Pokémon GO

Heta Saukkonen tried out Pokémon GO – this summer's world-wide phenomenon

Heta Saukkonen tried out Pokémon GO – this summer's world-wide phenomenon

Heta Saukkonen

Heta Saukkonen

Two weeks ago I got an enthusiastic message from my friend. It was accompanied by an image of her room. There was a yellow something in the middle of the picture and it looked very much like an unfortunate combination of a spineless hedgehog and a naughty elephant. “LOOK I FOUND A DROWSEE, IT WAS ON MY BED”, she said. I had just woken up. “You found a what?” My sleepy brain couldn’t quite comprehend until I realized it was the morning of the release of Pokémon GO in Finland. I thought of subtle ways of telling her I’m never going to join any Pokémon squad or even download the app in any circumstances and came up with the best argument I could: “Nononono. That game is from hell.”

I had followed the Pokémon GO world takeover a little during the previous week. The news of teenagers using Pokémon GO’s geolocation feature in an armed robbery did not surprise me as much as I’d hope it would. New mass-psychosis-like crazes, such as Facebook at the time, are easy to exploit before people become aware of their dangers. Still there was no specific reason for my anti-Pokémon attitude, just a hunch. When I’m outside, I like to look at buildings and people and the view in general and not my phone. The less I look at my phone the more engaged I am with my environment and therefore usually more happy. Going out and staring at the screen to find virtual monsters doesn’t seem very appealing. Then people who had never tried the game started filling social media pages suggesting it would be better to do anything but play Pokémon. Go pick berries or play with rocks, they said. It was time to turn my coat and write about it.

On the morning of the release of the game I watched a video of a flock of flamingos prancing left and right with a text “Pokémon GO players searching for Pokémon”. That same day the reality hit: groups of people gathered together grasping their phones or wobbled into a certain direction as if an invisible hand of God was pulling them. The scenario with the pink flamingos was not that far from reality. So that’s how the summer was going to look and how people were going to behave. For the time being, it looked funny and adorable.

Then people who had never tried the game started filling social media pages suggesting it would be better to do anything but play Pokémon. Go pick berries or play with rocks, they said. It was time to turn my coat and write about it.

So I set my feet on the dangerous path of discovering Pokémon madness and pressed the download button. The app demands access to camera and location. It also advises to be cautious of the surroundings and no wonder: there is a really illustrative video parody of a player walking onto stuff, getting hit by a car and falling off the sidewalk into the sea playing Pokémon GO. With my motor coordination skills I’m destined to wind up in an emergency room if the game demands looking at a phone and walking at the same time.

My first Pokémon is Charmander. It used to be my favorite Pokémon in the TV series. It is a little dragon that breathes fire and has a small bonfire at the tip of its tail. It’s on a kitchen chair and makes stupid faces as I try to figure how to catch it. It seems I’m supposed to throw a Poké Ball – small red and white capsule – at it and trap it in there. Somehow I succeed. Soon I find another Pokémon from the apartment. It’s Drowsee, the one my friend was excited about. There’s also some-funny-somethings nearby. I poke them and they give me Poké Balls. Yay! I see a Rattata in the neighborhood but it’s too far away and I lose it. Do I really need to get out there?

The dawn of the Pokémon

I was about seven when Pokémon started airing on Finnish television. It was the first anime I was exposed to. I got the hang of it very quickly. The main character was Ash, he was this young rascal with a baseball cap and he was sort of an underdog. He had a lively friend called Misty and an older friend called Brock. Ash starts his journey as a Pokémon trainer with his first Pokémon Pikachu, they have trust issues to overcome but they finally become friends. They make some other friends and fight other Pokémon to catch them.

The series was unlike anything I’d seen before. It was fast-paced, the characters had exaggerated proportions and huge eyes and there were detailed fights. I loved it. One afternoon my mother came home while I was watching the series. She had never seen anything like it before either. She was curious and hovered over my shoulder making comments about Pikachu’s cuteness. That was before the fighting began. She was in the kitchen, heard the change of soundscape, realized there was violence in the series and instantly banned Pokémon. I protested. It was still a definite no. I’d secretly watch the series when she was away from home but that wasn’t too often and soon I lost interest. When I turned ten, she gave me permission to start watching it again, and I did, for a while, but it was never the same.

Pokémon was banned for good. I cried. I protested. It was still a definite no. I’d secretly watch the series when she was away from home but that wasn’t too often and soon I lost interest.

