PIKACHU & CO. (2016)
Originally published in Metropolis Japan on August 3, 2016 (Link)
Over two decades after Nintendo’s Pokémon first took the world by storm, it’s back—and considerably bigger than ever before. Pokémon GO, the sensationally popular free app available for both iOs and Android, has been downloaded internationally more than 75 million times since its July 6 launch.
Despite being the country where it all began, Japan had to wait while the rest of the world rediscovered their cities as realtime playgrounds for Pikachu and co. Further delays caused by crashing servers and the leak of a secret cross-promotion with McDonald’s only added to the suspense. Finally, more than two weeks after its initial launch in Australia, New Zealand, and the U.S., Pokémon GO arrived on Japanese shores.
As you may have expected, it was a staggering homecoming. According to a report by The New York Times, Pokémon GO was downloaded approximately 10 million times on the first day of its Japanese release.
Suddenly the streets of Tokyo were were jammed with smartphone-toting Pokémon trainers eager to make up for lost time. Young, old, and everywhere in between, throngs of Tokyoites congregated in playgrounds, parks, and pretty much anywhere else they could sneak into in an effort to “catch ‘em all,” as the franchise’s motto famously commands.
If you’re one of the few who hasn’t tried it yet, here’s the gist: players roam their world around them in search of Pokémon (short for pocket monsters), which they collect, train, and pit against others for local bragging rights and digital goodies. The app uses cutting-edge augmented reality (AR) to make creatures seem as if they’ve actually come to life, a feature which has likely helped catapult the game to its massive popularity.
It's also caused some broken bones. Gameplay is so absorbing that it’s caused accidents the world over, and Japan has been no exception. Since Pokémon GO’s Japanese launch incidents have included players falling down flights of stairs and trespassing into the Kyoto Imperial Palace. There's even been need to issue of an official warning to avoid the Fukushima Disaster Zone while playing (prompted by the discovery of Pokémon in areas affected by the 2011 earthquake and subsequent nuclear disaster.)
In Tokyo, safety concerns have led the National Centre of Incident Readiness and Strategy for Cybersecurity to distribute printed warnings outside Shinjuku Station advising players to stay hydrated, pick up extra batteries for their phones, and avoid walking while playing.
For a family-friendly game, it’s certainly caused its fair share of controversy. The response to Pokémon GO could be seen as more evidence that modern technology has made the line between fantasy and reality dangerously thin. While I don’t think we’ve lost the plot yet—or that indulging in fantasy is necessarily a bad thing—I admit to being taken aback when I saw someone on the Fukutoshin Line with a cell phone in each hand: one for checking e-mail and the second for hunting nearby Pokémon.
If it worries you, consider the bright side to this recent phenomenon. Japan’s finance minister said he thinks Pokémon GO can help get people going outside, exercising and interacting with people and places in more ways than usual. Even if it's just in pursuit of pixels, that's nothing to laugh at.
He might be onto something. In my first hour of playing “Pokémon GO,” PokéStops (geotagged locations that offer in-game items) helped me discover a handful of new things about my neighborhood, including a easily-missed onsen only steps from my house. On an evening run, I passed a crowd of grinning locals, hanging out by the Miyoshoji River in hopes of catching a few extra Magikarp or Horseas before heading home for dinner. And friends have already mentioned how they’ve shed a few unwanted pounds while out on the hunt for some feral companions.
With a piece of wearable tech called Pokémon GO Plus launching in September, it’s unlikely this new trend is going away anytime soon. If you haven’t already, why not give it a try and see what the fuss is about? Just make sure that you watch where you’re going.