The Weekend Pokémon Go Took Over America
Kate Lovero couldn’t figure out why her friends were ducking out early from her party this weekend. She was grilling; the steaks weren’t done. “Where are they going?” she asked. The answer: They were headed out into the streets of Boston to catch wild Pokémon a few blocks away.
At San Francisco’s AT&T Park, groups of fans gathered around statues of famous baseball players staring at their phones, battery packs heating up. They weren’t taking pictures of Willie Mays; they were catching Pokémon. Gossip said that Charmanders were lurking at the Cupid’s Span sculpture along Embarcadero, they said.
Customers were pouring into Supreme Beans Coffee Shop in Daytona Beach—happy for the free Wi-Fi and the hot and frozen espresso-based drinks, but much more interested in the gaggle of Rattata—enough to start a small army. “People were coming into the shop saying we were a ‘gym,’” says Supreme Beans’ co-owner Brandy Glenos. “I had no idea what it meant.”
What it meant was Pokémon Go, a game that turns people’s phones into cameras on an parallel universe, one in which mythical cartoon beasties with Harry Potterish names frolick amid familiar landmarks and places. Download the game, hold the phone up, and you see them—and can “capture” them and train them to fight in “gyms,” also locked to real-world locations. What it meant was that, this past weekend, crowds of people went outside to play a game, alone, together, in the real world and in an augmented reality.
It’s not the most popular smartphone game ever, but it’s certainly the most performative. People are chasing Pokémon through Central Park in New York, battling them outside a coffee shop in Birmingham, Alabama, and a taqueria in rural Idaho. Hell—they’ve even shown up in Mosul, Iraq. This weekend Pokémon Go became a cultural phenomenon seemingly overnight, clogging social media feeds, obsessing kids and adults, bringing people together, even inspiring clever thieves. This is something new.
How It Works
It started at Google, as these things tend to. A few years ago, a startup inside the company called Niantic Labs developed technology that could link game-play to GPS locations, effectively turning the entire world into a game board.
Before Pokémon Go, Niantic had a game called Ingress, integrated into Google Maps. It had roughly the same rules as Pokémon, but the real genius was in the locations and the crowd. “We seeded Ingress with libraries and museums and historical markers,” says John Hanke, Niantic’s CEO (and, not coincidentally, the person who is most responsible for Google Earth). “We mined travel photographs for public statuary, public artwork. That gave us a few hundred thousand. Then we told players, here’s the examples, here’s what we want, go fill out the rest.”
And they did. Ingress players helped populate 15 million sites, anything from old churches to back-alley murals to zoos. Those portals into Ingress became the Poké Stops, gyms, and hives of wild Pokémon. (Hives? Do they come in hives? What’s the collective noun here?)
Sunday in Pokémon City
So today the world of Pokémon Go sits atop the real world, mostly in cities. Over the weekend, San Francisco was even more crowded with people staring into their phones than usual.
At the top of the infamous crooked block of Lombard Street, three teams battled for control of a gym. Crissy Field, in view of the Golden Gate Bridge, had several gyms changing hands, and crowds of people looking down at phones, walking together, on the prowl. At Sutro Baths, the ruins with a not-so-ancient history, groups walked around trying to snag hard-to-find electric-type Pokemon, or continually catch Magikarp, hoping to earn enough in-game items to evolve it into the fearsome Gyarados. And at the top of Twin Peaks, as the sun began to set, people took pictures of the San Francisco skyline while also snagging ghost-type Pokemon. They wondered aloud if there may be Pokemon who only show up when twilight rolls around.
It was weirdly social. Strangers, recognizing what everyone was up to, turned into collaborators or competitors. They chatted about the unreliability of game servers. Kids talked to adults. At the end of a week that seemed to focus on people’s differences—even fatally so—a game turned at least a few different people into, if not friends, at least people unafraid.
A Billion Dollar Business
If you thought Pokémon was everywhere, you weren’t imagining things. Just one day after launching in the US, it was at the top of the Top Grossing charts—making more money than any other gaming app. According to the analytics firm AppAnnie, the game was making $1 million a day, and could make a billion dollars a year once it launches in more territories, adds more features, and irons out server kinks. “Just as you think nothing can surprise you, this app appears,” says industry analyst Serkan Toto. “It’s unprecedented.”
