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A user-friendly guide to Pokémon Go

When the video game was released on mobile phones earlier this summer, it quickly became a pop culture phenomenon. Here’s what players are doing when they’re wandering around.

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    A man uses a mobile phone in front of an advertisement board bearing the image of Pokemon Go at an electronic shop in Tokyo, Japan.
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Q: What is Pokémon Go?

The popular app is an augmented reality game that users play on mobile devices. Pokémon video games became popular in the 1990s, as did Pokémon trading cards. These pursuits, now including Pokémon Go, challenge players to catch Pokémon, small creatures that each have specific abilities. Once a player has brought together various Pokémon, he or she can fight other users’ Pokémon.

Unlike some other mobile games, Pokémon Go incorporates a player’s environment, says Simon Tarr, associate professor of media arts at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. “Instead of playing a video game where you have a little avatar that walks around a fake world, you are the avatar; you walk around the real world,” he says. When the game is played, users will see a Pokémon by the real tree that’s next to them or hopping in front of them on the sidewalk.

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There are spots called PokéStops that Professor Tarr describes as “like convenience stores to pick up extra supplies” for catching Pokémon. Then there are “gyms,” where players can join one of three teams. A player can also attempt to take over a gym.

Businesses are trying to bring in customers using the game, Tarr says: “They’ll place a ‘lure’ down so it will attract more Pokémon to that location and people will come and maybe have pizza.” 

The game probably became popular because so many people remember the original Pokémon, says Alenda Chang, assistant professor in the department of film and media studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “People in their 20s, 30s, 40s – actually of all ages, really – a lot of them have a deep nostalgic attachment to this franchise,” she says.

Q: What are the benefits of playing Pokémon Go?

The game forces players to walk around outside, since one can find only so many Pokémon by sitting at home. “In order to actually ‘catch them all,’ which is what the game wants you to do, you actually do have to be fairly well traveled,” Professor Chang says.

Players may also learn more about historical landmarks near their homes, as a PokéStop, for example, could be located there. And there are often plenty of other players with whom to interact. “These aren’t just kids playing,” Tarr says. “I saw bankers and lawyers on their lunch break playing this.... There’s this strange kind of fellowship that I notice. I would walk around and people would look at me ... and they would give me this knowing look, like ‘OK, you’re catching them, too?’ ” 

Tarr says others will give him tips on where to find Pokémon. “It feels kind of like trick-or- treating,” he says. “You feel like you can chat with people who are doing it because you’re all doing the same thing.”

Q: What are the drawbacks?

A game that encourages wandering around can create problems. Chang says a woman was not happy when Chang stopped near the woman’s car while playing the game. “She thought I was behaving unusually or erratically,” she says. “She actually got out of her car and told me to move on in no uncertain terms.” In that sense, Pokémon Go may be drawing attention to larger topics: “One of the most fascinating aspects of the game is the way that it’s kind of pointing out or revealing these tensions that we have about public and private space,” Chang says.

Issues have also arisen when, for example, visitors at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in New York and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington noticed Pokémon Go players seeking creatures there. “There have been people behaving inappropriately in solemn places since solemn places existed,” Tarr notes.

Q: What about privacy issues?

Soon after Pokémon Go was released, concerns arose over the fact that when players used their Google accounts to sign in to the game, they appeared to be allowing Niantic, the company that developed Pokémon Go, to access information associated with their Google accounts. Soon after, Niantic said that the company was not viewing users’ Google account information other than their email addresses and usernames and that it was working with Google to change the settings. “Anytime you’re going to use a smartphone, you have to realize that with all the power and all the kind of freedom that it gives you, you’re also going to get surveillance and monitoring, and ... I guess you have to enter [into] it with your eyes wide open and have a sense of what applications are able to access,” Chang says.

Tarr agrees. “With any application, you have to be careful and you have to be aware of what it’s revealing and what you’re putting into it,” he says. “I don’t think it’s any more of a security breach now that it’s repaired than other applications that people use all the time.”

Q: Will the game stay popular?

“I don’t see it becoming less popular anytime soon,” Chang says.

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