Pokémon Go: a journey through time and Mayfield

Last week I was struck by an increasing reference to Pokemon in my twitter, instagram and Facebook feeds. I had no idea of what all the fuss was about and instead of trying it out for myself I decided to ask Hugh from NUPSA to write a blog post for me about what he saw the benefits of Pokemon Go were. So here are Hugh’s words of wisdom (a little longer than the average post but worth the read) on the benefits of Pokemon Go!

 

Written by Hugh Milligan

About a month ago, I met a friend for lunch at a café on Darby Street. Somewhere in the course of our conversation, meandering between topics, I found myself describing to her the mechanics of Pokémon Go with great dorkish enthusiasm.

“It’s an augmented reality game. You’re shown an actual GPS map of your location, with wild Pokémon dotted around you – to find and capture them, you have to actually walk around and search. And there are Pokéstops, based on actual points of interest like statues and fountains, where you can restock Pokéballs and other supplies.”

My friend simply raised an eyebrow in embarrassment. The game wasn’t even out yet; a vague, “somewhere in July” release date had been given, and months of selective beta testing (the footage from which I’d obsessively dissected) were just drawing to a close. It could have been weeks away, and there I was, already mapping out a walking tour of Newcastle to serve as my own grand Pokémon adventure.

“But it’s Pokémon,” she said incredulously. “It’s for kids. Why are you so excited about it?”

My friend is neither a gamer nor a Pokémon fan. The only one she’d recognise is Pikachu – the all-purpose franchise mascot – having seen him on a t-shirt or a backpack once. Pokémon is not marked indelibly on her childhood as it is on mine, with a thousand schoolyard recesses spent crowded over our Game Boys – big, chunky plastic bricks with 8-bit displays – showing off our best team compositions, battling each other for bragging rights or trading our Machokes and Kadabras and watching them evolve.

It’s quite telling that Niantic, the developer of Pokémon Go, launched the game with just the original 151 Pokémon available. These days, there are at least 721 of them, but those original 151 are almost twenty years old now; I was catching them and watching them on television when I was ten.

So now, at the age of twenty-eight, to walk down to my local pub and suddenly encounter a Bulbasaur in my camera’s viewfinder – to see it standing there on the footpath, brandishing its vines at me – feels utterly surreal. I’m not at all surprised that the majority of players I see roaming the streets are in their twenties; they’re like me, finally realising secret childhood dreams they’ve carried for two decades.

It is also worth noting that my friend is an exercise and wellness enthusiast. She runs; she swims; she meditates; she does yoga. As I explain to her what a Pokémon gym is, I’m aware of the great irony that – of the two of us – she’s the only one who’s ever set foot in an actual gym. She doesn’t need an augmented reality game to get her outside. She’s already outside.

I, however, ate an entire family pizza in the hour it took me to write this article. Somewhere in the corner of my living room is a jumble of dumbbells, a Wii Fit balance board, a Pilates Power Gym, elasticised resistance bands and an Aeroblade, all of which (I imagine) are choked with dust. There is a second family pizza in the fridge, and it is not entirely out of the realm of possibility that I will eat it this evening.

I do walk, in fairness. The usual journeys – from the parking lot to my office, from my house to the supermarket, and so on. And I know how to run, in the same way that anyone living in Mayfield knows how to run, and is prepared at all times to do so. But although the mental and physical benefits of daily exercise are exceedingly well documented, I struggle to maintain any real motivation to actually do it.

Or at least I did, until Pokémon Go devoured my brain.

It was released in Australia on a long, torturous Wednesday. I’d downloaded the app in the morning, but had been much too busy to actually get out and try it; finally, at the end of my shift, I was able to sign in, create my hilariously sporty-looking avatar and see the familiar paths and buildings of Newcastle University Pokémonised for the first time.

It was five o’clock, and already dark outside. The rain had stopped, but a cold wind had picked up, making the air sharp and brittle. I wore a scarf and a jacket zipped up to my chin, and on any other evening would have ducked my head and made straight for my car, but – looking down at the enticing list of Pokémon apparently within ninety metres of my position – I found myself, quite madly, heading in the opposite direction.

As I left the Hunter Building, I saw a student walking in the opposite direction, texting someone on his phone. I felt a sudden sense of embarrassment: what would people think if they saw me wandering around campus after dark in pursuit of a Jigglypuff? So, my face reddening, I tilted my phone away from him as I passed and tapped randomly at the screen with my fingers, hoping to give the impression that I, too, was just sending a text message. To a friend. Because I had one.

The next twenty minutes, though, alone in my hunt, were glorious. I caught a Nidoran and a Caterpie, Pokémon I hadn’t had in my possession since 1998. The air grew colder and my fingers numb, but I barely registered it. Every time I considered returning to my car, another wild Pokémon would pop up nearby, pulling me along one path and the next.

And then, turning a corner, I almost crashed into a student coming the other way. The very same student I’d seen earlier, in fact, still staring intently at his phone.