The Pokémon anime was based on a Pokémon Game Boy game originally coined by Satoshi Tajiri, and so is Pokémon GO. The basic idea is to catch and evolve Pokémon and then fight other players. The gameplay is easy if not even primal, just swiping and tapping to different directions. The challenge comes from obtaining certain Pokémon. Also to evolve Pokémon, you need to collect a quantity of them. The look of the game is really simple, hardly appealing at all. The app has more bugs than a bunch of monkeys, keeps crashing and loading endlessly and needs to be rebooted often. Many game critics have stated Pokémon GO is the “shittiest game” they’ve ever played and that they don’t have any idea what the game is about or why people, including themselves, keep playing it.

My most embarrassing secret is that when I hit the lowest of lows with my depression I found comfort in a My Little Pony – Friendship is Magic -mobile game

One important thing you must know about me is that I get addicted super easily. The more brainless thing the better. My most embarrassing secret is that when I hit the lowest of lows with my depression I found comfort in a My Little Pony – Friendship is Magic -mobile game. Totally useless. You collect ponies, build a town and play mini games to get money to collect more ponies. Some ponies you can win by getting highest scores in social challenges. It is a freemium game like Pokémon GO (free, with option to speed it up by using real money). I am a freebie user from the bottom of my heart. During the three months I spent with the game I used an enormous amount of time on the game, scoring highest points in social challenges and using every single hack I could find to get as many ponies as possible. And I was good at it. Usually in the top three in the social stuff, though top twenty would have been fine. The game was full of glitches that made some progress disappear or sometimes just reset to the start so I also used a lot of time complaining and fighting with the customer service to get my lost ponies back. Eventually I started taking screenshots of EVERYTHING to prove my claims. The target audience of the game is children and the progress with the free version is really slow, so I’d imagine some parents let their kids spend some money on the game. I can just imagine what it would feel like to lose ponies you paid for and not to be able to reason and fight with the customer care because you are a child and don’t know how. When it became apparent the game was made to rob children I stopped playing it. It’s still the main reason for my skepticism towards freemium games that have an element of collecting.

Pokémon madness – spotting the players and insider tips

The catchphrase of the Pokémon anime is “Gotta catch ’em all”. That seems to be the goal of the game too. The first 151 Pokémon introduced in the games Pokémon Red and Blue are the ones included in Pokémon GO too. They are not going to magically pop into the apartment and I need to go out anyway so I figure it doesn’t hurt to keep my phone at hand. I inspect people who have their phones out. I try to guess if a person with a phone is a tourist looking at a map or a Pokémon GO player. A kid at a crossing – definitely a Pokémon player. I pass and peek over his shoulder. Score! I eavesdrop on a conversation of 50+ women. They’ve caught more than ten Pokémon already. I seem to be more interested in detecting the players than the Pokémon themselves – I’ve got only three so far.

Heta Saukkonen, Pokémon GO

Heta Saukkonen

From what I gather looking at the players, Pokémon GO seems to be a game for everybody. It’s a nice idea, but I still feel discomfort playing the game. I ask my friend what she gets out of it. “I study youth work so it’s important to make contact with teenagers”, she says. “I’ve made acquaintance with teen boys through the game. It’s a good opportunity to interact with a social group I would not otherwise be exposed to. And they are fun to hang around with.” I read a couple more opinions on the subject. Quite many have found new ways of being outdoors and connecting with people. Some say even the public health institute has not been able to make people get out and walk distances at this magnitude. I come across a  blog post by journalist and director Suvi Auvinen. She writes that the city space has become more friendly and open since the launch of the game: Strangers talk to one another and other people are not seen as strangers but co-players.

I eavesdrop on a conversation of 50+ women. They’ve caught more than ten Pokémon already. I seem to be more interested in detecting the players than the Pokémon themselves – I’ve got only three so far.

I ask for a friend I haven’t seen in a while to take me around town and show me the basics of the game. It comes with no instructions on how to use it, so tutoring other people is a big part of the charm. My phone has problems with launching the app so we sit down. The park is packed with a couple of hundred other people who are doing the exact same thing as we are: waiting for a Pokémon to pop up somewhere in the park. My friend tells me there are lures (special items to place at pokéstops) in this park at all times of the day and night. She has also experienced how Pokémon connects people. It’s a good reason to hang out and outside and there’s not that much social pressure since you can always just play the game or talk about it. While we walk from the park to the bay nearby we discuss the fact that with Pokémon GO the world feels very much like a science fiction.

