdo competitiveness, but it’s a motivator: Help YOUR team at gyms. There are only 3 teams, so not as binary as other games, but still simple enough that people can care. And teams can be ignored if you just want to catch Pokemon.

Lure’s are inspired. They’re the only sign a player has on their map of other players’ present activity, and it has to be used at a PokeStop, usually a busy area. With the Lure helping everyone around catch more Pokemon, people gather.

Most importantly: Pokemon appear in the same place for you as for other people, but you can still all catch the same Pokemon in the same spot. You haven’t played Pokemon GO until you’ve seen 30 people pour out of several nearby bars at 12:30 a.m. to catch a Bulbasaur.

What this all means is that when you and a stranger walk to the same spot with your phones out, you can laugh about trying to catch the same Pokemon, then ask what team they’re on. And the community can choose how seriously to take itself: Whether you answer that you’re on red/yellow/blue team or team Valor/Instinct/Mystic is a decent initial indication of how much you care, especially because most people’s team choice was spur-of-the-moment.

Full disclosure: Red is my favorite color, Zapdos is my favorite bird, and Mystic is my favorite team name. The choice was hard.

Pokemon GO

But you by no means have to interact with others. Coast off other people’s Lures. Chip away at Gyms, snipe empty ones, train on your own. Defend elementary school gyms, or take them down Team Rocket style. And get the same XP. Once, I passed a bar with CP700 Pokemon fighting for power. So I slipped in my CP1500 Dragonite. The roar as I walked away was life-affirming. Trading is coming, but even it won’t be necessary to success— someone’s already caught them all (that are available in North America).

But most people are friendly. I saw people I haven’t seen in over 4 years while out. I met strangers who appreciated a “Hey,” or appreciated when I left it at that. I crossed my city twice with a friend to catch up and hunt Pokemon, and I’ve ignored friends to ensure that I caught a Tauros. And none of those decisions, good or bad, directly affected my game.

Future updates may allow more player interaction with more benefits, but as it stands, you can play however you feel in a moment— wandering and staying in your own head, or tossing banter around a gazebo with 3 Lures around it, asking who caught the Haunter that just showed up.

As they say, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. Pokemon GO treats social interaction like that water: Lead a bunch of people to the same place with the same thirst (to play Pokemon, but, really, to love Pokemon), and leave them to their own devices. This isn’t always an innocent process. Some people have committed robberies with GO, some have felt unsafe playing GO, some have begun sticking VR Pokemon in unfortunate situations.

But for the most part, it’s just made people’s daily lives better. I taught my mother how to play, and I helped her get her first starter, and I lied about last night: She didn’t catch the Ponyta, I helped her catch it, and then we thanked the stranger for the tip. Pokemon GO doesn’t ask us to behave a certain way, it just gives us a shared reason to go outside and be people. It just so happens that most people want to be good.

  • Limit Break

    People are stupid, casual and of no high requirments for their entertainment.
    That is why it’s so sucessful.

    If I was wrong games like Silent Hill 2 or Spec Ops: The Line would’ve sold millions upon millions, but they don’t, because people are stupid, casual and have no standarts for their entertainment. Sad truth of the world.

    • Derek Dashiell

      I think some tasteless things become popular (most TV talent shows come to mind), but I’m hopeful that people deserve more credit than that. Silent Hill 2 is a challenging game with some baffling progression moments and some of the most stressful gameplay I’ve ever seen, and it’s still sold over half a million copies. The average steam game only sells 32,000 copies. I have fun with GO, and it’s free on my phone– I’ll play more engaging games, but I’ll play GO too.

      • Limit Break

        And you will fortify mobile casual market even further by doing so.
        In the end we’ll have only ourselves to blame for giving the world the precedent of Pokemon Go’s sucess… When they’ll be only indie games to play, instead of proper high-budget releases.
        Back in the PS2 days every single month had awesome or at the very least very decend games to play, of such variety it was baffling…
        Now it’s only casual shit, mostly uninspired JRPGS, online shooters and fucking First-Person walking horror simulators.

        Overblown budgets, lack of user demand and overall greed will put this industry into another dark age…

        • Derek Dashiell

          I’m surprised you don’t like any modern games. The Souls series have been a solid hardcore offering, for instance, and Persona is keeping JRPGs strong.
          But I don’t see a problem with a growing “casual” market, I think casual games help introduce people to more involved games. I know someone who started with Zelda and recently read 100+ pages on Bloodborne lore.
          Sure, phone games are often uninspired, but they’re just one part of the market. I hope you’re able to find some modern games that remind you of the PS2’s heyday. If you ever liked LucasArts or Double Fine, I’d recommend looking into Headlander.

          • Limit Break

            The part of the market which eats up so much money with so little effort put into them it is horrifying !!!
            Also, I didn’t say I don’t like any modern games. The other thing is that these modern games are based entirely of old franchises and properties, which is good, the tried and true formula of King’s Field being reborn in Bloodborne and Dark Souls, as well as Persona series being more popular then it’s mother – Shin Megami Tensei. It’s all fine and okay. But the frequency of such releases became really rare… For example, when was the last time we had a high-budget classic survival horror-inspired game ? It was The Evil Within, October 2014.
            When was the last classic first-person shooter ? It was DOOM, came out this year, but before it all we had to eat were degenerative militaristic first-person shooters which blossomed with the stupifying financial sucess of CoD Modern Warfare.

            What makes me fucking mad is that the games I like, the ones that remind me of how these franchises and games used to be are either no longer popular among the crowd or are deemed old and too tiresome to develop and market… I am mad about RE7, about this poisonous tendency of making First-Person horror walking simulators in hopes of capitalizing on screaming YouTubers and P.T. buzz, I am mad at Konami for making me watch how they rip their own intestines out and try to wear them as acessories, I am mad at the fact that Platinum Games is just a studio that works on exclusive deals… Where is my Devil May Cry 5, for example ? It has been 8 years, more time then it took for all the 4 games to come out, it’s driving me insane. Bayonetta 2 is kinda the closest I have to a proper DMC game right now, but, yet, again, it is exclusive to a console that has little to no appeal for me overall…
            I mean… I am just tired and angry.
            And I would not have been tired or angry if only we were still living in PS1-PS2 era of gaming, where technical limitations of hardaware were either carefully masked as gameplay mechanic (Silent Hill 1’s fog and darkness effects), or were ignored in favor of a more simple, yet much more appropriate experience (Resident Evil’s drawn enviroments and fonts)… Where development costs were not all that high and thus didn’t have to earn back at least 2.5 of it’s development costs…
            All these fucking graphical upgrades, all these not needed inventions and shit… In enviroment like the one we live in right now it is only natural that casual mobile market is going to earn the most money, because it is made for dirt cheap, published only in digital form, for almost every phone everybody has these days and will sometimes only tempt you with microtransactional bullshit…
            That is a reason why console gaming and PC gaming (that is very dependent on consoles too these days) struggle – it got too bloated and now has to survive by consuming more of the same, more of the popular and less of that which demands serious risks, serious, maybe even lifelong investment…
            If I am wrong you will be able to tell me the name of a video game series that could be a very interesting alternative to Metal Gear’s 25+ year old history, full of political intrigue with a brand strange humour, a cast of otherworldy characters that you can still relate to, with a story which is yet to come to an end in the most spectacular way possible. You won’t, because it doesn’t exist. And thus I am left in the middle of the desert, in love with nothing, with too high of a standart in mind to like anything else, spoiled by it. In aggravating search for something compelling.

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