The amazing part is that Pokémon has just a fraction of the user base of hits like Clash of Clans. So the fact that it’s making more money means lots of players are spending on in-app purchases. The game offers stuff like “lures,” which which attract Pokémon to your location. (Buying a lure is roughly the Pokémon Go equivalent of buying a round of drinks in a Pokémon bar.)
The game has also added $7.5 billion of value to Nintendo in less than a week, boosting that company’s share price by 23 percent on Monday. Nintendo didn’t actually directly develop or publish Pokémon Go, but Nintendo owns one-third of The Pokémon Company, is an investor in Niantic, co-owns the Pokémon copyrights, and owns the Pokémon trademarks. So anything Pokémon-related funnels cash back into Nintendo’s coffers.
But because it takes place in the (augmented) real world, Pokémon Go has been a minor windfall for neighborhoods, too. Supreme Beans was one of countless businesses across the country—and increasingly, the world—that the game designated as a gym. Once co-owner Glenos figured out what was going on, she realized that being part of the fabric of a viral, real-world game was bringing in customers.
That means an extra four or five customers a day who come for the battles and stay for the lattes. That may not sound like much, but Pokémon Go is only a few days old. And for a relatively new operation like Supreme Beans—it opened 16 months ago—anything that helps get the word out is welcome.
“We’re so grateful for this,” Glenos says. “It’s putting us on the map.”
Pokémon Go has been a boon to larger-scale destinations as well. Fayetteville’s Crystal Bridges Museum of Art contains a gym, sure, but the building and grounds are big enough to house several Poke Stops and countless Pokémon. After a strong social media push by the museum, says spokesperson Beth Bobbitt, admission jumped. Crystal Bridges saw 2,000 more people compared to recent weekend averages, and more than 50 percent year over year.
The Poké Pitfalls
Of course, not everything is coming up Flabébés. Venturing into the real world means that some players have actually found themselves in real, physical danger.Police in O’Fallon, Missouri announced Sunday morning that they had arrested four people who’d been robbing Pokémon players at a remote Poké Stop. The suspects apparently planted “lures” and pointed guns at anyone who showed up.
Some wild Pokémon have been spotted by railway lines, in streets, and other potentially dangerous locations. Don’t try to catch those, OK?
If you really want something to be worried about, though, consider what it means to have game that, by definition, knows exactly where you are when you play it. If you sign into Pokémon Go with a Google account, you sign over full access. That means Pokémon Go can technically access your contact lists, emails, and more.
Separately, a rash of fake apps populate Google Play, so make sure you’re downloading the one that says it’s from Niantic and has a blue badge next to it. And never, ever, ever try to sideload the Pokémon Go application package; there’s more malware than Magmars out there.
Pokémon are appearing everywhere. Even places they maybe shouldn’t. An intrepid trainer can find Ghost-type Pokémon in cemeteries, Pokémon gyms at local churches—including Westboro Baptist—and a Poke Stop at the 9/11 Memorial Pool.
And that’s just what happens when the system works; when it doesn’t, you get situations like Boon Sheridan’s, whose home, a former church, is mislabeled as a gym, encouraging trespassers at all hours of the day.
If Pokémon Go does represent a sea change in augmented reality, then it’s one that’s going to force us to rethink our approach to designed spaces, public and private. So many of the places people gather center on communal tragedy or reverence: funerals, war memorials, religion. What do you do when someone whips out their phone to catch a Geodude at the Holocaust Memorial? Or, as is apparently already happening, Auschwitz? Games, with the weight they bear—of play, of fun—might have once seemed inappropriate for those places. But now those places are squares on the game grid.
People don’t have a single reality anymore. You can, if you choose, live in several at once: the real and imagined stacked on top of each other. Game designers and urban planners are about to have a lot to talk about. Almost as much as the neighbors gathered around local landmarks today, trading Pokémon secrets.
“It’s a waste of battery, far as I see it,” a man said in Boston’s John Elliot Square Monday.
“Hey,” the player next to him said, “it got us talking, didn’t it?”
Originally posted here –