The Pokemon began roaming free in the real world on July 6, and the people began emerging from their houses and towers soon after.
Within 24 hours Nintendo’s Pokemon GO mobile game had topped the US App Store, and within days it had more active users than Tinder. Nintendo’s market capitalisation had gone up by more than $7 billion, and mobile gaming has been changed forever.
Long story short: A game where you race about the neighbourhood and catch virtual monsters has become probably the most successful app of all time.
But not everyone is happy. There are news reports of homes and businesses being “besieged” by zombie-like gamers walking around staring at their phones.
Apparently somebody in Perth even called the cops.
There’s also reports and of gamers being drawn to “troubling locations”, such as the headquarters of a notorious New Zealand bikie gang.
So amid this predictable panic and backlash, it’s worth pointing out that Pokemon GO is actually doing wonderful things for the mental health of gamers.
“In the times since I’ve had the app I’ve been out just walking way more than normally would. It’s made me feel really good,” says Alex Tullet, a young game designer with anxiety and depression.
“I just evolved a Staryu into a Starmie on my walk to work this morning – turns out it’s shorter than public transport. I wouldn’t have known that without the excuse to go for walk.”
To understand what Alex is talking about – a Staryu evolving to a Starmie – you need to understand a bit about Pokemon GO, and how it works and what everyone is doing.
What everyone is doing
When you download Pokemon GO and open the app you get this warning:
It’s called augmented reality. The game uses Google Maps and your phone’s camera to turn your surrounds into the actual gaming environment.
The Pokemon are scattered about the real world, and you can ‘see’ them through your Pokemon GO app, like looking through magic glasses.
They’re everywhere. Including the Hack office in Sydney.
They congregate at places called PokeStops and Gyms, and these places correspond with landmarks in the real world – things like zoos, libraries, churches, and water towers.
Players also have to walk a bunch of kilometres (about 2-10km) to hatch Pokemon eggs.
And the further you venture, the more you’re rewarded.
There’s more to it than that, but that’s all you need to know to explain the flash mob at your local park or the sight of strangers rambling far from their normal habitat.
Let’s hear from the expert
The stereotype of the gamer as a loner in their bedroom has changed with the rise of online and mobile gaming, which are often catalysts for meeting new people.
This transformation of gaming has come to a head with Pokemon GO.
“There are definite mental health benefits to playing games,” says Dr Greg Wadley, a lecturer in computer science at University of Melbourne who specialises in technology for mental health and wellbeing.
“That way of taking a break and letting the mind think about something different is better than smoking cigarettes or drinking alcohol which is what lot of people do to de-stress.”
He said as well as making people less isolated, an augmented reality game like Pokemon GO also forced people to get outside and exercise.
“If you’re just sitting there you’re probably not going to go up and talk to someone.”
He said augmented reality games have been available for a few years, but Pokemon GO was the first of these to go mainstream. Its success could inspire a whole generation of games.
“Mixed reality outdoor gaming is probably going to have its moment in the sun,” he said.
“I hope it becomes successful. Other attempts to get kids up off the couch and moving while playing games – like Nintendo Wii – have had mixed success.”
Alex Tullet, the young Sydney game designer, said even if he stops playing Pokemon GO, he still would have learned the habit of going for walks.
“I will definitely be benefiting from the app well after I’ve finished using it,” he said.
‘I met my wife in augmented reality’
The maker of Pokemon GO, Niantic Labs (Nintendo is the publisher), designed the game to be sociable, and to encourage teamwork between players.
“The individual gets a certain amount of enjoyment playing by themselves, but only really benefit by teaming up with others and playing in same area at same time,” says James Gibson, who began trialing the game for Niantic in April last year.
“You’re forced into a social aspect to unlock the full richness of the game.”
Players have to work together to battle Pokemon. James said during the trial period Niantic toyed with the social dynamics of the game, figuring out how people might make connections.
Niantic was building on what it had learned from its one of its previous augmented reality titles, Ingress. The two games’ social dynamics are similar, and the locations of PokeStops and gyms are based on the location of ‘portals’ from the previous game, James told Hack.
“I know lots of people who met each other on Ingress and got married. There are a number of couples in Canberra who met and fell in love and got engaged on Ingress.
“I proposed to my wife during playing Ingress.”
He foresaw it was “100 per cent guaranteed” Pokemon GO would launch a thousand love stories, and the lovin’ has probably already begun.
This article first appeared on ‘Triple J Hack’ on 12 July 2016.