If you’re an adult, the augmented reality aspect of Pokémon Go — where animated pokémon are overlaid on top of the real world — is mostly good for jokes. It’s like a handy meme-generator tacked on to a video game. But for a kid, that same feature may as well be a portal into a magical new world.
Since the game’s launch last week, much has been made of how Pokémon Go has managed to reach both new users and court long-time Pokémon fans. But for me, it’s been an amazing tool for introducing my oldest daughter to one of my favorite fictional universes. As a three-year-old, she can’t play the main games in the series, which require quite a bit of reading and number-crunching. But she loves the characters, thanks mostly to the animated series. Pokémon Go bridges that gap. When I first showed her a Pidgeotto flying near her little sister’s crib, her eyes lit up. It’s like this fantasy creature had been hiding there all this time, just waiting for her find it.
Playing Pokémon Go as an adult is almost a cynical thing. Once I got past the initial rush of nostalgia, I found myself optimizing my walking for better in-game results. I would go for coffee at a place that had the most nearby pokéstops, and walk my dog along a route that was more likely to yield some Gastlys. It’s the way I play most games — I can’t count the number of hours I’ve spent running back-and-forth through tall grass in the handheld Pokémon games — and it turns out that doesn’t change much when the game is brought into the real world.
It felt like I was missing something: a sense of serendipity. There’s not much surprise when you’re wandering around, holding a phone in front of your face, carefully scanning the map around you. But I can’t play like that when I’m with my kids — I need to keep a close eye on them, after all. Last night, for instance, we packed up the stroller and went for a walk to a nearby park, much the same as any other evening. Before we set off, I opened up the Pokémon Go app on my phone, and slipped it in my pocket. My kid told me to let her know if it buzzed — she’s already well aware that means a pokémon is hiding nearby.
It can often be a struggle to motivate her to go for a walk. If there’s no destination in mind, like a playground or a pool, she’s really not that interested. She’d rather sit in the stroller and play with some toys or read a book. It doesn’t help that we live in a rather dull suburb, without much in the way of exciting landmarks to explore. But going for a walk with Pokémon Go has been an adventure. When we found a pokémon on a recent stroll, I crouched down beside her and held the phone, while she handled the simple action of tossing the pokéball (warning: you’ll run out of balls pretty quickly when you rely on a three-year-old’s sense of aim).
Much has been made about the simplistic nature of Pokémon Go; unlike a traditional Pokémon game, there’s not a lot of strategy. But when you’re three, that’s part of the appeal. Catching a pokémon is as simple as tossing a ball, and after a day or two she understood the basics: open the app when the phone buzzes, tap on the nearby pokémon, and try to catch it in a ball. She’s even started reading the map, learning how to use her tiny fingers to rotate the camera and get a sense of her surroundings. Because I can’t have my phone out all the time, we don’t walk around knowing what we’ll find. There’s nothing planned in advance. I may miss a few pokéstops along the way, but she doesn’t care about that. What matters to her is that epic struggle we had trying to catch a high-level Hypno, or the time she caught an adorable Metapod all by herself.
It’s easy to be cynical about Pokémon Go. It’s a game that’s built off of the success of years of failed AR experiences, one that leverages nostalgia to reach a massive audience. It’s stripped down and simplified to the point that some people question whether it’s really a game. But that cynicism melted away when I was able to experience the game through my daughter’s eyes, seeing the sheer joy in her face when she saw these fantastical creatures hiding right in our backyard. People can debate whether or not Pokémon Go will have staying power, but it has definitely become a mainstay of our summer evening walks.
And for my daughter, when she wakes up tomorrow, there’s always the promise of an Eevee hiding in her bedroom.