Since the game’s launch on July 6, efforts to describe the Pokemon Go phenomenon is like trying to hit a moving target. Literally.
Within the first three days alone, when users reported frequent crashes attributed to overwhelming demand, the new smart-phone-based game had already become the third most popular video game in history and is expected to smash Twitter’s daily active users records.
On Monday, Nintendo stock soared by 25 percent and rose by another 13 percent on Wednesday, adding more than $30 billion to the company’s stock value. And those numbers go up with each passing day.
It has instantly become a nationwide craze.
“Nobody could have expected this,” said Rick Jordan, who has been serving as a counselor at the Mississippi State Theater Camp just as the game debuted. “It’s crazy around here. Everywhere you go, there are group of 10, 20, 30 people playing. It’s all over campus. Absolutely crazy.”
What is it?
Pokemon Go is the latest evolution of Nintendo’s Pokemon franchise. It is a location-based augmented-reality game that allows players to move throughout their communities where they can capture, battle and train virtual Pokemon characters.
The game is hailed by many because it requires players to get up and walk as they pursue characters or move through levels of the games. Businesses have quickly realized the game as a great way to increase sales and traffic as “poke-stops,” where game players can acquire game items, such as lures, to improve their success.
A free app available on Android and iOS, Pokemon Go uses GPS navigation to drop virtual Pokemon into the real world. Players use the app to find and catch the virtual creatures, which often hang out in “hot spots,” such as landmarks, public parks and, sometimes, people’s own backyards. Pokemon mostly appear in highly trafficked areas.
The game is bringing traffic to public spaces and landmarks in every corner of the country.
“I’m seeing people at the Tennessee Williams Home that I’ve never seen before,” said Columbus-Lowndes Convention and Visitors Bureau director Nancy Carpenter. “There are people out on the sidewalk in front and in the back of the home playing Pokemon Go. There’s definitely more traffic, so that’s a good thing.”
The game is also being credited for community building.
“Even here in little West Point, I am meeting so many new people, just from playing,” photographer/filmmaker Michael Williams said. “Usually, when you meet a stranger, it’s just a nod or maybe a ‘hello.’ Now, you see someone looking at their phone and you ask, ‘Are you playing Pokemon Go?’ and all the sudden you’re having a real conversation and you are getting to know someone as you talk about the game.”
The original craze
Pokemon began as a video game for Nintendo’s Game Boy system in 1996, but it really burst onto the scene through a trading card game that captivated the attention of kids throughout the world in 1998.
There had never been anything like it — until Pokemon Go, that is. From 1998-2001, more than 2.15 billion cards were shipped to 74 countries in 10 languages, igniting a fire-storm of spin-off products that also proved wildly successful including movies (17), an animated TV series (with more than 800 episodes produced) and video games which have sold more than 260 million units.
While the Pokemon franchise has continued, in one form or another, over the past 20 years, the initial Pokemon craze had ended by the early 2000s.
Although Pokemon Go has developed a following among a wide range of smart phone users, it is particularly appealing to people who are now in their late 20s and early 30s, the same people who were the kids gobbling up those Pokemon cards in staggering quantities 20 years ago.
“Oh yeah, I was one of those kids,” said Jordan, 25, who recently moved from Starkville to Tupelo. “I was in fifth grade when the Game Boy game and the first series of cards came out. My younger brother was probably into it even more than me. He still has two or three binders full of the cards.
“I remember on Saturday mornings, Dad would take us to Books-A-Million and there would be tons of kids all over the store. We’d buy six or seven packs (of cards) and build decks, trade them. There was always a rare card and you tried to make deals to get them. It was just a lot of fun.
“The game has kept going over the years, but it was never the craze it was back in ’96, ’97,” he added. “Now, though, with Pokemon Go, it’s getting crazy again. It definitely reminds of what it was like back then.”
Williams was equally enthralled with the cards.
“They came out when I was in sixth grade, which is also the year my grades went down,” said Williams, 29. “Me and my friends would play the game in class all the time. So, yeah, it was a big deal back then.
“I guess that’s also what appeals to me now, the nostalgia of it,” he added. “I bet it’s the same with a lot of people my age. We remember how much fun it was. And Pokemon Go is a lot of fun, too.”
Then, there are folks like Julia Richards, who was decidedly not a Pokemon fan in the late 1990s.
“To be honest, back then I thought it was totally dorky,” the 33-year-old said.
Julia, her husband, Clint, and their four kids have made Pokemon Go a part of their daily routine.
“Oh, it’s still pretty dorky,” she said, laughing. “When I first got it, I wasn’t sure. But we stepped out of the house and captured our first Pokemon. I said, ‘Holy crap, this is a lot of fun!’ We play every day now.”
