Got to catch them all: why is Pokémon Go so popular?

For all its much-publicized perils, the game remains successful. The reason why is surprisingly simple.

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Two men fell off a cliff. A teenager was hit by a car. A woman got stuck in a tree. The global phenomenon that is the new augmented reality game Pokémon Go caused all of these – and yet we’re still playing it.

Arguably the greatest pandemic since swine flu, Pokémon Go is a game that uses your smartphone or tablet’s GPS and camera to allow users to catch Pokémon – the very same fictional species popularised by Nintendo games in the Nineties – in the real world. To play, you physically have to walk around and find Pokémon, collect items, and battle other players. It’s not the first game that uses augmented reality to make users go outside, but it is the first that has earned its creators £10m in a single week.

I caught a Voltorb today. To do so, I had to visit the London Sivan Kovil, a stunning Hindu temple with an intricately carved façade that I have never seen before, though it stands just moments down the road from the flat I have lived in for two years. The temple is a PokéStop, a place users can visit to find items and level up in the game. Because of this feature, thousands have already seen places they might never come across. Mostly, this is brilliant. Occasionally, it leads people to disrespect historically significant places for the sake of capturing a Pikachu. One of these places is Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Herein lies the problem with Pokémon Go. Not only has it proved dangerous, it has forced the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum to speak out against “disrespectful” and “inappropriate” players. Naysayers note that, yes, children are outside who might otherwise have been indoors, but they are still looking at screens. To put it another way: I may or may not have walked into a lamp post yesterday.

And yet, despite the negative headlines, it’s safe to say that, with over 30 million downloads, a lot of people love Pokémon Go. What is it about this app that has managed to unite Brexiters and Remainers around a single activity?

Obviously, there’s nostalgia at play here. But as someone who collected only a few of the original cards when Pokémania first hit Britain in the Nineties, I don’t believe this is the sole reason for the game’s success. A big part of it is psychology. Pokémon’s slogan “Gotta catch ’em all” provides a very specific goal, with at least 150 potential dopamine rushes to enjoy along the way. But studies have also shown that the motivational pull of a video game is often related to its real-world effects. According to a study by researchers at the University of Rochester in New York State, people are more likely to continue playing games that give them feelings of autonomy, competence and connection with others.

It is this last that Pokémon Go offers perhaps more than any other game. Whereas previous games allow people to connect through headsets or forums, Pokémon Go helps to forge face-to-face friendships and relationships, as well as motivating socially anxious individuals to go outside and talk to others. Last week, I had a conversation with a teenager who had placed a Lure (an item that attracts Pokémon) in my local park. I wouldn’t even have been in the park, let alone chatting with a stranger, if it weren’t for the game.

Perhaps Pokémon Go just came along at exactly the right time. Those who moan at us to “look up from our screens” forget that to do so is to clap eyes on a world experiencing frequent mass shootings and terrorist attacks, as well as an unprecedented period of political turmoil – a post-Brexit Britain where reported hate crimes have surged by 42 per cent. Given all of that, who can blame us for craving escape into an augmented reality?

But Pokémon Go isn’t successful just because it is psychologically appealing; nor do people play it only because they know it’s potentially dangerous. It’s a success because it is a unique combination of the two. I’m still hurting from that lamp post I walked into, but the reason I stumbled into it at all is that I was walking home from work instead of taking the bus. The true appeal of the game is that its effects have the rare potential to be both exceptionally good (friends, romance, exercise) and outstandingly bad (danger, death, disrespect).

To put it simply, the game appeals not only because it leads us to do good or bad things, but because it leads us to do things at all. Whether it’s talking to strangers or visiting Hindu temples, Pokémon Go offers endless opportunities for new experiences.

The game is a hit – and, dare I say, brilliant – because it motivates millions of people to do things they would never otherwise have done. Even if that’s falling off a cliff.

Amelia Tait is a freelance journalist, and was previously the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer. She tweets at @ameliargh

This article appears in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue