Pokémon Go (2016) went from zero to viral faster than anything we’ve ever seen. At its peak, the hit augmented-reality mobile exploration game had more daily active users than Twitter and more engagement than Snapchat and Facebook. Niantic, the title’s developer, was inundated on social media by users from around the world requesting access to the game weeks before it was released in their countries.
Something about this game has struck a chord with smartphone users of all demographics, from young children who never experienced the heyday of the Pokémon franchise to seniors who typically prefer crossword puzzles, such as Bejeweled (2001) and Solitaire (1990). Even if Pokémon Go’s user base evaporates overnight, it’s shown the world how a simple game and motivated player base can have immediate, far-reaching consequences in the real world.
To say that the hype surrounding Pokémon Go is unprecedented would be an understatement. Popular mobile games of past and present such as Flappy Bird (2013), 2048 (2014), Clash of Clans (2012) and Hearthstone (2015) never came close to generating this level of hype. In East Asia, the craze swept across entire countries within days. I personally ran into countless avid players in Taiwan when word got around that a rare Pokémon called Snorlax was appearing in a park in a residential area north of Taipei. Thousands hopped on the Taipei Metro to reach this normally-deserted park, filling the sidewalks and spilling onto the streets, bringing traffic to a standstill.
The urge to catch ‘em all has brought with it a number of problems, many of them due to how engrossing throwing Poké Balls can be. Despite in-game warnings reminding players to stay vigilant of their surroundings and the dangers of playing while driving, Pokémon Go has led to traffic offenses and accidents as drivers attempt to simultaneously change lanes and line up the perfect curveball. In late August, a driver in Japan hit two pedestrians while playing the game, killing one and seriously injuring the other. Pokémon trainers have unwittingly wandered into high-crime areas, neglected their children and walked off cliffs in pursuit of pocket monsters.
Governments have already begun to respond to players’ unbridled enthusiasm with regulation. While some governments are using warnings and fines to discourage people from playing Pokémon Go when they shouldn’t, others have flatly condemned the game. This is especially the case in the Middle East, where memories of the Arab Spring are still fresh and many governments are on edge about any digital tools that could help destabilize a tenuous mandate. In early August, Iran became the first country to ban Pokémon Go, citing security concerns.
Where governments see risk, many businesses — especially food and beverage outlets — see opportunity. McDonald’s enthusiastically jumped aboard the Pokémon Go bandwagon in July, partnering with Niantic to host 3000 outlets in Japan as Pokémon Go “gyms.” Smaller businesses have also profited from turning their businesses into PokéStops and placing “lures” to attract more Pokémon and by extension, potential customers to the area. Others have expressed skepticism about the long-term viability of a Pokémon-centric marketing strategy and are instead waiting for player numbers to level off before making any serious plans.
For many of us regular players, Pokémon Go is a fun, nostalgia-inducing time sink and a sign of more and better Pokémon-related smartphone games on the way. Though Pokémon Go’s core mechanic of catching and collecting Pokemon is terrific fun, the real-time battles involve tedious button-mashing and require minimal thought to using the right type of Pokémon to exploit the opponent’s weaknesses. Small issues like this add up and limit replayability. Nintendo saw how a game as content-light as Pokémon Go turned into a cultural phenomenon overnight. It would be a shame if they squandered the opportunity to produce something even better.