I’m staring at my local gym leader’s cp 1323 Exeggutor and struggling to understand the popularity of Pokémon Go. It’s been a few weeks since the game came out and I just don’t get. My day job is literally to get this kind of stuff, to understand what makes a trending game interesting to the millions of people who play it, but it’s hard. As someone deeply embedded in the games industry, I’ve never felt more out of touch. Maybe I’m getting old.
Alright, well to be fair, I do understand the basic allure of Pokémon Go. Pokémon is a huge franchise with a lot of nostalgia attached to it. It’s no surprise people familiar with Pikachu and the gang are checking out the app. I also see why the quirky ARG overlay of Pokémon sitting on your coffee table or something is funny in a gimmicky sort of way — hey, look, it’s Koffing in a vape shop. Hell, I can even see why folks rally around the fictional teams of Valor, Mystic, and Instinct. We’re all familiar with group mentality and the sorting hat.
All of these things explain why one audience or another would find this game interesting. Even so, it’s the scale and enormity that I find disarming and even unsettling. Every game website on the internet has dozens of Pokémon Go articles available and several more in the pipeline. Traditional publications like the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and The Atlantic have also jumped on the bandwagon. We’ve also seen reports about Pokémon Go players getting shot, stabbed, run over, kidnapped, and probably swept out to sea from every tabloid press around. I saw a food blog today list out how certain pokémon would taste when eaten.
It’s a smorgasbord of Pokémon Go related content on the internet, all to feed a bizarrely diverse following. Everyone from young children to the elderly are playing the game. Pokémon Go is the nail in the coffin for the myth of the generation gap. The pokéfever also crosses political lines. For example, witness Hillary Clinton at a Pokestop, while Donald Trump aired an attack ad that cast Hillary in the role of a pokémon. The game is purportedly building grass roots communities and getting people to enjoy nature. It’s also stirring up controversy when played at memorial sites and stirring up a discussion about immigration reform (yes, really!).
Pokémon Go is so accessible, so universally applicable to any conversation today, that it must be devoid of meaning on its own. Pokémon Go is a milquetoast piece of entertainment. It’s bland porridge in a Ninja Turtles cereal bowl, so it seems more digestible. It’s a shallow diversion that has somehow morphed into a cultural and economic phenomenon.
What’s worse is that for many people playing Pokémon Go, this is the moment they “understand” gaming. They’re a part of it now. Acquaintances I once heard ridicule games as a form of entertainment are asking where they can find Snorlax. When this fad passes, will they stick around to explore what games have to offer? Will they search out the challenging, emotional, evocative indie games made with care? Will they consider playing the triple-A games that move the medium forward narratively or otherwise? If there’s a game that resets how people look at games, please, oh please, don’t let this be it.