Remember geocaching? A game in which participants visit a website where other users leave GPS coordinates of hidden “geocaches.” You find those coordinates in the real world, where (you hope) a little treasure is hidden: a wooden box, a plastic Easter egg, or a leather pouch with mostly useless items stashed inside. They were little trophies that showed your aptitude for finding hidden things for the sake of adventure. Sometimes, there was nothing there because some other kid found it, took it, didn’t replace it, and failed to update the website.
Pokemon Go is geocaching, but instead of finding physical items, they’re Pokemon that exist only in the imaginary world of phone gaming, so there are no false-positives. Users still have to venture through the real world, but with a close eye on the virtual one on their phone screen; otherwise they won’t know where to catch the Pokemon.
The game is all over the news. A teenage girl in Wyoming came across a dead body on her search for a “Squirtle.” Missouri police said a group of robbers lured victims with the promise of a “Pikachu.” A kid in the Jersey City Heights says a strange man accidentally walked into his apartment looking for a “Charmander.”
Gotta catch ‘em all
Like many popular brands from the early dot-com era, new technology allows Pokemon to endure. Pokemon, short for “pocket monsters,” exploded in popularity in the 1990s with the advent of the Gameboy. What originally existed only in your pocket on a pixelated screen are now everywhere, and nowhere at the same time. That’s the thing about augmented reality games—they combine the real and the imaginary into one common, open world. Two people can see and catch the same Pokemon in a park.
“I feel like I’m going out and experiencing my community in a different way. I meet other people catching Pokemon and it’s just a lot of fun.” –Martino Gomez
“We like to keep challenging other people,” said Yue. When asked what kind of Pokemon they were catching, they pointed their phone at a vacant stretch of grass. Their screens showed the scene, just as it looks to the naked eye, but with what looked like a two-headed ostrich called a Dodo Bird, just waiting to be caught. Yan flicked a Pokeball on the screen toward the cartoonish fowl and caught it with ease. After catching Pokemon, gamers travel to Pokegyms to battle them against other gamers’ Pokemon. The more you battle, the stronger your Pokemon get, and when they get strong enough, they evolve into bigger, better versions of their juvenile forms and get different names and powers.
Across the street, what looks like St. Henry’s Church turns out to be a Pokegym in the augmented reality of Pokemon Go. Gyms look more like flying saucers than gyms, but are uniquely identifiable within the app.
Another group of kids was exhibiting similar behavior at Riverview-Fisk Park in Jersey City Heights. “It’s the coolest game, there’s no other like it,” said Martino Gomez. “I feel like I’m going out and experiencing my community in a different way. I meet other people catching Pokemon, and it’s just a lot of fun.”
The future is coming
Some look down on players like Martino and Yan, and Yue. “I don’t get it,” said Mike Hernandez, 45, of Union City. “It’s just another fad. The kids will come back to reality.”
Hernandez may be right. But maybe not. Augmented-reality games are only the tip of the technological iceberg of virtual and augmented gaming. Virtual reality (VR) gaming is entering the gaming market with headsets that allow users to experience a game as if it were their own reality, as opposed to the augmented reality of Pokemon Go that just combines elements of the game with the real world. The traditional gaming format that employs a controller while the user looks at a screen may be a thing of the past, when virtual reality and augmented reality become integrated into the more advanced games of the future. Once the Pokemon Go “fad” fades, watch out for cyborgs.
Rory Pasquariello can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.