‘Go’ is the operative word
Unlike virtually every other video game, Pokemon Go doesn’t just promote being active, it requires it. If you want to advance in the game, you are forced off the sofa and into your neighborhoods and throughout town.
“Michelle Obama has been trying to get people to get out and exercise for eight years,” Williams said. “Nintendo did that in 24 hours.”
“We’re outside playing the game at least an hour a day, maybe more,” said Richards, a stay-at-home mom who home-schools her four kids — Noah, 11; Connor, 8; Hadley Reese, 6; and Miles, 4. “We don’t have a lot of games or technology at our house. We want our kids to get outside and play. So this fits into that. It gets them out of the house and away from the TV. They don’t get bored. It’s always, ‘Can we play again?'”
Even though he has always been a regular runner, Williams said playing the games on his runs have enhanced his workouts.
“I’m running longer distances, and pushing myself harder because I’m not thinking about running, I’m thinking about running down those Pokemons,” he said.
Richards said the game also complements her teaching.
“The game sends you to landmarks, so I use that to talk about those and make it a part of their education,” Richards said. “The game makes it more fun for them.”
Williams said the game encourages players to get out and explore their communities.
“Even in West Point, I am going to places I never went before or didn’t know about,” he said. “The other day, I went to a park that I never went to before. I started thinking, ‘Hey, this is a great place. I wonder why I never came here.'”
Cashing in on Pokemon
Doug Pellum doesn’t play Pokemon Go. He doesn’t plan to start playing it, either. While he doesn’t know the game, he does know a business opportunity when he sees one.
Pellum, owner of Zachary’s Restaurant, is an enthusiastic fan of Pokemon Go on that basis.
“We kept seeing people across the street by the statue (the Confederate Memorial on the lawn of the Lowndes County Courthouse) playing the game,” Pellum said. “I figured there must be some way to capitalize on this, to get them to cross the street. So I had someone to help me figure it out. What we have been doing is getting — what do they call them? — lures. That’s the way you get the Pokemons to your place. A lure costs a dollar and it only lasts for 30 minutes. So we started dropping the lures and here they came.
“It’s been great. We’ve had a lot of customers come in later at night, sitting on our patio playing the game,” he added. “It’s red-hot right now.”
Pellum is hardly the only business owner to realize the game’s potential. Throughout the country, restaurants, shops, bowling alleys, movie theaters and others are rushing to attract Pokemon Go traffic.
Even a purist like Jordan doesn’t feel the game is being compromised by the commercialization.
“The way I look at it is if it helps businesses and also gives players more places to go, everybody benefits,” he said.
Businesses and players may love Pokemon Go, but it is not without its critics, who fear the speed at which the game has captured the nation’s interest may lead to some unintended, potentially dangerous consequences.
There have reports of criminals using “lures” to attract unsuspecting players. Some worry that players are giving up too much private information when they sign up, especially since the game relies on GPS and can track the players’ movements.
The game is being played at inappropriate places, too. Both the National Holocaust Museum and Arlington National Cemetery have issued statements asking players to show respect by not playing the games on their grounds.
Local players do not seem too concerned about those criticisms, Common sense and good judgment go an awful long way, they say.
“First, my kids don’t have phones and the only phone the game is loaded on is my phone,” Richards said. “So this is something we do together, and I’m not going to go anywhere or do anything I don’t know is safe.”
Discretion, Jordan said, should be the order of the day.
“Look, if I get a notification at midnight, I’m not going to go out somewhere I don’t know,” Jordan said. “Like a lot of things, it’s really as safe as you make it.”
Perhaps one of the best aspects of the game has nothing to do with the game itself, but what it is doing in communities.
“You just see so many more people out and around, playing the game,” Richards said. “We live close to The W and there are always a ton of people walking around campus playing the game.”
Jordan said the game is a naturally conversation-starter.
“When you’re going around playing the game, you see other people and you know they are playing, too. So you almost immediately start talking, sharing information, that sort of thing. You don’t normally approach people you don’t know. But it’s different when you and the other person are playing the game. It kind of breaks down that barrier.”
Williams said the game also means striking up conversations with people who may be different from yourself.
That happened to Williams just this week. As he was playing the game during a visit to MSU campus, he noticed huge guy who was also playing.
“Normally, I’d be a little intimidate to walk up to some random guy, especially a guy that big,” Williams said. “But we started talking about the game. I asked him which team he was on and he said, ‘The Ravens.’ I’d never heard of that Pokemon team.”
It was only later that Williams figured it out.
The man he was talking to was Blaine Clausell, who plays professional football for the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens.
“I don’t know if everybody is playing it,” Jordan said. “But around here, it sure seems like it.”
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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