On July 6, 2016, Pokémon Go was released in the U.S. and Australia with release dates the following week in The EU, Saudi Arabia, and Canada.  Amid server crashes, a learning curve for the game, mixed critical reviews, and it’s relatively new Augmented Reality (AR) platform on mobile device,  Pokémon Go is estimated to have about 15 million downloads and 10 million active players in the U.S. and Australia.

The published figures are from July 14, 3 days prior to the EU and Canada releases.  Although AR has been used for other games (Ingress, SpecTrek, Zombie, Run!) as well as non-gaming apps such as barcode scanners, constellation maps, and translation software for public signs like Word Lens; Pokémon Go has brought the platform to a much wider audience in a way that is familiar, nostalgic, and very accessible.  Built on the existing map network used for Ingress, a mobile MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game) with a sci-fi story and team play, Pokémon Go has used the existing “portals” of Ingress as a framework for Pokéstops and Gyms in the game.

The Pokémon franchise has been around for 20 years with a Collectable Card Game, Video games, television cartoons, movies, toys, and comic books.  For today’s kids,  Millennials (and those of us even a little older), a Pokémon game where we can catch these little creatures out in the real world is a dream come true and an adventure many have imagined since childhood.  I started playing Pokémon Go last Saturday, the 9th of July.  I made an account the night before, looked through the app, thought, oh that’s neat, but I have to go to bed, I’ll look closer tomorrow.  At the time of this blog, Monday, July 18th, I have logged over 80 miles walking.  Now, sure some of those were work shifts, or putzing around the house, the grocery store, etc.  However the 9 days right before that I only logged 46 miles, making 34 extra miles in this last 9 day period.

 

I can hear you out there: “But TipsyLinguist, I thought this was a blog about language, beer, travel, and philosophy.  Are you drunk? That’s really neat that you are walking more, but what does your silly phone game have to do with anything here?”

Well, Dear reader, I might be at least slightly tipsy and I’ll be glad to answer your inquiry:

Language:

One area of linguistics I work with is called Discourse Analysis.  DA is the analysis of spoken conversation, written exchanges, as well as Sign Languages and any other exchange of meaning.  Often we look at exchanges of power through language use, attempts for social dominance (or submission), cognition and memory, media, and how discourse shapes and changes (or not) phonology (sounds), syntax (structure), morphology (meaningful parts of words), and semantics (meaning).

The discourse (mainly online, but spoken as well) surrounding the Pokémon Go phenomenon is incredibly fascinating.  The game has brought people together in live social interaction in a way I haven’t seen in a long time, if ever really.  People are out in their neighborhoods and downtowns in search of Pokémon to try and “Catch ‘em all” (a phrase that itself has been altered in a variety of clever ways in the last week) and fill their Pokédex.  Many public encounters have been random, with players walking and searching the same areas, but now there are planned meetups and walks scheduled in many cities; although already some meetups and events have resulted in crimes against players whose locations are known to many, this has not deterred interest in the events.

The game has two main goals: to find Pokémon in the world and catch/collect them, you can “evolve” some creatures into other more powerful versions as well as “power up” your Pokémon; the second goal is to “train” your Pokémon at Gyms or “battle” opposing teams at their gyms.  Gyms are locations on the map that can be taken over by a team via battles, when your team has control of a gym your team members can “train” and raise the prestige of the gym, strengthening it against attack.

In the searching and capturing aspect a Pokémon found out in the world can be captured by more than one person.  As a result, it is not super competitive to obtain creatures.  People walking around will point others in the direction of an interesting catch, or work together using the game’s tracking system to find a Pokémon they haven’t yet collected into their Pokédex.  The nature of this not only makes it uncompetitive but seems to reinforce a collaborative game experience that is richer and more rewarding for users.  Sharing the details of high level creatures you caught or hatched from eggs brings congratulations from other users, not ire or jealousy.  I have met people that I likely would have never talked to or even seen as a result of this game.  A woman visiting her husband’s grave, a young couple who live in the neighborhood I grew up in, hundreds of people in Mt.Clemens, a nearby town that has suffered its share of small business closings and slow foot traffic over the last 20 years despite being the county seat.  I have reconnected with some friends I haven’t seen or talked to in years due to Facebook posts about the game.  Tension over our political and religious differences lifted as we talked strategy and all the best places to catch a Charmander.

Although the game has each player pick a team at level 5 for gym battles, Team Valor (red), Team Mystic (blue), or Team Instinct (yellow).  The team system in game is not very competitive either.  Gym battles are fairly one sided as far as play goes, with the game’s AI running the defender’s characters.  A surplus of memes have appeared online addressing the various perceived characteristics and abilities of the three teams such as this and this which follow a popular meme template of makeup skill as a quality indicator, or ones such as this which have adopted another widely used template and adapted it for the opinion of some players,  as well as a movement for ‘Team Harmony’.  Overall people seem to be joking around and ribbing each other in a friendly way about a difference in team choice.  Some even promoting unity  and friendship between the teams in different ways.

