Pikachu & the gang are back

Pokémon Go: a wild goose chase through our childhood, looking for the characters we grew up with

via Pixabay

Yesterday I found myself hopping the fence into a stranger’s backyard, running through a church parking lot and straight into traffic.  As I narrowly dodged an oncoming city bus, I caught myself whispering, “gotta catch ‘em all.”

Trespassing and almost getting hit by a car in pursuit of a virtual monster is the norm for millions of people now. Nintendo’s newest app is taking over. 

For the uninitiated, Pokémon Go is a location-based augmented reality game available for free download on smartphones. Like previous games in the franchise, players catch, battle and train virtual “pocket monsters.” 

Using your smartphone’s GPS and camera, Pokémon — a portmanteau of “pocket” and “monsters”  —  appear on device screens at real world locations. This time, instead of residing in a video game, the Pokémon are waiting to be discovered in your immediate surroundings.  

Around campus, you can spot countless trainers doing the telltale zig-zag while staring at their phone walk in search of their next Pokémon. 

For university students, it’s a nostalgic return to a beloved franchise that blurs the line between the real world and the Pokémon universe. 

As kids we watched Ash’s adventures on TV after school, traded the cards at recess, ate fruit roll ups out of our Pikachu lunch boxes, and stayed up long past bedtime battling gym leaders on the Gameboy Colour. 

One such lifelong enthusiast is René Puerta, Comm ’16. “Growing up, I played all three generations,” Puerta said. “I stopped playing like, seven years ago, almost half my life ago, and it somehow comes back. It’s crazy.”

It’s the accessibility of the augmented reality aspect of the game that really sells the fantasy of Pokémon existing in the real world. Augmented reality in the past has required expensive gear like consoles and headsets, but Pokémon Go can be installed for free on the phone you already own. 

 “For  millions of people, this is the first experience they’re having with augmented reality,” Puerta said.

“I’ve played a VR game before, but it was only okay ... Virtual reality is usually really expensive. Pokémon Go is so cool because it’s accessible.”  

Along with a rocky release — it was made public in parts of the world but delayed in others and in certain areas was only available on Android for some time — Pokémon Go has been questioned for being a danger and public nuisance. Since its release earlier this summer, players have crashed their cars, stumbled upon dead bodies, and into robberies and tiger pits while playing.

The game frequently freezes, crashes, glitches and malfunctions. With the combination of data usage and augmented reality draining  users’ phone batteries, the app is barely functional at best. 

None of these issues seem to be deterring anyone from playing. 

“It’s like an abusive relationship. The app always crashes on me, startup time is slow, it logs you out of your account. My phone crashed on me as I was about to catch a Scyther … but I keep coming back,” Puerta said. 

Despite its flaws, Pokémon is undeniably bringing people together. 

“I love playing with other people, it’s so fun. We talk and walk and see new parts of the city.,” Puerta said.

Two nights ago, I was going for a walk near U of T, we found this area with four Pokéstops in one area, and there was a crazy amount of people there, all using lures to attract Pokémon. People were mingling, chilling, it was a really cool environment,” Puerta continued.

For me, I had a similar experience while on my way to get gelato with a friend one evening. We cut through Confederation Park and stumbled upon a gathering of fifty people milling around the fountain. 

There was chatting, the sharing of phones and snacks and even a re-charging area. I quickly realized I had stumbled into a gathering of strangers who had nothing in common except for a love of Pokémon. 

A girl in a Pikachu hoodie looked up from her phone, smiled at us, and said, “Hey! There’s a Snorlax here” and we immediately forgot all about the gelato. 

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