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Pokémon: gotta catch ‘em all

Published Jul 21, 2016


I NEVER paid much attention to the statue outside Artscape, but overnight this landmark seemed to have become a major tourist attraction with groups of people huddled around it staring intently at their phones.

It took a young foreigner – Jonathan Zhaung, age 22, from San Diego, to decipher the phenomenon. He explained that those congregated around the two seemingly dancing figures were not admiring the sculptor’s artistry but playing Pokémon Go, the biggest mobile app. Game in history.

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Pokémon Go is a game for Android and IOS smartphones. Players, who join one of three teams, navigate the streets using an augmented form of Google maps and collecting Pokémon at various Poke stops. Pokémon are monsters that you can train to battle other people using Poke balls. Since its release, Pokémon Go has pushed Nintendo’s share price up by 93% The creators of the game were taken by surprise at its popularity: servers across the world struggled to cope and the login system shut down repeatedly as an overwhelming number of new players tried to login .

The Pokémon franchise was created in the nineties by Satoshi Sajiri who translated his inordinate love of collecting insects into a blockbuster Nintendo game.

Pokémon Go hasn’t yet officially launched in South Africa, but hordes of people have already managed to download the app and are scouring the streets, addicted to catching Pokémon.

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Enthusiasts are praising the way it entices notoriously inert and isolated gamers out into the real world. There have been reports of gamers walking marathon amounts of kilometers in their quest to catch Pokémon. And players don’t just walk. A pair of Kiwi’s hit the headlines when they canoed into the middle of a lake to collect Pokémon.

Quite simply, the world has gone Pokémon Go crazy. You cannot switch on the radio or engage in a single conversation without the topic being raised.

Of course there are the detractors. Like everything, Pokémon Go is a mirror that reflects all our fears and neurosis. Certain religious groups have proclaimed that Pokémon’s are from the devil and mothers, understandably, warn about the dangers of wandering around a city with your head buried in a phone. While I have no answer to the former, let me reassure the latter, (or terrify them further) by suggesting that modern cities are chock a block with people staring fixated at their phones and texting as they cross busy intersections. One other warning about Pokémon Go is that it can lure unsuspecting gamers, who because they have wasted their youth locked in the bedroom haven’t developed their street smarts, into dangerous situations. Indeed there have been isolated reports of criminals luring Pokémon Go players into alleys and robbing them. But let concerned elders ask themselves if playing Pokémon is any more dangerous than going clubbing or any of the other activities that teenagers engage in?

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In a dangerous world, Pokémon Go is a fairly innocuous hobby. Frankly, I can help but think that Pokémon Go is a genius creation. For years, people have lamented about gamers insular and sedentary lifestyle and now Pokémon Go gets them outside, walking! It’s a stride forward, an example of turning an obstacle into an advantage.

And it raises potentially perplexing questions. Can Pokémon be placed in private property or inside sacred places of worship, for example? Already vexed property owners have been warning people not to trespass to look for Pokémon.

Jonathan Zhang believes that the exploratory aspect of the game is one of its greatest benefits. He says that it has refreshed his interest in his home city. “When you live in a city long enough you can tend to get stuck in the same routine and miss out on a lot of what the city has to offer. Pokémon Go lets you get some of that wanderlust back and become a tourist in your own city.” Now he’s using the game to discover Cape Town where he is conducting a six month internship.

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Already the internet is abuzz with people who are giving up their day jobs to wander the world playing Pokémon Go. The game makes you aware of localities in the strangest and most interesting ways. Pokémon Stops usurp bus stops as the navigational intersections of the city. When I played, I couldn’t muster up any concern, on any level, about catching Pokémon. But I did come away with a new found curiosity about objects that my attention had previously glanced over: who made that orange jungle-gym like structure, now a Poke Stop, next to the Civic Centre? What does it represent? Do I like it, I wondered.

And while gamers are walking outside and getting to know their city, they are also meeting other gamers. The game has a social element and bonds people from different social groups, who are unlikely to interact in real life. For example, I encountered a group of Pokémon Go players congregated around a Pokémon stop during lunch hour: A business man, a secretary and a teenager were all united at the same Poke Stop trying to catch Pokémon. How utterly charming. A city as notoriously aloof as Cape Town maybe needs a little help from altered reality to break down social barriers.

Of course the real winners in this phenomenon will be the service providers that sell data. While the game can be downloaded for free of course you need data to play.

If playing Pokémon Go doesn’t appeal you can be entertained on the sidelines by reading about the absurd situations that arise when people wander the urban jungle trying to catch creatures that only exist in virtual reality.

Trevor Noah captured the absurdity when he tweeted “No ma’am, I was not taking a video of your child, I came to this park to catch Pokémon.”

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