Online quizzes and memes ascribing qualities or matching up groups from other popular science fiction, fantasy, and anime series have also surfaced relating these fictional worlds to the Pokémon Go teams (like this Harry Potter one).  The way people relate these different genres to one another is fascinating and the fact that the same kinds of qualities reappear and emerge in various works of literature, gaming, and film, although not surprising, is definitely something to pay attention to.

The memes which react negatively to the game and its user base attempt to assert power over them by the poster by framing users as childish, irresponsible, or as losers and loners.  This is a common bullying tactic throughout modern times (and before) to show that the target is weaker and less desirable to mates and as a productive member of the community.  By asserting power over the target group the speaker (or in this case writer/poster) hopes to maintain social dominance and an Alpha position in the social group.  The large base of users from a wide variety of age and social backgrounds, coupled with the ability to carry this discourse out over the internet on a wide variety of social networking platforms has given rise to strong retaliation and dismissal of these negative attitudes including address of similar hobbies and interests by those attacking this that they have not been a part of.  Many users have careers, are homeowners, play the game with their significant others/spouses/children, maintain a work schedule; all of the things that attackers presume to be measures of successful adulthood and assume users are not fulfilling.

In the game, PokéStops are the places where users can gather items that are useful in the game.  Pokémon comes from the Japanese Poketto and Monsut.  The game was originally titled ‘Capsule Monsters’ but was changed due to an existing trademark.  In English at least, Poké, has become a morpheme-like item with meaning and a lexical item itself, a referent to the game as in the following examples:

“Going on a PokéWalk”

“These PokéFucks”

“Don’t Poké and drive”

Popular culture reflects things that are important to people.  The way we talk positively or negatively to a game’s popularity can tell us something about the values of the speaker and the way they interact with an perceive those around them.  An enormous number of blogs, YouTube walk-throughs, memes, and other sites are offering tips, tricks, and discussion boards for the game with users helping one another to success.  The many conversations about this game have done and will continue to do exactly that and this brief discussion barely scratches the surface.

 

Beer, Business, and Travel:

One important aspect of this game that differs from other mobile games is the movement of a player to catch Pokémon and also as a requirement to hatch eggs and collect items from Pokéstops.  Eggs are items a player collects and each egg needs a certain distance walked (or slow biking/skateboarding) to hatch it.  The egg hatches after 2, 5, or 10 km and a character appears for your collection.  Although the game does offer in app purchases they are not necessary to participate in any of the game’s functions and they are not intrusive or disruptive of game play.  Some online commenters and news sources have suggested that Pokémon Go is simply another mobile game that makes a lot of money for the developers and not much for anyone else.  I disagree.  Although there certainly are players that will make in-game purchases, and parent company Niantic will certainly be making a very large amount of money from this game, many of us won’t make in game purchases.  We will want to see what we can accomplish on our own.

A major difference between this game and other mobile games with in-app purchases is that the user is out near the local pub, shop, bakery, pizza place, or restaurant.  People will discover new places in their cities and towns and visit ones they maybe haven’t in a while.  There are a growing number of bars and restaurants that have seen the opportunity that they have to earn a chunk of the Pokémon Pie, as it is.  Offering discounts based on a user’s team, dropping lure modules at certain times for guests to catch more Pokémon (I’ve done this for my guests), or making specialty drinks and food items for guests.

 

One of the benefits that I have enjoyed and enjoyed seeing is increased activity in public places of interest like sculptures, zoos, parks, libraries, local historical points of interest and architecture such as churches and cemeteries.  These places are often Pokéstops due to the portal creation from Ingress and increased traffic has brought attention to the natural and manmade points of interest in many cities and rural areas.  The National Park Service has noticed and addressed the large number of new visitors to the parks. My city zoo, The Detroit Zoo, located in Royal Oak, Michigan, has around 45 Pokéstops and three gyms.  Next week there is a meet up scheduled that has 3.2 k people marked as going and 16k interested people on the Facebook event page.  I am traveling this week myself, and am excited to see what I’ll find both in the game and of course, outside of it.

Some individual citizens have found creative ways to jump in on the Pokéwagon (see what I did there?).  Like the man in South Carolina who is doing the driving for enthusiastic Pokémon players with his Pokémon Safari concept.  Also, the kid who is dropping lures at his summer lemonade stand.  Small, local, business has a lot to gain from the enthusiastic Pokémon Go players who are walking past their businesses every day.

A couple stories have surfaced this week of citizens helping one another as a result of being nearby from playing the game out in public places.  Two subreddits have emerged this week, r/pokemongofitness for users who want to talk about their fitness goals or how they are using the game as a motivator to become healthier and r/pokemongostories for those heartwarming (andcautionary) stories of kindness that are coming from user experience in the “real world”.  AR offers a way for users to play a game and interact with humans and the world around them together.  Exploring new areas makes new and different characters pop up to catch and encourages users to explore other places besides their own neighborhoods.