One of the interesting things in the game is that different Pokémon appear in different areas, and some rare ones are rumored to be site-specific. My friend explains that different Pokémon are caught during day and night. For example Gastlys and Clefairies are nocturnal. Clefairy is a cute pink ball with big ears and a happy face. It reminds me of Kirby, a famous cute pink ball of a video game character. Not only are both Pokémon and Kirby a franchise of Nintendo, but they both deal with monsters of various kinds. With Kirby you play home alone and fight the other creatures by adapting their powers. In Pokémon you fight in public, beside other people and alongside the monsters.

Pokémon are caught by throwing Poké Balls at them. The balls and other items are obtained at pokéstops. This feature could be considered slightly educational since pokéstops are connected to landmarks like statues or other things of interest. It is possible to use the app without paying attention to the pokéstops, although sometimes when a group of people are gathered together – let’s say, on a particular grave – you are bound to notice. Some Pokémon are more common than others. I soon have my collection full of Drowsees, Zubats and Rattatas. You can then transfer the excess Pokémon to a professor, who gives you candy in exchange. With the candy you evolve Pokémon or power them up. The most common Pokémon are not very powerful and you need a lot of them to have a sufficient individual that is of use. The evolved Pokémon are then used to battle other Pokémon at Gyms, special arenas that are mainly attached to churches. There are three teams you can choose from and then you battle the other teams to take over the Gyms. The one with the highest CP (Combat Power) wins. From collecting Pokémon, using pokéstops and battling you gain XP (experience) and level up.

In addition to finding Pokémon you can hatch them from eggs you get at pokéstops. You need to walk two, five or ten kilometers to hatch an egg. The longer the distance, the better the Pokémon. Mainly. Some disappointed soul had walked for five kilometers only to hatch a Rattata. Players have been quite enthusiastic to hack this specific feature. There are how-to videos from attaching a phone on a bike wheel  to having a phone drive around in an electric train set. I decide to hatch a couple of eggs with the “bike & Pokémon” -method I’ve seen some people use. There are also the “skate & Pokémon” and the most sci-fi, “hoverboard & Pokémon” -methods but I’ll leave them to the advanced folk. So I slowly roll down the hill frustrated by the slow speed. Since the game considers 20km/hour appropriate for egg-hatching, riding a bike with a normal speed won’t do. That goes with sitting on a bus too unless you have excellent persuasion skills. Maybe this is the moment when traffic jams finally become desired. Tram on the other hand is sometimes slow enough, so there is an easy way to avoid exercise and still advance in the game.

Maybe this is the moment when traffic jams finally become desired. Tram on the other hand is sometimes slow enough, so there is an easy way to avoid exercise and still advance in the game

Riding a bike and looking at the game could be extremely hazardous so I keep the phone upside down in my front pocket. That way the game stays running but the power-save turns the screen off to extend the battery power. I make a pause at a couple of pokéstops that have lures and manage to find two new kinds of Pokémon. I’m also curious about the Gyms. I ride my bike to three different ones. The most powerful Pokémon in my collection is a CP398 Hypno, a creature that evolves from the Drowsees. All the Pokémon that hold Gyms seem to have at least 1000 of Combat Power. The magnitude of the game starts to unveil. To have such CPs you have to play a lot. I leave the Gyms without attempting a fight at all. The eggs hatch. I get a brand new Sandshrew and a familiar Pidgey with a fairly high CP.

The impact

Games provide a view of the past, the present but also the future, writes Arwa Mahdawi in The Guardian. Not only do they reflect the current state of the world’s mindset, like pop-culture in general, but they predict the direction where the world is heading technology-wise. Pokémon GO is the first widespread application of augmented reality. It might not be a mind-blowing experience but it’s a pioneering game nonetheless. As long as the Google Glass stays out of further development and the cheaper ones make people puke in fifteen minutes Pokémon GO and the likes have to do.

Pokémon GO is the first widespread application of augmented reality.

I try to search online for social commentary related to Pokémon GO and wealth but there is none. In Finland anyone with a smartphone can play the game, and that is practically everyone. A phenomenon this size is bound to leave some people excluded. How will the children whose parents can’t afford smartphones be affected? If Pokémon GO is just a fad, there’s no problem. If people open up and start playing in teams with a single phone there’s no problem. But if the social acceptance and being part of a community this size comes down to owning a smartphone, the problem is potentially huge. Pokémon GO has been around for only a month so the further social impact cannot yet be seen. One thing is for sure though: it has integrated very fast into everything there is in life.

I lie awake at night. The window is letting some fresh air and nightly city sounds in. Some people are drunk, singing, shouting, laughing, but from time to time I hear a familiar “bling” indicating someone has just used a pokéstop nearby. Just the sound makes me aware there is someone out there doing something I can relate to. I have yet to decide if I will keep the game or not.

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