Pokémon Go hits Rio, and for some, gaming outweighs the Games

When Pokémon Go launched in Brazil this month, it became the most downloaded app in the country. It also offered a window into nationwide inequalities.

Reuters/Alessandro Bianchi
Rugby fans dressed as Pikachu from Pokémon Go watch from the stands on Aug. 11 as Brazil faced off against Kenya.

While the world has its eyes set on the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazilians have turned to their phones, where elusive Charmanders, Jigglypuffs, and Rattatas have been spotted roaming alongside tourists under the iconic Lapa arches and on the dramatic beaches of Ipanema.

Pokémon Go arrived in Brazil earlier this month and within 24 hours, it was the No. 1 downloaded app for iPhones nationwide. Three days later, it topped download lists for other devices, including Androids. But the numbers only begin to capture the phenomenon – and what it says about Brazil’s quickly adapting informal economy, attitudes toward the Olympic Games, and digital inequality.

Within a week of Pokémon Go's launch here, the country’s informal market – accounting for 16 percent of GDP – responded in force. One unemployed web designer from the southern city of Curitiba offers a $15 tour for children hunting Pokémon in parks, while an unemployed father of two in northeastern Brazil offers motorcycle Pokémon tours through the “best regions” of Fortaleza. In Belo Horizonte, an entrepreneur has begun offering guided tours with the added bonus of free Internet for $10 an hour.

For many here, the fresh take on the 1990s video game has eclipsed their interest in the Olympics – in part due to resentment over the high Olympic Games price tag amid one of Brazil’s worst economic crises in history.

Pokémon has certainly overshadowed the Games for some viewers. “I went to a football game to see Brazil play Sweden, but after Pokémon Go started I lost interest,” one fan, Lourdes Drummond, told Reuters last week.

Rio local and 16-year-old Juju Figuereido has a similar attitude. There have been some Olympic moments that have moved him – like favela-born judo competitor Rafaela Silva winning Brazil’s first gold medal last week. But the price of event tickets and the shaky internet connection in his favela, Vila Cruzeiro, means that watching the Games has been more challenging and had less of a draw than hunting Pokémon in his free time.

But even the fact that he has internet access at all in his community sets him apart from many other residents in Rio and across Brazil. Inequality has been underscored by the Olympic Games, but perhaps even more so by the arrival of Pokémon.

“The game reveals existing social divides and reflects a lack of access to resources in certain areas, such as the favelas,” says Lynn Alves, a professor of education and technology in the state of Bahia.

As of 2015, 55 percent of adults in Brazil reported having a computer in their house, compared to 37 percent in Mexico and 80 percent in the US.

But the rapid adoption of Pokémon Go also highlights certain gains in Brazil such as widespread access to mobile phones. In Rio, for example, 85 percent of favela residents own a phone and half of favela residents have regular access to the internet. According to the International Telecommunications Union, in the past 10 years the number of mobile subscriptions, per 100 people, jumped from 36 to 139, thanks, in part, to the country's economic boom.

Despite a growth in access to tools like smartphones and computers, many favelas in Rio are not covered by Google Maps, the platform used by Pokémon Go. “There are constantly failures – the GPS fails, the satellite fails,” says Juju. “Sometimes, I enter into an area, the game freezes, and I can’t go on playing.” The lack of coverage can also lead to security threats for visiting tourists, inadvertently directed into dodgy neighborhoods. 

Juju and his friends regularly move out of the favela and into the streets of Rio, where Pokémons are easier to spot – even if they have to weave past tourists and security guards to catch them. “I don’t mind going out of the favela to play the game – but of course, I would prefer to have a better connection here,” he says.

Juju says he plans on continuing with Pokémon, long after the Rio Olympics wind down at the end of the week. He might watch the closing ceremonies, but his eyes are really set on a rare water-type Pokémon.

“Charmander has my heart, but I really want to catch a Vaporeon,” says Juju.

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