Transfixed players have fallen off a cliff in California, wandered across the border in Canada and broken a limb in Australia, all while hunting Pokemon. Authorities at Auschwitz and the Hiroshima memorial have asked players to stay away; the police in Portugal, the Chinese army, the Indonesian civil service and the Japanese National Center of Incident Readiness and Strategy for Cybersecurity have all issued warnings.
In Britain, four teenagers had to be rescued in Wiltshire after following imaginary Pokemon down a 30m mineshaft; two girls wandered 80m out to sea on mudflats in Somerset; and a lifeboat crew was scrambled after three girls were seen wandering into rough seas in Hastings while playing the game. Network Rail has displayed signs warning commuters against straying on to tracks.
Has there ever been a computer game — or a technological or artistic innovation of any kind — that has had the immediate international impact of Pokemon Go? Two weeks after its launch in the UK, less than a month after it became available in the US, and already rolled out to almost 40 other countries, the hit smartphone game has been shattering records for global downloads and is estimated to have been installed on the smartphones of 75 million people worldwide — at least 5 million of them in the UK in its first week alone.
Analysis suggests that after its US launch Pokemon Go was being used more widely than Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram or Twitter.
The cultural impact of such enormous uptake has been equally huge, as parks, historical sites, transport hubs, churches and restaurants across the world have seen people wandering round, faces glued to their smartphones, in pursuit of creatures invisible to non-players — with all the hazards that entails.
The jargon of Pokemon Go might be baffling to outsiders, but its interface would be broadly familiar to anyone who has used a car satellite navigation system.
The point of the game is to orient oneself in the real world using a 3D map on one’s smartphone screen, then discover Pokemon characters in augmented reality as viewed through the smartphone camera.
Players, or “trainers,” can then catch the wide range of cartoon animals by flicking Poke Balls at them.
Many real-world locations have become virtual Poke tops, where players can top up on items useful for playing the game. Others have been designated Pokemon gyms, which become the location for team-based battles for control of the facility. Just make sure you look where you ere going while heading there.
It was at his four-year-old son’s birthday party that Paul Carmichael and a colleague had an idea. Two days earlier Pokemon Go had been released in Britain and though Carmichael did not know much about it, they had already spotted one or two children playing it around the Cardwell garden center, near the village of Inverkip in Inverclyde, where he is the retail general manager. Maybe there was an opportunity here.
“We checked it out at the garden center, and we found a few Pokemon, so we decided to set up a campaign to get some people to come down to find them,” he said.
They invited visitors to post photographs on Facebook of the cartoon creatures they had discovered lurking virtually between the seed packets and garden furniture, for the chance of winning a voucher for the center’s restaurant.
It is a modest offer, he said, but “we’ve had lots of families coming in, young boys, young girls, going crazy because they found something, and mum and dad are helping them. It’s allowed us to be in contact with different customers and people who may not have been involved with a garden center before. I think it’s fantastic.”
As a phenomenon, technology presenter and writer Will Francis said, Pokemon Go has been incomparable, but the game does not actually represent a significant technological step forward.
He said its success is less due to its application of augmented reality, which has been around for the best part of a decade, than the nostalgia of reviving Pokemon characters familiar from the childhoods of young adults.
“The game is actually quite lo-fi, and when you think about it, it’s massively unsocial,” he said — players cannot see other trainers on screen, for example, or compare their own scores online with those of their friends.
“The only way you can tell if people are playing it is physically looking around you. That may be the genius of it — that they have forced the social element of it to live outside the app,” he added.
Gaming expert Leigh Alexander thinks another reason for its popularity is that, having reached mass penetration of smartphones, socially we are acclimatised to a distraction culture — on any train you are on, most people have their face in their smartphone — and this gives you something simple to do that is rewarding and comforting.
“It’s reminding people of a simpler time. There’s a lot of bad news going on in the US and the UK, social media has become a stressful experience. It’s becoming hellish to be jacked into that scene constantly. [This] changes our devices back into an object of wonder, rather than an object we’re shackled to that tortures us,” she said.
Which is not to overlook the fact that a lot of money is being made out of the game’s success — already, inevitably, termed Pokenomics.
Shares in Nintendo, which developed the Pokemon franchise in the 1990s and part-owns the company which licenses the characters, more than doubled following the release of Pokemon Go, only to plummet 18 percent after the company pointed out that it has only a small stake in the app, which is developed by Niantic, a former subsidiary of Google.
Though the game is free to play, trainers are encouraged to buy (with real money) in-game resources like Poke Balls and Lucky Eggs.
Euromonitor estimates the global market for all in-game purchases could grow 20 percent to US$29.8 billion, greatly boosted by Pokemon Go.
Niantic has said it plans to establish many more deals like that struck with McDonald’s in Japan, where the developers designated 3,000 of the chain’s restaurants as Pokemon gyms, in exchange for a significant fee.
For now, said Jack Ashby, manager of the Grant Museum of Zoology in London and a member of the UCL Centre for Digital Humanities team, finding oneself an unexpected Poke top — where people are already wandering in, smartphones in hand — is immensely welcome.
“It’s been given to us,” he said. “We have been automatically put in the game, without having to find the funding that has always been a barrier when it comes to technology and museums.”
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