23 Sep 2016

Pokémon Go
2016 - Niantic / Game Freak

Also, my geocaching diary.

Most Sunday’s of my youth, our Mum would coerce my sister and I into long treks across the Isle of Wight countryside. At that age, spending hours outside of the house felt like nothing more than time wasted not playing Pokémon Red (later Gold) on my yellow Gameboy Pocket (I was, like most children, quite single-minded). Against my nature I did come to love these walks, through woods with rope swings and across fields of cows and sheep, and even after learning to cycle, drive and motorbike, wearing out my shoes has been my preferred method of transportation. 
Pretty typical.

I remain a fond fan of Pokémon. These two loves considered, I would think I must be in the top 1% of people predisposed to love Pokémon Go. So, rationally, it must be a pretty awful game for me to dislike it as much as I do.

Yeah, Pokémon Go does give you an excuse go outside, and when you first open up game and see the world around you filled with points of interest stretching far into the distance, and animals to hunt... well, these are some primal instincts being tapped into, right? All the more potent because this is the real world, not a defined and tailored virtual world but the much vaster, more intricate and far messier real one. Your hunter-gather sense of adventure is aroused. Which direction first?

How long did it take (for me it was about two days — others must have seen it in the trailers, but I have friends who still haven't clocked on months later) till it occurred to you that what we enjoy about the game has almost nothing to do with what is happening on the screen?

Pokémon Go would be a perfect parody of JRPG design, and a statement against it, if it didn't deliver it so straight. It is all carrot-dangling, grind-demanding, and attention wasting. The cycle of walk-flick-walk-flick serves to evolve monsters that we grew to love in much better games, even though in this game there is barely anything to do with them, excepting an occasional shallow and perfunctory battle. It is less fun, even, to evolve the monsters in Go than in the proper games, because sometimes you just run across the evolved version anyway, or just a more powerful one, and end up throwing away the old one before you can get attached to it.

It's all such a sad, vague imitation, like sitting down in what looks like a TGI Friday's and being served a single gummy burger.

What you have at the center is almost entirely the work to make the numbers on your screen bigger than the numbers on your friend's screens — and the numbers go up forever. As Cookie Clicker (which, too, would be a perfect paradoy of JRPG design, if people didn't play it seriously) has shown us, that is pretty much all we need to keep doing something, even if we aren't, really, enjoying it. If you’re a user engagement analyst at Ninantic, Pokémon Go is a victory of game design. If you’re a Pokémon Go victim, it’s sinister, and you might not even know it yet.

There certainly aren't any aesthetic or narrative treats to be had, expect those that occur in the real world: the fun of Pokémon Go is entirely in going on a nice walk, and we can't credit Niantic for designing that. If you listen to Nirvana whilst playing ET, you don't give Atari praise when you bang your head to Radio-Friendly Unit Shifter.

What you enjoy in Go you don't need the game for, and, vitally, vitally, can do it better without the game.

I'll try not to write a poem, but walking deep outdoors is pretty swell. The taste of the air. The accent of the light. It's just a healthier place to be: you feel it on your skin, in your posture, in your legs, with all your senses, if you let it. But I don't always let it — I'm thinking about where I'm going, usually somewhere inside, and I'm not the only one. We get distracted. We forget to walk for pleasure.

Pokemon Go is designed especially to put you outside, and then distract you from it! Bzzt, a Bellsprout: Look At Your Phone. Bzzt, a Nidoran: Look At Your Phone. Bzzt, a Zubat - Bzzt, a Zubat - Bzzt...
Fuck's sake.
In this sense, it is negatively impacting a great game — reality — so it justly deserves a negative score.

After two days I ditched Pokemon Go. It’s a physical as well as a mental thing: craning over a phone when walking is less comfortable, less relaxing. I vowed to walk more, to walk slowly and for it's own sake. For reminding me, Pokemon Go can have some thanks. Some.

It was on one of these later walks that I remembered Geocaching, and after I found out what it actually was I had to try it. Now I pass on this wisdom to you, like a noble Pidgeot feeding Pidgey chicks from its own mouth: friends, if you liked Pokemon Go, you gotta try Geocatching - uh, Geocaching.

Geocaching is something of an open-source game, first invented in 2002, that makes use of the outdoors! It doesn't tug on your trousers for your attention at each turning. It points and says "Go: enjoy that direction".

Pokémon Go asks you to go to the popular urban centers, for the number of Pokéstops and number of people putting down lures, but these are the most boring places to walk. Most geocaches hide in the countryside. If you've still got your phone out at this point, you might have to put it away just so you have two hands free - clamber down that slope, climb over that rock. Move, move, move your body, baby: it's what we were designed to do. Flat streets? Bleh.

There are urban caches too, but where Pokémon Go only asks you to be within throwing distance of the thing, finding a geocache is an intimate act with the city. You need to get on all sides of that thing, appreciate it from all angles. Maybe get your hands on it, around it, in it. Phwoah.
Get as many success smilies as you can you your city. Just as satisfying as catching a new 'mon. 
When you get there you might look at a hint on the app. From the geocachers who also solve crosswords or played Monkey Island, the clue may be cryptic, or there might be a hint in a Geocache that leads you to another Geocache, so this game even has puzzles. Pokémon Go has no such ambition, of course.

Most importantly, I think, is that hunts for a geocache demand that you keep your eyes open, keep your mind open, be aware of the world around you, and isn't that a more useful state than focusing your attention pointlessly on a mobile phone screen. Moreover, that is the first step to enjoying your surroundings. This is the solution to treating outdoors like a slow, tedious mode of transport.
Nice view of the shit side of my city from up here.
Can you spot it?
Finally: community. Pokémon Go is a kids game: it's pedo-safe, entirely insulated. It is not a multiplayer game in any meaningful way, and unlike the Geocaching app you can't leave messages or stories for other players nor directly contact them. Great. For kids. Maybe.

Messaging aside, I feel weirdly close to the people whose handles I recognize in log books, and oddly distant to the real life humans with their heads in their phones I would run into at Pokéstops. I don't think it's because I'm a sociopath. Finding a cache is genuine small experience that you relate to in the other person, even though you don't know who they are. What exactly is it you are sharing with another person who has the Pokémon Go app installed on their phone? Something to consider.
Schofield got to this one before me, too. At least his name isn't Blue. 
The main question for me is: is it really so great that a videogame got you to go outside, or a little sad that you'll only go outside on the orders of a videogame? I guess it's both. I'm not trying to act superior (I need to keep friends so I have someone to play board games with), but it's worth a thought. The way I see it, you can download the Geocaching app and go outside, or you can find a copy of a main Pokémon game (Gold/Silver and Black/White are my favorites), and either way it'll be a better adventure.

Now if only Geocaching had some good route music.

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