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11 July 2016

How Pokémon Go is rivalling Twitter and Tinder (and taking over the world)

It’s like a scene from a Dr Who Christmas special: legions of people walk zombie-like across city streets, staring fixedly into their phones.

By Barbara Speed

There’s a new game in town, and at first glance, it looks really, really, boring.

Pokémon Go, launched by Nintendo in the US and Australia on 5 July, involves spotting little animated monsters on a map, catching them with your Poké Ball by flicking your finger at your screen, and…barring a handful of other features, that’s about it.

The catch, though, is you can’t do it from your bed or sofa. The game maps the Pokémon onto real GPS and street maps, so you have to roam around in the real world to find them. This is no Candy Crush on the Tube, or days spent playing FIFA in a darkened room. You have to “go” (get it?) outside.

In a way, the game has less in common with other recent popular games than a much more analogue pastime: geocaching. Particularly popular in the mid-noughties, this involved hiding “geocaches” fllled with treats in public locations, then using a GPS handset to log its spot and share it with others online.

Pokémon Go shares geocaching’s treasure hunt element, and the thrill that someone (well, in this case an API) has hidden something for you on a real street that you can visit. This lure has prompted Apple and Android users all over the world to bypass country restrictions to get access to the game before it is released in their country. (The Guardian has published a step by step guide for how to do this.)

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In just under a week the game has become the number 1 free game in the US, and appears to have gained nearly as many daily active users on Android phones as decade-old Twitter. Within a day, it allegedly overtook Tinder downloads on US Android phones. Screenshots of cartoon creatures superimposed on street scenes have taken over social media. The sheer number of users in the US and Australia has overloaded the game’s servers. (These problems, incidentally, mean the UK release date will be delayed.)  It is, to put it lightly, a phenomenon.

As such, it represents the first big, mainstream success of Augmented Reality, in which you play games within your real environment. It’s arguably a win for public health, too: the game counts your steps, and rewards you for walking certain distances. It joins Google Glass as evidence that our digital future may not be desk- or sofa-bound. 

Yet the game’s use of uncharted territoriy – the real world – has already, predictably, spawned stories of Pokémon-gone-wrong. One user stumbled across a corpse while playing. Teenagers in the US used the game to lure gamers and rob them. One man playing in the middle of the night says he was mistaken for a drug dealer.

These stories are exceptions, used as scare stories to warn of an oncoming Pokédystopia. Yet it’s hard not to sympathise: the whole thing is a little like the intro to a Dr Who Christmas special, in which legions of people head to the streets and march, zombie like, staring at their phones. 

Some elements of the game do seem designed to bring users together in the real world, as certain features (such as Poké Spots, where users can set “lures” to bring Pokémon running) will, inevitably, lead to congregations of users in certain locations. This could be very positive, if you’re a gamer who bumps into like-minded Poképhiliacs while you’re out and about. Yet one Twitter user, whose house was marked as a “gym” on the game, noted that this could have repercussions for everything from safety to house prices, especially if games like this become the norm.

Equally, the game as it stands at the moment is not as communal as it may sound. Each player uses it as an individual, as Pokémon spawn in the same locations for everyone, and don’t disappear once claimed.

Meanwhile, watching someone play isn’t far off from watching someone text in public. They walk slowly, starting and stopping, while staring obsessively at their phone. Conversations are punctuated by squawks of “A bulbasaur!!” A friend’s desire to “go check out that park over there” turns a little sour when you realise it’s rooted in the presence of a lake, and therefore the potential for snaring a water Pokémon.

So yes, it’s a huge leap forward for AR, and a great way to get gamers out and about – but spare a thought for their friends and partners.

This article was edited on 11/7 to make clear that the stats on downloads and usage refer to Android phones only.