A new craze that has people wandering about the city while staring at their smart phones has proven the influence technology has on society. Pokémon Go, a free, augmented reality (AR) mobile game, is more than just augmented reality technology and a billion-dollar creative internet protocol (IP). It’s a massive social movement.

Pokémon Go is the latest iteration of the longstanding Nintendo series about catching and battling monsters, and the latest venture into the Augmented Reality space by Niantic.

Pokémon has a long history, with several video games, cartoons, toys, and more. The premise is simple – combine the addictive treasure-hunting aspect of finding the various Pokémon (where the game’s “Gotta Catch ‘Em All” slogan comes from) with a tactical battle system of fighting different Pokémon against each other.

Pokémon Go has managed to catch on and spread like wildfire across the globe. Reports show that there are about 15-20 million daily users of the game. Recode did a bit of a Fermi estimation and came up with 10 million daily unique users, but that didn’t count smartphone users under 18, which may actually be the game’s largest demographic.

While to many the game seems like an overnight success, Pokémon Go was actually 20 years in the making.

Creator John Hanke is a bit of a GPS/AR/multiplayer genius. He co-created what was perhaps the world’s first Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) game, Meridian 59, in 1996, eight years before the launch of World of Warcraft, the keystone of the genre. From there Hanke took over Keyhole, which evolved into Google Earth.

Screenshot of seeing a Pokémon appear on the map.
Screenshot of seeing a Pokémon appear on the map.

While working at Google, Hanke built the name that would create Ingress, an AR game built around real-world locations. Ingress helped plan out some of the basic gameplay that would be used for Pokémon Go, but the real popularity came from the addition of those collectible monsters.

What makes Go different is the AR aspect. While it’s kind of fun to see the little cartoon dudes in the real world through your phone camera, the key draw is the GPS tie in. Pokémon will only appear as the user moves around the real world.

The real terrain and structures around affect what kind of Pokémon appear (water type Pokémon are near rivers or lakes, for example). Players get items and boosts at Pokestops, which are tied to landmarks, public art, and businesses.

The real meat of the game comes from fighting over the Pokémon Gyms. Gyms are tied to prominent real-world locations. Players join one of three teams – red, yellow, or blue – and can set their Pokémon up to defend their team’s Gym or battle other Gyms to take them over from rivals.

While the gameplay is simple and effective, the spillover into real life is what really makes Pokémon Go shine. One look at Facebook shows various opportunities to socialize with other trainers at Pokémon-related events occurring across San Antonio.

Pub Run San Antonio had a Pokémon Pub Crawl last Friday at Pat O’Brien’s, where participants could search for Pokémon over a few cocktails, and Geekdom hosted a Pokémon Go informational session over the weekend. Alamo City Comic Con hosted its own pub crawl that garnered the interest of more than 1,000 people on the Facebook event, which is almost the attendance of a gamer convention in itself.

Organized Pokémon Go-related group walks are becoming as numerous as the Pokestops that cover San Antonio. In addition to generating the items needed to play the game, the walks introduce players to the city’s public art and historical spots – areas where Pokémon are concentrated – and serve as a convenient way for friends – and strangers – to meet up and play.

McNay Art Museum Coordinator of Communications and Marketing Julie Bedet said the game has had a positive impact on the museum.

“We have definitely seen more visitors on the grounds both playing the game and enjoying our sculptures,” she said, “…potentially for the first time.”

Pokémon players, or trainers, up to the age of 19 can attend the museum for free and check out its eight Pokestops and four gyms, Ledet said.

“We have a fun joke running on (the official) McNay Snapchat that the Auguste Rodin sculpture, Head of Pierre de Wissant, is bummed that he wasn’t selected as a Pokestop too,” she said.

Pokémon Go also makes exercising much easier and enjoyable for many players. Unlike most other video games that require the user to be seated, Go encourages players to walk around outside, in search of Pokémon. Some professionals believe that because of it, it could have a positive effect on reducing obesity and health issues.

With the game launch so recent, little hard data on health trends exist, but anecdotal evidence is plentiful. Personally, I went from taking my dog on walks a few blocks long to mile-long walks just to catch more Pokémon.

One mother of an autistic child tearfully shared the incredible effect it had on her child. Pokémon Go sent him outdoors to play outside of his normally rigid schedule, allowing him to socialize with other kids with more enthusiasm than ever. There are stories of the game relieving depression and anxiety, and at least one prominent psychologist has found the game’s motivation and effects to match good research on the subject.

A unique real-life Pokémon Go story provides a beautiful counter to the flood of violence by and against police. One Redditor shared a poignant tale of meeting strangers at night and getting stopped by police, only to have the policeman learn about the game and proceed to download it himself and play with the men.

Still, common sense caution is urged: At least one set of muggers has been caught using Lures – an item that attracts Pokémon to a place – to attract unwary players, and at least two people have succumbed to lemming-like deaths while playing.

San Antonio’s own police department hasn’t yet had any notable Pokémon experiences, good or bad. Sandra Pickell, SAPD spokesperson, asks the San Antonio community to always be aware of their surroundings and be mindful of private property.

SAPD Public Information Officer Sgt. Jesse Salame reiterated in a recent phone interview that the most likely cause for concern with Pokémon Go is wandering onto private property. Salame has, however, also seen his share of good from the game, having attended a gathering for a new local school principal who assuaged concerns over kids playing by showing that they played the game too. But has Pokémon Go caught on at the SAPD?

“No one in the department admits to playing,” Sgt. Salame said. “But I have my suspicions that there are more than a few who do.”

Can a mobile game really be this popular? According to Google trends, yes. Pokémon Go is, unbelievably, more popular than porn. Anecdotes abound about just how much the game has seeped into the live of the average San Antonian.

But several questions remain unanswered: Will the popularity stick? Will these social and exercise trends become habits? When is the first major Pokémon-related traffic accident going to happen?

In the meantime, the world has witnessed a beautiful example of gamification, where gamelike ideas have led to real life benefits of more socializing, more exercise, and – oh, hold on, there’s a Pokémon on my desk I need to catch.


CORRECTION: The name ofMcNay Art Museum Coordinator of Communications and Marketing Julie Ledet was corrected from a previous version of this article.

Top image: (left to right) Justin Horton, Ben Miller, Panda, and Ruthie Longwell form a circle as they play Pokémon Go at Kimura.  Photo by Scott Ball. 

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Rick is a game designer, playwright, educator, and community leader in San Antonio. He teaches at Say Si, works with various San Antonio theaters, and helps run pretty much every game development group...