Photo Credit: Pikachu by Pete Slater

The ‘Pokémon Go’ Phenomenon

For those of you that know me, I call myself the UX Queen. Being a self-proclaimed UX enthusiast, I would not be able to do justice if I myself wrote an article about Pokémon Go, the video game thats hot and all the rage these days. That’s because I was an atypical 90’s kid and didn’t spend my afternoons collecting Pokémon cards (Sorry guys, don’t judge!). But luckily, my friend Ali is a Poké Expert and he kindly offered to shed his wisdom on this mysterious phenomenon… Enjoy!

The first video game I ever became obsessed with was Pokémon Yellow for Gameboy Color. I was in 4th grade, and it may have been my parents way of finally giving in and giving me something to focus on during long car rides and family vacations. Whatever the reason I was hooked and joined in what was and continues to remain as the most ubiquitous cultural milestone of my generation.

Articles have already gone in depth to try and give understanding to Pokémon Go Phenomenon. It is a game that in days surpassed Twitter in the number of daily active users, that gave its parent company Nintendo a double digit percentage spike in stock value virtually overnight, and that generates millions of dollars daily from in app purchases (reasonable too) without external advertising or internal third-party ads. It’s an application that freezes and crashes so often, yet somehow its users keep trying to refresh and sign-in again relentlessly instead of giving up the game.

Adults (real ones, I guess) are trying to figure out what is happening with their kids and younger colleagues who are suddenly out in the real world, albeit while still staring at their phones.

So what is Pokémon Go? Simply, it is a mobile game with an augmented reality paradigm.

However, that’s boring, and really the less important story. What is far more fascinating is what Pokémon Go does.

The wild success (IMO) of the game is a result of 1) its ability to incorporate the quintessential cultural touchpoint of a generation; 2) in an accessible, non-superficial manner.

Let’s start with the first part. Even though Pokémon is a known brand whose characters and influence has seeped into various aspects of society from South Park spoofs to ancillary video game characters, there is still a difference of knowing about something important and having indulged in it.

Example — I know about Star Trek. I know its main characters are Kirk, Spock, Uhura, Scotty, and they go on this spaceship. I know that there are like five-ish entire television series dedicated to the universe, and hell, I’ve even seen and enjoyed several of the movies. However, I am not a trekkie. I’ve never seen any of the television series, so even though I know about Star Trek, I have never indulged in its universe, so there will always be something inaccessible about what I know is an important cultural icon.

Pokémon was (and is) the 90’s kid’s indulgence. Yes, others may know about the characters like Pikachu and a few others. They may have seen the movies or television show, or played as a few of the characters in various Nintendo games like Super Smash Bros., or purchased some of the merchandise for kids since the yellow, electric rat is kind of cute, but ultimately, if you never played the game then you cannot really understand what it was about.

Knowing and understanding is different. That’s why you can’t slap a Pikachu sticker on anything and have it become a blockbuster. Yeah, you may make some money, but it will never become a phenomenon. So to those of you who don’t understand Pokémon Go (ahem, UX QUEEN), let’s start with the game. Pokémon Red, Blue, and Yellow.

The original games were about traveling the world as a kid and catching and battling creatures. To beat the game you had to grow, make choices, and interact with characters in various places with different experiences. You had a rival, villains, mentors, and friends. You had to go to every nook and cranny of this 8-bit world to quote “be the very best” and accomplish every side quest, secret, and mission the game had to offer. All the while, your friends (in the real world) were playing too, so you could compare progress and eventually have your world interact with theirs (via a small cable). And it was glorious and wonderful.

Flash forward two decades and here is a game that suddenly allows me to catch these fictional creatures that I already know so well. I get to compare my progress and share this experience with friends, who were also sharing the experience of the original games from twenty years ago. And the best part of it all is that instead of a fantasy world, I get to do it in the real world. I’m exchanging Pallet Town for Houston. Traveling to Chicago is now like going to Cerulean City and seeing new creatures that weren’t available in my region.

That’s why of all the Pokémon things that have come and gone since the game was first introduced, this game has such a broad and insatiable appeal. We now get to live the dream we could only experience through a handheld console in real life. Through the game and cell phone camera we can see, catch, and train Pokémon at work, home, and in the world around us.

I can’t speak for the teenagers who may have just been bored during summer vacation, but for my friends and me, Pokémon Go is as close as we have to being actual trainers wandering throughout the world in search of being the very best.

Is it a little childish? Absolutely. That’s part of the appeal. Is it unsafe? Yes, but so is life, generally speaking. Is it weird seeing a bunch of people staring at their phones at midnight in a park on a Friday night, instead of going to a bar? Probably, but that’s just because the bar isn’t a Pokéstop and there are like 3 lures being used…

Sorry, I got ahead of myself. Look, the lesson of Pokémon Go is that it gave a whole lot of people a new way to connect with each other and reconnect with something that they loved. If you want to understand what’s happening simply think of the world you obsessed over at some point in your life. Maybe its Star Trek or Star Wars or Middle Earth or Narnia or Hogwarts and now imagine that you can be in that world and in this one simultaneously.

Augmented reality is nothing new. From books to video games, new technology always blurs the lines between the fantastical and the obvious. Technology has always been our gateway to magic.

So please, don’t judge us aspiring Poké World trainers. I promise when we have a Jurassic Park to visit on weekends or when I can use a wand while at my desk to help me get through the day, I’ll be there too.

Pokémon Go is a game, but it does more. Its nostalgia and camaraderie and wish-fulfillment in one. So download the app and join us (It’s still free). We’ll be at parks and museums, seeing new and wonderful things that this game and real world both can offer. Because ultimately reality is what we perceive, and there seems to be a Charmander only a block away.

Ali Hasanali currently practices law and is an avid writer. When he’s not playing Pokémon Go in downtown Houston, he’s working on his future New York Times bestseller. Ali has written several short stories and novels. You can check out his book on Amazon.

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