Tuesday, August 16, 2016


Eli on the hunt

“Are you here looking for the Charmander spawn?” queried the guy, barely looking up from his glowing iPhone screen. “Errm, yes I guess so…” I replied.

On the insistence of Audrey and Eli we’d left our warm little house and ventured out into the twilight of the day and were now stood in the middle of nearby Edison Park chatting to the youth. I could see his face under his pulled down black truckers cap - he was probably in his late teens or early twenties.

It was an unusual encounter, but perhaps less so since we have taken on the mantle of Ash Ketchum, the main protagonist from the Pokémon franchise. Pokémon Go has, it’s fair to say, taken over our lives a little bit recently.

Firstly there’s no doubting the game is weird and of course it’s facile. It essentially involves walking around the streets looking for virtual Pokémon which pop up from time to time on your phone’s screen. When they do the game then switches into a semi-arcade game where you have to flick poke balls at the head of the Pokémon in order to ‘Catch-em-all’.

As you continue to play, so the complexity of the task increases also – you have to decide which ‘team’ to pledge allegiance to (we are loyal Team Valor members) and the quiet office block which you’ve always walked past without hardly noticing it is now a hotbed for activity since the game transferred it into a Pokemon gym. Likewise the tired looking 1970’s statue across the road which was always a bit crap, has now become a busy Poke stop. The developers have promised a whole raft of developments and the early bugs which blighted the game a little bit now seem to have been ironed out.

The game has also been swamped with the usual bad-press that all of these types of venture experience. The Daily Mail runs stories about people being stabbed or robbed while out hunting for Pokémon, people are also falling off cliffs or walking in front of cars while they have their eyes fixed on their screens. Journalists love the column inches it provides and a lot of similar furore came up with people texting.

Personally I think it’s kind of a demonstration of Darwinism, the people who walked off cliffs would probably have reversed their car into a river at some point anyway and if you’re going to go into dodgy area late at night while starring deep into your mobile phone there’s probably an argument that says you deserve to be jumped on and have your expensive trainers nicked off your feet.

The three of us are now seasoned explorers. We’ve cracked Level 11 and found 52 out of the 147 Pokémon who are out there. The interesting thing for me though is how it grabs the children. Eli is so well versed with all of the Pokémon types and what their ‘evolves’ are (the more you hunt the more you are able to trade-up your puny little Pokémon into much bigger and terrifying beasts) Audrey is by comparison slightly less absorbed but still wanted me to draw a Charmander on her school book and spent 30 minutes carefully colouring it in.

Of course I’d rather Eli knew all the Kings and Queens of England or at least be able to recount all of the post WWII football world cup winners, but that’s the way it goes I guess. Audrey rather than screaming at the latest boyband which a nearly-9-year-old would have done 20 years ago, instead thinks boys are smelly and is far far more desperate to find Pikachu. What a strange world we live in.

To me though it’s the fact that the kids want to explore, walk and be outside that gives the game its worth. We’ve given geocaching a decent go….a similar-(ish) thing where you explore the world to find little things (usually tupperware boxes) that people have left all over the place and have unearthed (literally in some cases) about 50 geocaches, but sometimes geocaching can be fraught with disappointment when the cache you’ve searched for and that SHOULD be there has clearly been nicked or wrecked by rain.

Conversely I guess the excitement of Pokémon Go wanes a bit when you find your umpteenth Zubat or Polliwag, but there is always the fact that just around the corner might be a rare Pokémon which you haven’t seen before.

And of course the thing is a fad… there’ll be another game along in a minute which will knock Pokémon Go off its throne. I think the US reached ‘peak Pokémon’ a few weeks ago and a few people at work who a week ago were dedicated hunters have now given the thing up.

I reckon though if nothing else we’ve walked around 30km in the last few weeks on our quest which we otherwise wouldn’t have. We haven’t visited any particularly new areas (geocaching was great at taking you off the beaten track), but we’ve had chance encounters with the youth in the park and a Poke walk which we went to at the weekend showed that the game was still very much alive and well.

Hundreds of people joined us at the allotted time on Lake Burley Griffin and we all walked round (slightly zombie like) flicking virtual balls at Pokémon. I’m not exaggerating the turn-out and while there was a disproportionate representation of slightly dorky looking Asian girls in their 20s there were also people from all ages and all walks of life, many of them dressed up in Pokémon costumes.

So there you go. A weird, social game which while it is completely pointless (and obviously captures truckloads of your personal data) gets you out and about. People are making comparisons to George Orwell’s 1984 and of course that’s justified. I think the difference though is that we’re voluntarily heading there and (just quietly) the connectedness and technology aspects are kind of fun - as is flicking a pokeball at your latest quarry.

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