In a way, I didn’t want to write this article. I really didn’t, because Pokemon Go is the latest hot topic we hear about in the news all the time and I (along many other people) am quickly reaching the point of exhaustion. You know, the point where you physically can’t take the overbearing presence of news about any given topic, trumpeted far and wide by the news outlets, online and otherwise, and whenever you hear one of your family members, friends or coworkers, you roll the eyes dramatically, thinking that violence should not be frowned upon, at least in some cases.
It is undeniable that the release of Pokemon Go is a big event on both sides of the Atlantic, not only because Pokemon is one of the most beloved video game and cartoon series from recent history (I was a big fan when I was a preteen), but also by the innovative concept behind it: Merging reality as we know it, captured with a phone’s rear camera, with with virtual characters that appear juxtaposed to the screen. This is what video game developers call Augmented Reality, or AR. In Pokemon Go, the player is tasked with collecting all of the various monsters (the Pokemon, that is), and train them to make them stronger and defeat other player’s Pokemon. How do you find new Pokemon? By walking around: the app will notify you when one is nearby, allowing to try to capture it. It is, on paper as much as in practice, a really neat concept, executed well enough to make for an engaging game that not only helps you exercise (you must get your fat ass off the chair and out in the vast, vast world to capture Pokemon, after all), but also adds a social aspect to the gaming experience.
And Pokemon Go also has economic aspects too: some businesses saw some people playing the game in or around their premises and started offering discounts to Pokemon Go players. It’s a win-win for both parties: the business gets free advertising and the players get a discount on the can of soda they buy.
Make no mistake: This game is not ground-breaking in any means. The previous effort by the same developer, Ingress, attracted some buzz but lacked the kick start that only an established brand would provide, and wasn’t very successful.
I personally like Pokemon Go. It may not be a great game; it may not even be a good game, but it’s a fun one at that.
Enter the press
The staggering success of Pokemon Go, which has been downloaded 75 million times, according to TechCrunch, attracted the interest of generalist media outlets. Video games, at least in Europe, aren’t generally covered by news reports and daily newspapers: it’s much more likely to see them talk about, say, theatre than video games. But Pokemon Go is different than other titles: for starters, it’s a very high-profile release, and secondly, it forces people to stroll around to play it. Usually, video gamers do their things in the intimacy of their homes, where no one usually gives a shit about your weird kinks. But when one of those weirdos goes out to play his or her favourite game, then that attracts the attention of ordinary people. It’s a bit like showing off your genitalia in public: A respectable person is simply not supposed to do that.
Journalists have a word for things like Pokemon Go: Newsworthy. Traditionally, newspapers first and, a couple centuries later, TV news reports, had limited page or time constraints and the editorial board had to select the stories that were the most weird and engaging. Man bites dog, the rule of thumb by which news outlets select what is worth publishing and what isn’t. Ask any journalist and they will all confirm that a successful news story is one that appeals to the sense of innate human curiosity and basic human emotions. This is how it has always been and always will be.
This game clearly falls in the first category: Its immediate success is a natural hook for all news reports on TV, with hundreds of thousands of players roaming around towns with their smartphones, trying to catch ’em all. If you can also tickle one of the basic human emotions, all the better. And there the fear-mongering began. That’s the press, baby!
We all know it: Journalism loves to play the fear-mongering game: In this day and age, we westerners feel unsafe for a slew of reasons. It doesn’t matter if those fears are grounded in reality or not, for fear is suspicion of the unknown, of what we do not comprehend and, as such, we’re going to be diffident, or worse.
I can only imagine the grins during the editorial board meetings when news arrived that a 15-years old allegedly killed his brother for deleting his Pokemon, or that a guy who stopped on the highway to capture a Pikachu caused a massive incident. Such news are very high profile and unheard of, which means more visits on that outlet’s website or a higher viewership share on TV. It doesn’t matter if those news were misinterpreted or completely made up by a well-known news fabricator looking for more clicks.
A search for “Pokemon Go” on Snopes.com currently returns 17 results, one of which isn’t about PG at all, 5 of which are news articles, and 11 are fact checking. Of those 11 fact checking articles, 8 were completely false, 2 told a true story, but news outlets misrepresented what actually happened, and only 1 told the truth. What hit the news lately ranges from the inoffensive (but false) “A dog pound raised a lot of money for renting dogs to walk to Pokemon Go players”, to the batshit crazy “Pokemon Go was originally designed for satanists”. Notice how I didn’t link any of those website, because I think they don’t deserve publicity.
But there’s more
If you don’t live under a rock or have a Facebook account, chances are you’ve heard or read someone complain about Pokemon Go, maybe as a comment to one of the articles we discussed earlier. In the 19th century, the Luddists destroyed factory machinery because they felt the industrial revolution was destroying their way of life and demeaning humanity. These new Luddists share the view that humanity is going downhill. It would appear that Romero’s The Dawn of the Living Dead was taken a bit too much literally by some.
Remember, fear is an innate human emotion: We all fear something, for we do not know. And this new fad scares people. A lot.
And that’s unfortunate, because Augmented Reality could do so much good beside mere entertainment. The hearing impaired could use something like Google Glass to read what other people are saying in the not-so-distant future, or they could help people with severe autism communicate better. And the latter is actually already happening, with an Australian professor incorporating Pokemon Go in classes to help autistic children’s social skills. It’s an heart-warming, wonderful tale of a brilliant mind using his knowledge and his skill to better other people’s life.
Is Pokemon Go a fad? Most likely. Will we remember it ten years in the future? Probably not. Do we need to be scared of it? No, not in the slightest.