What Makes Pokémon Go So Compelling?

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Everyone has a story like this by now, but here’s mine: I went downtown to my small-town main street and found dozens of people outside, walking around, chatting with each other, laughing, and having an all-around good time.

In many places, this is probably a more or less routine scene. But in my small upstate New York town, this simply doesn’t happen. It’s a depressed community, economically and psychologically: the big tentpole industries left town in the early ‘90s after NAFTA, and people mostly keep to themselves, despite the presence of a big state college. Home ownership is low and dropping, most residential housing has been turned into rental properties, and businesses come and go on Main Street like seasons.

Yet, here it’s happening: People crawling along Main Street, chatting with friends as they search for creatures, sitting together on park benches near the county court house, exploring the alleys around the library. And it’s all thanks to Pokémon GO.

If you’re unfamiliar with the game – which it’s hard to imagine at this point – you can find tons of helpful reading here on Gameranx, including this handy starter guide by Kevin Theilenhaus. Keep an eye on the subject tag for the latest info as well.

There are lots of stunned reactions to this Pokémon phenomenon (a Pokémonenon perhaps?): headlines suggest Pokémon GO is an “accidental” or “unassuming” “fitness craze.” There’s a lot of worry over Google accounts being handed over carte blanche to Niantic (which was founded as an internal Google startup), and much hand-wringing over people doing stupid things like catching Pokémon at the National Holocaust Museum or wandering into traffic.

And of course these reactions would come – when have they not? There’s been public fretting over cell phone usage in theaters and libraries, beepers causing problems in church services, and the disruption caused by women wearing trousers.

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But what’s really driving this craze? What makes this work so well, when Niantic’s previous offering, Ingress, languished in relatively niche status?

A big part of it has to do with Pokémon’s powerful brand status – it’s a franchise that recently celebrated its 20th anniversary, and millions of people around the world have an intense, emotional attachment to the game, which started as a humble GameBoy title in 1996. For reference, that was the year that “The Macarena” came out.

One of social science’s most interesting works in the last couple decades is Robert Putnam’s “Bowling Alone.” In it, Putnam talks about the steady decline in American voter turnout since the 1950s, and maps it against a similar, correlating erosion in participation in social groups, like The League of Women Voters, the Rotary Club, and bowling leagues. Putnam theorizes that community institutions – churches, clubs, local government – have meant less and less to people as they’ve increasingly had to move from city to city to change jobs in the new economy.

What that’s effectively meant for small town communities like mine is that there are few people left around who value the location-based institutions that have literally grounded them for generations: libraries, Elks Clubs, Churches, bowling leagues.

Millennials – a group of people who are vaguely categorized as having been born sometime after 1980 – have largely grown up without the kind of support offered by their parents’ and grandparents’ public institutions. Sure, there are still public schools and libraries, but millennials’ parents had grown to despise them by the time their children – us – were ready for kindergarten. Modern adults, teens, and kids live in a world where the notion of a social safety net is largely absent. For those without a job, there’s the nightmarish existence provided by welfare; for those who return from war, a GI Bill that’s worth a pittance compared to what it bought for their grandparents.

All this is to say that Pokémon GO is creating through game dynamics the eroding “social capital” that Putnam worried about in his book. Pokémon GO’s gyms and PokeStops are mapped over important civic places – monuments, shopping centers, churches – and create brand new reasons for people to visit these community spaces. The game’s inherent “gotta catch ‘em all” premise is one of gaming’s most basic, and requiring players to physically go out and look for their rewards makes us look at our public spaces in a wholly new light.

Where most new tech rollouts promise you reasons to avoid public areas, Pokémon GO is pushing in the opposite direction: it’s creating social capital, giving you a reason to love your community, and even making a midday walk into something fun. There are certainly reasons to critique the game – it’s a bit thin, the app is slightly unstable on some Android devices, etc. – but the reaction to it shouldn’t be fear. This is a bold step into the future that apps like FourSquare and Ingress only could hint at.

I’m all for it.