We both stopped on the path and stared at each other awkwardly. Finally, he spoke.

“Are you… playing Pokémon Go?”

I narrowed my eyes. “Are… you playing Pokémon Go?”

And then we both burst out laughing, and then went straight to comparing our phones – the Pokémon we’d caught, the tricks we’d already learnt, the features we were still figuring out. It was like I was ten once more, back in the playground with Game Boy in hand. I didn’t know his name and he didn’t know mine, but we stood there in the lamplight for a good fifteen minutes chatting with each other, feeling a strange camaraderie as fellow Pokémon trainers out in the field.

The cravings, this mad wanderlust, only grew as the week progressed. The following Saturday, I woke up early, had a shower, got dressed in a track suit and joggers (my god, I’d completely forgotten I owned joggers!) and was out the door before eight o’clock, walking briskly in no particular direction. My phone told me a Staryu was nearby – my favourite Pokémon as a kid – just a block or two away.

It’s much like geocaching. There’s no direct arrow to guide you; the game will tell you broadly whether you’re getting warmer or cooler as you wander about, trying to hone in on your quarry. I caught that Staryu, and then immediately went in search of a Scyther that appeared to be skulking in the McDonald’s car park. (This was Mayfield, remember.)

It was only when my legs began to ache and my phone’s battery ran dangerously low that I realised I’d been walking for over three hours. I’d done a complete circuit of East Mayfield and clocked up about eight kilometres of travel.

“That’s nothing!” I hear you say. “Yesterday I ran twenty kilometres in half an hour and deadlifted a family sedan.”

And that’s impressive, it really is. Well done. But for me, to get up early on a winter’s morning, feeling invigorated and desperate to get moving, is a huge deal.

Equally momentous is the fact that, for those three to four hours, I thought of nothing but Pokémon-catching. I didn’t mentally deconstruct the past week, or fret about the coming one, or berate myself about some tiny mistake or slip of the tongue I’d made days earlier, or any number of other thoughts I’d ordinarily torture myself with over the weekend.

I just walked, and explored, and celebrated each new addition to my collection, giddy as a child. For those few hours, I just was.

That afternoon, my friend Jess came to see me, and we went walking again – she’d spent the morning with her sisters down by the foreshore, catching aquatic Pokémon, and was itching for a little suburban expedition.

Jess and I are the best of friends, but busy people. Depending on the time of year and our respective workloads, we might manage a dinner here or there, perhaps a movie, maybe a couple of hours gaming online. I honestly can’t the remember the last time we walked together, or went exploring.

And yet, there we were, wandering the labyrinthine streets of Mayfield, nodding respectfully at every player we passed and even stopping to chat with a few.

And that, more or less, sums up my experience with Pokémon Go so far. Getting out into the world, connecting with other people in wondrous, ludicrous fashion, and letting go of adult concerns to embrace childhood whimsy, if just for a few hours.

You can find far more outrageous tales of the game online: players finding dead bodies, wandering into police stations or heavy traffic, or being lured to secluded locations by thieves. And then there are the positives: Facebook communities where locals share tips and advice, strangers banding together spontaneously to defend their team’s Pokémon gyms, communal events that have attracted hundreds of players, and sufferers of severe depression and anxiety who’ve reported unbelievable boosts in their mood and energy levels while playing.

How about the fact that Pokémon Go is already installed on more smartphones than Tinder? Or has more daily active users than Twitter? Not just for kids, then.

The app is still brand new and quite buggy, of course; the servers still go down at random, and the whole thing will often crash or freeze at inopportune moments. There are obvious faults, but I’ve every confidence these will be corrected in time. And Niantic has already alluded to several new features they wish to introduce, such as the ability to trade and battle Pokémon directly with friends – not to mention the other six hundred or so Pokémon they’ve yet to introduce.

So, as it turns out, being a gamer and a wellness enthusiast need not be mutually exclusive. Pokémon Go trades on the nostalgia of a well-established franchise to lure its players out into the real world, rewarding a sense of curiosity and a desire to explore.

Now, if only they’d develop a Legend of Zelda game that could persuade me to eat less pizza…

About the author

One thought

  1. Sally

    I am in my 50s and I get it. I spent time with my oldest son when from the time he was started playing Pokémon Gold in the 90s. As my younger son said last night … I was his Prof. Oak. My son was precocious so started playing at 5 y.o. and I struggled with a bit of guilt – creating a gamer at such a young age – yet it lifted his reading capacity and we spent time together worked on overcoming obstacles. I remember him showing me the article about the plans for Pokémon Go more than 12 months ago and he was so excited. He told me last night that I know more about Pokémon than some of his friends who missed it the first time around. My younger son asked me to go for a walk around our neighbourhood last night so off we went and I caught 6 Pokémon. Strange behaviour for a middle aged woman. I decided a long time ago that I would stay current and AR is going to grow, so I am going with it – as I get older and less active it may just give me an opportunity to experience the world in a different way.

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