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Walk to the southwest corner of Central Park and you’ll find a bizarre sight: A horde of people, varying wildly in demographics, sitting and standing around with their phones out, gazing intently at the screens and aggressively swiping every few seconds.
The Pokémon Go craze, though roughly a month old, is still as healthy and intense as ever. Recent apps have sought to address critical flaws and players are eagerly jumping at every opportunity to stay ahead of the game.
Criticism has been thrown around, lamenting that the app keeps people buried in their phones and ultimately choosing augmented reality (AR) over “real” life. Others have risen to the defense of the game, arguing that it gets people outside and interacting with other gamers. For those who have actually played it (I admit to being one among the hordes), the latter argument feels more accurate, but it’s also a much more complex experience.
Participating in the bizarre collective of people eagerly hunting imaginary creatures in AR stirs up an odd feeling of togetherness. When you look up and glimpse everyone around you also making furtive glances at the fake Bulbasaur on a nearby shrub, it’s a comfort to know you’re not the only one.
It’s also weird as hell because nobody makes eye contact, and conversation is fragmented.
Seth Dandridge, a software developer and creator of one of several maps showing the location of all the Pokémon in New York City, tells BTRtoday of his own experience catching all 142 Pokémon available in the United States.
“I was just going through the park to catch Pokémon,” he tells us, “and there are literally hundreds of people there, playing Pokémon and doing nothing else.”
He was definitely wigged by the experience, saying it felt “very futuristic, but not necessarily in a good way.”
“It’s weird because it’s both a very social game but at the same time you’re in this private, virtual world where you’re just staring at your phone,” he adds.
It is admittedly a strange type of socialization. One sees players glancing up from their phones, scanning their environments, and can (hopefully) assume that these gamers are checking their surroundings so that they don’t walk into traffic or passersby. Yet the whole bizarre experience also bears a striking and frankly absurd resemblance to checking for Pokémon in the real world. But then again, isn’t that the point of AR?
Phillip Sitbon, an innovations engineer at Intel who works on a variety of augmented and virtual reality projects, tells BTRtoday that he too finds it “really uncanny,” but not necessarily negative.
“As soon as I started hearing stories about people in crowds out in public, it was so cool how much it reminded me of Rainbow’s End,” he reflects. “There’s a scene near the end with people in the park having exactly that Pokémon battle type of experience.”
Ultimately, both Sitbon and Dandridge believe it is a uniquely positive social experience because despite appearances, people are in fact playing together.
“A rare Pokémon would come up,” says Dandridge of gatherings like those in Central Park, “and there would be whispers throughout the crowd like ‘Ivysaur, Ivysaur, Ivysaur.’”
Silence would once again descend on the scene while people frantically attempted to catch it, and then the quiet would be broken with cheers and the “cries of anger” of those who failed to capture it. More cheers would erupt as more people got it, then, Dandridge recalls, “someone would be like ‘what should we name it?’”
Dandridge has returned again and again to that spot in Central Park and repeated such experiences numerous times, including taking part in an internet-famous stampede to catch a rare Vaporeon near the Southwest William Sherman statue. Dandridge named his Team Effort, “because it was a team effort.”
A critical element of that team effort is the relative lack of competition necessary to play the game. Yes, you can battle other Pokémon at “gyms” located throughout the city, and players like Dandridge are certainly in competition with themselves and others to catch them all as fast as possible. But critically, when a Pokémon appears, anyone in the vicinity can catch it because the Pokémon aren’t finite. Therefore, says Dandrige, “the people you’re playing around, for the most part, are reaping the same advantages that you are.”
That lack of material competition is a critical factor in Pokémon Go’s socializing capabilities.
Sitbon has previously worked on a spy-themed AR game that was similar to Pokémon Go in that you used GPS to locate and kill bad guys. Like Pokémon Go, playing this game meant going outside and traveling to locate the targets.
The game also had a multiplayer mode that was popular with the test participants because they could play together.
Unlike Pokémon Go, however, this game had a set number of bad guys per round and not everyone playing could kill the same amount, even in multiplayer mode.
There is a point, however, when playing the game morphs from a social journey toward a shared goal into an isolated and even lonely journey. This shift approaches as you get closer and closer to collecting all 142 and you are left with the rarest breeds.
“There are moments like that that I think are really positive and can be really social,” says Dandridge, “but it can also be a very solitary game as well, when you’re out, running around Manhattan by yourself trying to chase down digital, shiny tokens.”
This solitude is helped along by maps like pogom and Pokevision (both shut down due to Niantic’s objections), which enable players to see the specific locations of the Pokémon they need, which the game does not do.
While a major boon for hardcore players, the maps also fundamentally alter the human interactions that make the game such a unique form of AR.
If you are playing with a friend in Chelsea, for example, and you spot a Kabuto in SoHo, you either both dash out to get it before its 20ish minutes spawning period is up or you go alone. It’s not the same as blindly wandering around with your friends, both looking for anything to appear.
When asked if Pokémon Go-style AR is really the future of gaming, Dandridge said yes and explains that this is because of the intrinsic community it creates. Mere virtual reality, he says, is “profoundly impactful, but not as fun.”
“It’s not as social as wandering out in the real world, interacting with people. I think that’s the real game everyone wants to play.”