I’m halfway across the street — nose buried in my iPhone, tracking a rare Pokemon — before I look up and see the sign affixed to the cyclone wire fence: “PATROLLED BY ARMED GUARDS”. I find myself weighing up the situation: is it worth trespassing on Victoria Barracks in the possibly vain hope that I might catch, say, a Golbat?
This is my life in a post-Pokemon GO world. Yesterday I said “Aha!” out loud, when a Pidgey appeared between a man’s legs as we were waiting at a pedestrian crossing.
The “real world adventure” game, a collaboration between Nintendo and Niantic Labs, uses GPS and augmented-reality technology to allow you to catch Pokemon in, well, the real world.
As you walk around your neighbourhood, Pokemon leap out in front of you, as though your smartphone camera were the glasses that reveal alien overlords in sci-fi classic They Live. You throw PokeBalls at them in an effort to capture them, and add them to your Pokedex. (You can get extra PokeBalls and other goodies by visiting your local PokeStop.) Eventually, you can take your Pokemon to local Gyms, where they will battle other local champs. Keep up guys, gosh.
It’s this real-world integration that makes Pokemon Go so amusing. As soon as I installed the app, a Bulbasaur jumped up from behind the couch cushions. Rattata keeps appearing in my bathroom, which I can’t help but feel is a coded message about my cleanliness. The public art installation down the road is an in-game PokeStop called Silver Lean Thing. And in a crushing metaphor for generational disaffection, I spent five minutes outside the local Centrelink, trying to catch a Caterpie.
In truth, I was only ever loosely invested in Pokemon. Like most people of a certain vintage, I enjoyed the Nintendo 64 game Pokemon Stadium and the long-running anime, but I was never a “Pokemon trainer”; I didn’t own a Game Boy and I found card games frustrating. My sole exposure to the card game was when, in 1999, I worked briefly in a comic book store and I was instructed to never, ever allow anyone under the age of 15 to even look at the rare Charizard held upstairs in a safe.
But even though I am, at best, a fairweather fan, I have long had a soft spot for Pokemon (though not for me the easy charms of Pikachu; I’m more of a Psyduck girl, myself).
Yes, I’m sure Slavoj Žižek would have something to say about the capitalist call to arms that is the Pokemon Trainer’s edict, “Gotta Catch ‘Em All!”, but there’s also something rather poignant about the idea of raising and training your very own Pokemon friend. Unlike other toys and games that offered digital companions, such as Tamagotchi, Pokemon prevailed; its 20th anniversary “Train On” advertisement at this year’s Super Bowl was a masterpiece of feels-vertising.
There’s an epic quality to that ad, but there is something pleasingly egalitarian about Pokemon Go, in the way it expects you to travel far and wide to “catch ‘em all”; the Incubators for hatching mysterious Pokemon eggs require you to walk a certain distance in order to do their job. (More than one user has remarked, after playing the game for a couple of days, that what Pokemon trainer Ash Ketchum needed all those years was a car.) Whether or not this is a sneaky way of getting couch-bound gamers out and about remains to be seen.
I’ve shared slightly embarrassed glances with other suspected Pokemon Go players when we’ve all ended up crowded around the same landmark, unloading swag from the PokeStop — but my excitement when a Crabby appeared in the dairy section at the local supermarket was not shared by passing shoppers, who no doubt couldn’t work out why I was enthusiastically “photographing” milk.
Already there are reports of churches and police stations being flooded by Pokemon Trainers keen to find rare Pokemon or grab swag from PokeStops. “[It’s] a good idea to look up, away from your phone and both ways before crossing the street,” read a Facebook post by Northern Territory police, fire and emergency services. “That Sandshrew isn’t going anywhere fast.”
Certain landscapes are populated with particular Pokemon, which means you have to go somewhere else for a more diverse variety; my own neighbourhood is so crawling with Rattata that I wonder if there might soon be a Black Plague feature available in-game.
Crucially, like Blizzard’s equally addictive Hearthstone, it’s perfectly possible to enjoy the game without making a single in-game purchase (ie with real-world money). In this way, Pokemon Go may well usher in a new era of Pokemon trainers who are keen to recount the time when, disdaining to purchase PokeCoins to move the game along, they — like the Yorkshire gentlemen of old — had to walk uphill barefoot in the snow just to find a Clefairy.
And now, if you’ll excuse me, there’s a Poliwhirl lurking near my building’s carpark.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd, 2016