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Mobile games aren’t exactly my forte. Normally they are something I despise immensely, particularly since the major mobile storefronts are filled with micro-transaction-laden money sinks, cheap knockoffs of said money sinks, and broken ports of triple-A games. It also doesn’t help that I have a Windows Phone and can’t afford to upgrade. It is for these reasons that trends in mobile apps tend to pass me by, and for the most part I’m happy to let that continue. Yet the latest one hits awfully close to home as a gamer, and the much dreaded fear of missing out has hit me hard over the past few weeks.
Developed by Niantic, the studio behind the mobile MMO Ingress, Pokémon GO has swept over New Zealand like a fever and it has people of all ages and abilities walking around town, catching Pokémon, and having a good time doing it—when the servers are working. Much like the original games did back in the late 90s, when your only real option for gaming on the go was a Game Boy, Pokémon GO is inspiring its players to explore their local environments and interact with other players. Several walking clubs centred on the game have sprung up, and players agree that they’re getting good exercise in general, which only adds to my FOMO as an overweight person.
The thing is, exploration has always been associated with Pokémon. The series creator, Satoshi Tajiri, was an avid bug collector as a child and wanted the games to allow players, especially children, to have a similar feeling of catching and collecting creatures. As it turns out he also has Asperger’s syndrome like yours truly, so I’m frankly not surprised that this is the case. People with Asperger’s typically have interests that are intensely focussed, often to the detriment of their social skills, and can have difficulty understanding why few others share this dedication to their interests. Pokémon wouldn’t exist as we know it today if Tajiri hadn’t had the dedication to gaming to take apart his Famicom to try and find out how to make games, or envisioned connecting Game Boys together to trade and battle with others.
Pokémon GO may well be the purest embodiment of Tajiri’s vision for what Pokémon can do. Technology has finally reached the point where, with the aid of a smartphone, a Pikachu can appear in the middle of Cuba Street and you can go and catch it. Maybe I’m just easily impressed, but Pokémon has been a part of my life for almost all of it, and five-year-old me would have been blown away by catching digital creatures in augmented reality had it been around earlier. He would have loved exploring the streets of Napier looking for rare Pokémon, capturing gyms, and getting points for his team. Frankly, I’m still blown away by it.
I’ve long believed in the power of video games to encourage sociability and foster passion and creativity, and that games should be for everyone. Pokémon GO’s success is doing one thing that no slick marketing campaign or long-winded E3 press conference ever could, and that’s getting more people playing video games in a unique way. It’s why I can feel kind of sad when I sit in front of my TV and do nothing but play something like Overwatch for hours on end—sure, I’m having fun, but this isn’t something that everyone can do easily. Even though I haven’t gotten to play it yet, I will defend Pokémon GO for that reason alone.
Just don’t spend too much on micro-transactions, okay?