Some users (like a couple I ran into Thursday night walking along the river in Mt.Clemens) did not know what AR is, but that’s one of the wonderful things about the game; a user doesn’t have to know or understand how the technology works or where it came from to enjoy and easily use it.  For a long time, people have been talking about virtual reality (VR) as the next big thing in gaming, but VR can be expensive and although it is less so than ever before it is still not as accessible to the general public or user friendly.  Current VR seems great and usable for things like showing real estate, architecture, art installations, or virtual museums; as a gaming platform for mass use, AR is far more usable, accessible, and affordable as it builds into what many people’s phone cameras can already do.

Philosophy:

Although I’m not going to take a position here on any of these items (even though I have some position on most of them and may in the future discuss those) I think it is extremely valuable to recognize some of the things happening and being discussed beyond the surface of a video game:

Almost immediately upon signing up (through a Google account) privacy became a concern for many people.  When you access the game through your Google account, it is able to access the account and email, calendars, etc associated with it.  Although a user can turn these permissions off, the immediate response through shared articles about individual privacy was huge.  The larger, more ongoing, and less discussed privacy concern I have is that of private property.  Some people have private residences in places that used to be public and were marked as Ingress portals.  Now, those places are Pokéstops and people are wandering onto private property and trespassing.  The virtual space is invisible to those not playing the game and for those people it does not exist.  For a player it is a real space that is a place to go in the game world.  The issue of virtual space intersecting with tangible space is an interesting one. How do we enforce the protection of private property moving forward as other games may use similar AR platforms (and technology that hasn’t been developed yet) for their in game spaces, how do individuals who firmly believe in individual property rights and spaces adapt their game play to be consistent with their views on privacy and liberty.

The first argument I heard against Pokémon Go that wasn’t “Grow up, you are in your 30s not 13”, was one for animal rights concerns.  A philosopher friend of mine takes issue with the way we portray the capture, treatment, and battling of animals in gaming.  The argument was likened to the way we (well, some of us) recognize and object to racism and misogyny in video game stories and game play.  This concern brings to the surface some questions about how we view animals in a virtual space, if we think moral choices in video games negatively impact the real world moral choice of users (THIS says they don’t), what unethical behavior is normalized by entertainment media, and how we view animals as pets and as objects of study and research.

Many community focused actions have emerged from the game’s popularity, people urging others to use apps like wooftrax and resQwalk, or other charitable donation apps such as charity miles, encouraging users to drop extra lures at children’s hospitals or donate for in app purchases for kids who aren’t as mobile, and community trash pickups on walking routes. Many objectors feel that the game is a time waster and negatively impacts productivity.  To what degree does entertainment media impact productivity or help increase it by providing relaxation and stress relief to users?  For some players like this facebook poster the game has increased social interaction, language skills, and engagement with others.  For others, perhaps, over time, it may interfere with responsibilities.

Ableism and economic access have been discussed in gaming for a while but the widespread success of Pokémon Go raises concern about equality in the gaming experience for those who cannot walk around their neighborhoods and towns, those who cannot see the AR or use/afford a smart phone.  Although the game is free, smart phone devices can cost up to 1000$ with monthly service ranging anywhere from 40$ up to hundreds depending on the service and plan.  These are luxury items and economic status, having the time to spend on a video game, or disability prevents many people from their use.

I haven’t seen anything yet about this as a negative,but am expecting to as updates and more features are added to the game, but to what extent are “hacks” like putting the phone on a dog harness or ceiling fan to quickly hatch eggs without walking to be considered cheating? Are people using multiple devices to run extra accounts in the hopes that once (and if) trading in game becomes possible they can combine their characters and candy (in game currency of a sort) and have an advantage or improve their chance for rare characters. What is (or isn’t) ethical gaming in more known formats and in this new AR format?

In addition there is very public concern for phone use while driving, walking, and biking.  Some players have been injured or injured others while playing and a few people have used the game as a way to locate and attack others as targets of robbery.

Whatever your opinion on Pokémon Go, as a player, observer, objector, or otherwise; this game came at the perfect time for me (and it seems, many others) as a way to enjoy being outdoors in the summer, have fun with a new game in a franchise we’ve grown up with, and have a little silly and light-hearted fun with others not only in our local communities but also online in global interaction in the midst of an extremely stressful and turbulent time in both The U.S. and the world.

I’ve seen more of my neighborhood in the last week and a half than the entire six years I’ve lived here, I’m getting great exercise walking my city and neighboring cities, I’m enjoying all the wonderful creative fan pictures within AR (and my favorite) and outside of it like these by Gavin Mackey, or these by various artists playing on the recent trend of pet shaming, and most important: I’m having fun.

I still want to know if I should slide the game icon into my ‘games’ tab or my ‘travel’ tab, I want to know if Pokémon and chill is a thing ( I hear it is, as well as ‘Pokémon Blow’).  If it remains heavily used over time and developers are able to fix and maintain bugged features as well as adapt and add new features that align with user wants and needs as has been the case with popular games such as World of Warcraft, Team Fortress, Half-Life, or Call of Duty or it fades away like…well…I don’t remember, they faded away; this summer is sure to be remembered by many of us as PokéSummer 2016: The summer we (at least tried) to catch ’em all.

 

 

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