Pokemon Go: A Benevolent Epidemic

The Earth has seen many terrible diseases. Plagues, blights, and viruses have swept this planet, wiping out millions and making irrevocable holes in our racial memory. Never before, however, have we seen one so insidious as this.

Slack-jawed and dull-eyed, these zombies roam the streets of our cities, creating traffic jams and disturbing peace with loud outbursts. They travel in packs. They hunt even at night. No man, woman or child is safe to leave their homes. That one unwary chimp downloaded Pokemon Go, and 28 days later the world was lost to it.

Staying as I am in Brisbane in Queensland, Australia, I have been especially vulnerable to this infectious disease. Here the game is so popular it warrants public safety signs reminding you to “remain aware of your surroundings”, as well as signs advertising “Pokemon Gyms”. The banks of the river are lined with drooling cretins attempting to satisfy their craving for coloured pixels, and when walking at night one can scarce meet another human not ensconced in the game.

I am sorry to say that I too have fallen prey. Even now my iPhone calls to me. Perhaps if I just opened the game, another Squirtle will be standing on the table-top in front of me- one more step to an evolution. I have been flooded with Zubats, Doduos, and Magikarps, but I know there are more interesting ones out there! Perhaps I should just join the herd.

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For all its infectious and addictive qualities, Pokemon Go is a benevolent epidemic. In my first days of playing I went out on a Pokemon Hunt in the evening; not only finding many more specimen but discovering (and bonding with) other players. By this point, many people will understand the fundamentals of the game, but for those that don’t: a Pokemon Gym is a physical point where players can battle each other. This point then functions much like an outpost in Outland of World of Warcraft that belongs to one of the teams (of which there are three). This in itself creates healthy competition, as well as the oh-so-important bond between members of the same team. Positioning the Gym in real space means that many people will congregate there- players meeting players face to face! What other game has offered this opportunity?

While my friend and I sat on some steps at the Gym, fellow players rolled past on a skateboard, stopped and asked: “did you get the Bulbasaur back there?” We had. And we also got a conversation about Pokemon Go.

This is Ivy, Louis, William, Mark and Paul who I met on my evening Pokemon Hunt

This is Ivy, Louis, William, Mark and Paul who I met on my evening Pokemon Hunt

This game offers the totally new opportunity to see gamers in the flesh, outside of conventions- in the wild if you will, and away from their watering holes. Just walking around the city of Brisbane I spied on everyone with their smartphones out to see if they were on the game. Pretty much everyone was- and that is no exaggeration. This may be a staggering fact- shocking, terrifying and seemingly insidious. However think about the fact that, finally, we have a forum for connection in the real world.

Pokemon is infectious. As much as any virus. But unlike a virus, it actually has huge potential to create connections on a real, personal level. If you take a real, hard look at the game and all the problems people associate with it, you see that these problems are easy to avoid. Potential of becoming an addiction and wasting time? This is a potential problem with any game but is easily combatted when nipped in the bud. Spending money on data and on buying things in-game? It’s everyone’s choice how to spend their money and this is as valid as any. People endangering themselves and others by walking blindly around? Frankly, these people deserve all the bruised knees and embarrassing blunders that are coming their way.

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Pokemon Go has done something utterly radical and totally different by creating a multiplayer game that at every turn encourages players to get out and about and explore their environment. To find Pokemon you need to walk. To get to Pokestops and Gyms you need to walk. To hatch eggs you need to walk. Granted some players will walk head down and remain closed to any personal interaction, and some will roll around on skateboards or bikes instead of walking; but the truth is that most will not. In my experience, most gamers are very open to chat and meet with other gamers, and now we have an excuse to do it face to face, unplanned and outside of crowded conventions.

The game has paved the way in for many people previously disconnected from the gaming world. Casual gamers and hard-core gamers alike are lumped together and forced into the same space (which is an infinitely positive thing), and when I return to Ireland I hope to find all my gamer friends (as well as my “regular” friends) playing the game. I look forward to going on group Hunts with them.

The Earth may be lost to this disease in the years to come. The desire to “catch ‘em all” may spread even to the most remote corners of our planet. Our children may grow up in a world where people meet up at “the Gym on Grafton Street” for a date and attend mass gatherings of Pokemon zombies. But personally, that’s not the worst world I can imagine for years to come.

The Earth has seen many terrible diseases. Plagues, blights, and viruses have swept the world. But a world overcome by Pokemon Go is one I wouldn’t mind living in.

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