Pokémon Go arrives at a time of social turmoil, steamrolling a gridlocked national discourse on race, police brutality, and politics with a timing that conspirators’ dreams are made of. It’s become the worst best game of the year, a buggy and nostalgia powered app with unparalleled behavioral and social impact.
It’s this context that makes Pokémon Go a monster as strange and friendly as Pikachu—media that calls into question our values while generating affinity among people in way that is unheard of in games and entertainment.
Can’t Separate the Game from Phenomenon
Like all matters of human import, the critical conversation about Pokémon Go has devolved into dualism. Ask someone how they feel about Pokémon Go and you’ll probably get one of two answers: it’s great that people are outside and so much fun or that it’s a waste of time, grow up, and it’s a bad game.
Try it out for yourself. Depending on where they stand you can decide if you want to stay friends, married, family members, etc.
But it’s this largely sociological component that makes reviewing Pokémon Go only as a game a reductive evaluation. You can’t review the game itself without taking into account the ideological stakes, the cultural context, because so much outside the game affects the enjoyment of it. So for the purposes of this review, let’s look at Pokémon Go from three critical perspectives: the actual game, the cynical reading, and the optimistic assessment.
Is Pokémon Go Actually a Good Game?
Not really. Pokémon Go launched with broken gameplay, inscrutable systems, and servers as questionable as those of a certain presidential candidate. This is a 1.0 product in the age of agile programming, so Pokémon Go has and is expected to evolve. A week out and server problems in the U.S. are as rare as a Dragonair siting.
But the gameplay is an anemic version of the handheld Pokémon games. The catch and battle systems have been adapted to the touch and swipe mechanics demanded in the mobile and AR space. There is no trading at launch. What’s there works well enough for on-the-go play, but lacks the depth needed to keep players (especially veterans of the franchise) interested months down the line.
The true allure of Pokémon Go lies in the location based gameplay, the human compulsion to collect, and the socialization that binds it all together. The incentive to explore IRL certainly makes Pokémon Go a singular experience, a veritable real world Pokémon MMO. But the question from detractors is worth discussing: is Pokémon Go a good thing or another time-sink in an already media addicted society?
The Evils of Pokémon Go
In a world of war, bloodshed, and low voter turnout we have people with an unhealthy obsession over something that does not matter. You know like sports, Netflix, or nearly anything you do that does not fall into the capitalist production, charity, or responsibility buckets. Pokémon Go makes it easy to turn away from dealing with difficult and pressing problems. Or the game’s global prominence and public display have made it an easy straw man to lay the blame on.
Then we have the Fox News’ Pokémon Go headlines: robberies, car crashes, and two idiots falling off a cliff.
But more than clickbait controversy, Pokémon Go surprisingly provokes some ethical questions concerning having fun during times of exceptional human upheaval. Is it okay to be distracted with the trivial when there are lives at stake? Do we not have a responsibility to care more about each other than a drawing of an electric rat on your phone? And what is Professor Willow doing with all those transferred Pokémon?
The Good of Pokémon Go
Pokémon Go may be a fad or a waste of time, but the game’s positive impact, however shallow, is unprecedented.
We’ve all heard someone exclaim how great it is to see so many young people outside, even if they’re still glued to their phones chasing cartoon creatures. But hey, now we can now name the art and landmarks that we’ve unknowingly walked in front of hundreds of times. Then there are those with social anxiety and depression who are finding themselves outside and talking to strangers for the first time in years.
In one of the more poignant Pokémon Go stories, a father reported that the game made his children willingly spend time with him during errands. While he admitted that they were more interested in “catching them all” than hanging with dad, he prefers it over the alternative. It’s easy to imagine that his two kids will look back at this time with nostalgia, recalling how the game accidentally brought them closer to their father.
The use of “unprecedented” and “unparalleled” isn’t hype. It really is hard to name a comparable cultural phenomenon with so many moments of tangible good, a point that makes the game more enjoyable to play. Regardless of the qualitative value, criticizing anything that creates positivity seems regressive. But still is this enough to justifying playing Pokémon as a 28 year old man?
How to Justify Playing Pokémon Go
During a time of extraordinary and seemingly escalating catastrophe Pokémon Go is an anomaly, a veritable human honey pot that brings people together not in response to national tragedy but in affinity for the perennial act of fun.
On the one hand, you have a country dealing with a string of unjust murders, domestic terrorism, and the fate of a nation. And in the other hand, I have an iPhone—as I try to find that damn Bulbasaur that keeps showing up outside my house every night. The former, or any suffering in its major and minor forms, seems to compel the latter, entertainment. Meaning that the persistence of problems, geopolitical or personal, fuels the compulsion to seek out trifling escapism.
Isn’t part of what we’re asking from a review is “how well does this entertainment distract us”?
And as entertainment, as a moment’s reprieve, Pokémon Go is undoubtedly effective in letting us have fun and forget together.