Gotta Catch ‘Em All!

So. You might have heard about this “Pokémon” thing sweeping the world. It’s called Pokémon GO, and it’s an augmented reality game. Chances are good you already have an opinion about it – whether it’s “That’s so stupid, why would anyone waste their time on something like that?” or “I don’t understand these technology things” or possibly “GOOOO TEAM MYSTIC!”

I say, "Gooooo Team Mystic!"
I say, “Gooooo Team Mystic!”

I was a late adopter to the game. It came out on Wednesday, July 6. I didn’t install it until Friday, July 8.

That week was a grim week during a grim month. Coup attempt in Turkey. Bombings in the Middle East. Police shootings – on both sides of the gun – here at home. My Facebook page was full of heartache that week: both mine and others. And there came a point where I just started feeling numb and overwhelmed. My coping mechanisms just weren’t up for the drumbeat of sorrow this summer has brought.

And into that week came an augmented reality game built around walking through your community catching the Pokémon living among us. Is it any surprise that it overtook Twitter for active monthly users in the first week? That Friday, I stepped out into the long, late evening walking hand in hand with my sweet youngest son (whom I’ve dubbed the walking Pokédex). In this, I was the learner, and he the teacher. “That’s a flying type Pokémon.” “Oh, that’s a good one mom. Eevees can evolve into many different types!” We walked and walked through the weekend (I got a crick in my neck). And we weren’t alone. There were teenage boys as you would expect. But there were teenage girls, too. There were some older folks, walking in the identifiably Pokémon tempo, stopping to catch those Pidgies. And there were other parents like me, walking with children like mine. In fact, I’ve met at least three other parents of my sons’ classmates, out with their kids, while I was walking with mine.

Stoneham Common packed with Pokémon players
Stoneham Common packed with Pokémon players

I’ve had some great conversations. There was the big brother there with his three siblings. He was a young, black 20 something guy. I wouldn’t have known how to start that conversation in June. In July, I could just ask which team he was on, and get to know him. There was the epic, over-powered teenager who works two jobs and spends all the rest of his time walking around taking down gyms. I’ve offered tips to grandparents who are slightly embarrassed to be caught in pursuit of an Oddish. And I’ve become both conversant and interested in something my sons are passionate about. And I’ve done all this outside, in the soft summer evenings, walking for hours.

This isn’t my first augmented reality game. I played Ingress, the predecessor to this game. (Fun fact: all the Pokéstops and gyms were previously Ingress portals, but not every Ingress portal became a stop). I really enjoyed that game too, where you would battle between two teams to take control of portals and connect them. But everything that made that game less fun… well, the Niantic team should be incredibly proud. They really learned from their first experience, and blew it out of the water with this new game. (Of course, using one of video gaming’s most valuable franchises probably didn’t hurt.)

So, what is Pokémon GO, and what would you need to do if you wanted to play it?

Pokémon GO requires a relatively modern cellphone with both GPS and data coverage. While you can play a little with only wireless, it would be a frustrating and limiting experience. It did use a bit more data than my standard use, but much less than (say) streaming music. You can download it from either the Google or iTunes App Stores.

When you turn it on, you start by customizing your avatar (the digital representation of you) and picking a user name. Other users will see this name and picture when you do cool things, like defending gyms with your Pokémon.

Then you’ll get a chance to practice catching your first Pokémon. This took me a bit of time to figure out, but you basically fling the ball at the Pokémon with your finger. (No need to throw your phone or anything!!) Your first Pokémon you get infinite balls. After you catch your first, you get a bunch of gear. But every time you throw a Pokéball, you have used one of your collection.

So how do you get more gear? That’s what Pokéstops are for. Inside the game, you’ll see a map. That map represents where you actually are in the real world. (That’s why they call it augmented reality.) The Pokéstops look like lollipops scattered across a flat world. They’re most likely to be found in areas with interesting public art or attractions – like town squares or tourist locations. You get gear from a Pokéstop by clicking on it so it takes your whole screen, then spinning it sideways. The stop will “drop” gear. (You don’t have to click on each piece, you can just close the stop and it will all be added to your gear.)

In addition to Pokéstops, you may see multilayered, colored things (more rare the Pokéstops), with cool characters on top of them. Once you hit level five, you can start interacting with these gyms. At level 5, the first time you go to a gym you’ll be asked to pick a trainer. This is where you pick your team. There are three: Blue is Team Mystic, Yellow is Team Instinct, and Red is Team Valor. (You may soon start seeing people wearing clothes with weird logos – each team also has a logo! Adam just brought me home a Team Mystic t-shirt from Gencon…) You can’t really change your team after selection. Blue is the most common, Yellow the most rare.

With gyms, it depends on whether the gym is your gym, or an enemy gym. If it’s your color gym, you can train one Pokémon from your deck against the gym. It can be really hard to make it through more than one or two! But if you defeat your friendly Pokémon, you get XP (which helps you level up) and the gym gets stronger.

With an enemy gym, you pick a team of six Pokémon to fight. There’s some strategy here. For example, fire type Pokémon (like Magmar or Flareon) are vulnerable to water type Pokémon (like Gyarados or Vaporeon). It’s ok if you don’t know that at first – you’ll have a suggested set of Pokémon which are usually a pretty good choice. But it can be fun to argue with your kids about which order of Pokémon to attack with. The strength of the Pokémon are called “CP” (combat power). The higher, the better they are at attacking! They also have hit points, which indicates how much damage they can take before they faint. Pokémon who faint can be revived with the clearly named “revive” medicine. Wounded Pokémon can be healed with potions.

The last important bit is the eggs. Eggs hatch cool, powerful Pokémon. But you can only hatch eggs by putting them in your incubator (click on the egg to do that) and then walking. Eggs can be 2km, 5km or 10km. You only make progress on them if you move at a speed of under 10 miles an hour while you have the app open – so I mostly work on hatching them when I’m out and actively playing.

There’s quite a bit more in the finer points… how to attract wild Pokémon, how to encourage Pokémon to stay captured once you’ve thrown your Pokéball at them, etc. But the game is designed to teach you by playing – and to encourage you to share tips with the players you meet along the way.

No game can cure the ills of the world. It is just a game. But when I’m outside, walking with my son and meeting people in my community… I’m not fixed on the sorrows of the world. I can enjoy the things that are funny and silly and light, and remember that the world contains much more than sorrow.

Unlike Grey, I have not yet caught a Pikachu
Unlike Grey, I have not yet caught a Pikachu

PS – if you can’t figure something out on your Pokémon GO game, I’m happy to help!

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