It’s around 11 in the morning. I’m grabbing coffee with my boyfriend. We’re about to meet up with a friend who lives close by. This could be just any other weekend, but I’ve recently quit my “day job” as a barista. The concept of weekends is basically fresh to me. Also fresh: the fact that we’re prepping for a day full of catching Pokémon in Golden Gate Park by going on our first, aptly named PokéWalk. Our friend wanted to incubate an egg—an unhatched Pokémon, born out of walking a certain number of kilometers—and we opted to join him.
For the few unawares, Pokémon GO is a new mobile app developed in part by Ingress-developers Niantic and The Pokémon Company. In Pokémon GO, the player walks around their GPS-addled environment, roaming in real space to capture Pokémon. For instance, you could be at a convenience store, your phone buzzes, and poof, there’s a Venonat hanging out in the candy aisle. Fling a Pokéball at it, and it’s yours. AR makes this possible. It brings Pokémon into the real world.
I, like many others in their twenties, grew up on Pokémon. My boyfriend often says that Pokémon Blue (1996) is his most played game, ever. I’m not surprised. As kids, we have literally all the time in the world. The idea of collecting digital creatures—like Pokémon—was a totally satiable thirst. As adults, that grows to insatiable. With adulthood comes responsibility, jobs, bills, a general lack of free time. Catching ‘em all just doesn’t sound all that likely anymore.
I’ve never been too social of a person. Coupled with inherent social anxiety when in groups in addition to being perpetually busy, it’s not really a surprise. I work a lot between freelancing, working as a supervisor at a quaint tea shop, and even before that, juggling both while attending university. I never had time to hang out with friends, much less sink time into lengthy RPG-like games such as Pokémon. Plus, the idea of meeting new people is always enough to put a lump in my throat and cause a surge of anxiety. Pokémon GO changes that, by making the very experience of catching Pokémon simple and social. It creates a common ground for spontaneous conversation. It fixes the series’s atypical formula. It’s not about being the very best any longer.
We’re in Golden Gate Park now. I don’t remember the last time I’ve walked this much—you know, suffering from intense nature-bound allergies and not usually having an excuse to, uh, walk. We’ve halted at a Pokéstop (mini-landmarks on the game’s map that give the player Pokémon and other useful items) by Stow Lake. We’re all catching Psyducks alongside actual ducks. It feels weird, but it’s nice.
It brings Pokémon into the real world
A couple on their bikes see us and stop. They ask if we’re catching Pokémon. We laugh and say “yeah,” before asking what they’ve seen in the area. The woman, probably around our age, leans in from her bike and says, “I saw a Charizard around here last night.” Her male acquaintance nods regarding the surprise encounter. “Well, we saw its shadow.” She’s referring to the “nearby Pokémon” tab always resting in the lower right of the player’s screen. We bid farewell and good luck on their PokéBikeRide.
We move along the perimeter of the lake. At every Pokéstop, we see other smartphone-enabled trainers along the way. Some we briefly chat with, others we don’t. We discover things we didn’t even know about in Golden Gate Park, like where the heck did this waterfall come from? It’s like we’re all part of a secret society. Except that it’s not so secret after all.
On every corner, there’s someone there, phone clasped in hand, finger swiping upwards
The Pokémon series, at its best, circled around friendship. In the anime, it was the friendship between Ash and Pikachu, or between Ash, Misty, and Brock that rooted the series. In the early Pokémon games, the aspect of Pokémon trainer camaraderie was mostly absent, minus a semi-friendly nemesis on the same journey as the player. Pokémon X and Y (2013) tried to remedy this. The player’s main character—a girl or boy depending on choice—starts their adventure with a group of friends. You don’t travel the entire way together, but bumping into them time and time again is a cheerful reminder that you’re not alone in this adventurous world. Tierno, Shauna, Trevor, and Calem/Serena always have your back.
I see a gym in the distance, close to the rental paddle boats—it’s controlled by Team Valor. In Pokémon GO, upon reaching level 5, the player can pledge allegiance to one of three teams. I chose Team Instinct, or Team Yellow, because I like the idea of Zapdos being my mascot. Luckily, our friend chose the same team. My boyfriend, and a friend we met up with later, chose a different team. Team Mystic.
We approach the gym marked on our app, and there’s already a crowd of 10 people, all with their phones out, fighting to overtake Team Valor’s four-tiered gym. I can’t launch a battle. “Me neither,” groans virtually everyone there. This is where Pokémon GO flounders (or splashes, in Magikarp terms). During my PokéWalk, I encountered over a dozen “server issues.” Since my friends were happily playing, I figured this was just a catch-all term for “sorry our app breaks 90 percent of the time.”
We later meet up with another friend. Our conversation quickly shifts to how broken the app is. Despite our fun with it, the amount of times it’s locked up while catching a Pokémon, in the midst of a totally-winnable gym battle, or just on the loading screen is an insane amount. It’s also a massive battery drainer. But luckily we brought extra battery packs, looking like dorks as charging cords dangled out of our bags and jackets. In some having to force-quit-the-app-cases, I’d re-login, only to be shot back to the login screen, and then a servers issue page. It soured my mood. Quick. Until it’d launch back up again, and all ill will would fade away. But there’s only so much I, and many others, can take.
I’ve never seen anything like Pokémon GO before, it’s nothing short of a phenomenon. On every corner, at every Pokéstop, there’s someone there, regardless of age, phone clasped in hand, finger swiping upwards. There’s ways the app could be better—prolific server issues and fixing incessant freezing primarily—but implementing one-on-one player battles would be top choice. Also a more responsive, and all around better, combat system. And once I catch ‘em all, more Pokémon.
Our friend tells us about another GPS-guided game from awhile back. He says it’s better. It probably is. But for now, Pokémon GO’s brought me back outside, something no other game has. I’m now wondering if that mythical Charizard really does only appear in Golden Gate Park at night. Through AR, I feel physically the closest I’ll ever be to an otherwise faux-creature. I’m hanging out with friends I’d barely see otherwise. I’m meeting other excited strangers on the street, all chipper about the same exact thing: Pokémon. I can talk to strangers without feeling sick to my stomach, because Pokémon GO is my crutch. And that’s pretty magical.
All AR photos were taken by Caty McCarthy, within Pokémon GO.