Since its release on July 6, the augmented reality game Pokémon Go has caught fire with people of all age groups and turned the most jaded anti-gamer into a PokéBall-wielding addict.
Some have predicted the end of society. In one suburb of Sydney, Australia, visitors congregating at the convergence of three “PokeStops” were pelted with water bombs. And two men in San Diego fell off a cliff in what could have been a futile attempt to snag the elusive Mew or Arceus. The insanity over the weekend in New York’s Central Park was not over a sighting of Elvis or Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, but of a Vaporeon, which became the endless Pidgey of jokes across blogs.
Many within the media have taken to Rattata out some of the more ridiculous behaviors and dangers associated with this game, as they sternly reminded parents of the dangers to their children. It seems urban areas striving to be “smart cities” have instead evolved into neighborhoods of jelly-brained Poliwags.
Nevertheless, whether we are searching for a Rhyhorn at the White House or kicking some serious butt in downtown Santa Cruz with his Gloom (as I have), there are several phenomena going on in a world where we often find ourselves buried in our phones.
Many of us tend to be leery of talking to strangers, but the fact is that more people are out and walking around as a result of the game, which of course is a boon for pubic health. And strangely enough, people are letting their guards down and are even talking to each other.
Ordinarily, UC-Santa Cruz students or a group of Mexican-Americans making the trip from Salinas would never say, “Come here, join us” to this bald half Armenian guy, who is old enough to remember when the 721 Pokémon species first emerged in the 1990s. But unlike folks who are either discretely swiping away on Tinder or trolling on Grindr, the vast majority of us entranced by Pokémon Go will admit — happily — what we are up to. (Let’s face it, the bright lights that flash when you “evolve” a Pokémon, reach the next level or engage in battle at a Gym make what you are doing obvious anyway.)
Hence there is a massive opportunity available to community leaders and small businesses who seek new ideas for sustainable development. Pokémon Go players wandering around a neighborhood should not be a source of derision, but as people to welcome instead. Indeed, there should should be options to request the removal of a PokeStop or a Gym from a location (understandable for cemeteries or places of worship, maybe).
Businesses and nonprofits, however, could easily leverage such a virtual meeting place to share information about an organization’s mission. That park or green space could benefit from a beautification project. And yes, that fledgling restaurant or retail store could use a spike in business. In fact, they should start taking action now — before the big chain retailers and coffee shops of the world figure it out and turn Pokémon Go into a sad marketing cliché or another annoying iteration of Second Life.
I was made aware of this during my first night searching for PokeBalls and struggling to capture Wild Zubats (pesky bastards!) during my first night of Pokémon Go in the Seabright district of Santa Cruz. I downloaded the app, figuring it would help me relate better to the younger members of the extended family. But as we gathered Weedles and Spearows, I also learned a lot about a neighborhood in which I had spent time for years.
Indeed, many of the neighborhood’s landmarks and murals were already known to me. But many of them were tucked onto side streets, a surprise to my friend — a local community leader who probably knows Santa Cruz, its places and history better than anyone in town. “I had no idea this was here,” was a constant refrain repeated over the evening.
Those experiences multiplied as I explored downtown Santa Cruz and the Pleasure Point area bordering Capitola with other Pokémon Go players. Monterey Bay environmental groups now have the chance to share their work quickly and easily with locals and visitors; the shop selling free trade body products on Pacific Avenue now has a platform for sharing their passion, and could even draw customers in to buy their product (catch the local Meowth and get 20 percent off!). A neighborhood long ignored by City Hall has a new medium to communicate their needs, akin to the potions and revives available to Pokémon Go players as a salve after a wretched battle at the local Gym.
That does not mean gentrification, long signaled by a new Starbucks coming into the neighborhood, will be underway now that reinvented geeks are venturing into places they had long avoided even during the day. But here are the facts: The most dedicated gamers who are hell bent on securing the entire Pokémon index and finding glory in the name of their team will not even notice if a PokeStop or Gym has a stolen Van Gogh displayed in a store window. The vast majority of Pokémon Go players, however, are folks like me: people who laugh at the absurdity of it all, enjoy walking around at night again as we discover new places — and relish in the social element of this game without apology.
Not even a local team who won the national championship has engendered this level of camaraderie. And on that point, no Pokémon Go players have set police cars on fire or smashed store windows (yet). If Niantic Labs, the six-year-old company that released Pokémon Go, can keep the game interesting to fickle players like my friends and me, more social barriers will break down and many more citizens will become more aware of their surroundings and community — and that can only benefit cities and towns that to many, have largely become bland, unfeeling and corporate.
Image credits: Leon Kaye