Pokémon Go is an augmented reality (AR) locative data application with a virtual and ludic interface connecting mobile device users to a universe filled with friendly monsters. The game functions like a magical talisman revealing hidden creatures in the everyday environments of our networked connected world. Released in July 2016 on the iOS and Android operating systems by Niantic Labs, the app had a turbulent first month. The experience of Pokémon Go in the first few weeks of play was characterised by disruptions: a fervour of activity and excitement generated by a new relationship to the user’s mobile device which revealed unconsidered dimensions to familiar locations.
By holding up the mobile phone, the user, the app and the object transform the ordinary space of homes, work environments and public places into newly inhabited locations full of ‘first generation’ of Pokémon. Generation One (Gen 1) refers to the first Pokemon game for the Nintendo Game Boy developed by Game Freak for Japanese audiences in 1996. At launch, Pokémon Go included 151 pokémon of different rarity, which produced a highly nostalgic experience for players of Gen 1. The first few weeks of Pokémon Go was also marked with very high degrees of player frustration, as the servers which Niantic used to support the game were not able to keep up with demand. Hackers and modders overloaded the game’s application programming interface (API), and players were shut out of the Pokemon tracking features meant to encourage the exploration of the play environment for hidden pokémon. These features were removed from the game entirely and later reinstated in a less server intensive iteration, which caused many players to register complaints via social media sites including Facebook, Twitter and Reddit.
Despite the early days of server-side instability, this game continues to attract millions of daily users, generating more than a $1 billion (USD) in 2016. There are numerous reasons for the game’s global success beyond the popularity of the Pokémon franchise. Among them is the unprecedented harnessing of existing technology: the phone’s forward-facing camera enables the augmented reality feature, overlaying pokémon onto the world; the internet connectivity provides access to the in-app Google Maps overlay revealing the hidden locations of pokémon around us; the network data storing the locations of Pokéstops (generated by players of Niantic previous locative data app, Ingress) which are required to receive in-game items and player experience points that increase the level of their personal avatars (XP); the mobile phone towers and GPS satellites triangulating location means the players transverse the virtual game space in the real world through walking or running; and the haptic phone interface which provides the experience of catching Pokémon in the wild, bringing to life the dreams of millions of players who have enjoyed Nintendo devices for three decades.
Norman Denzin, (2006) argued that doing and performing autoethnography is a way of being ethical and political in the world. This approach suggests that respecting objects is not merely understanding their role in the political economy of late capitalism, but requires making sense of our relationships with them as they are performed, lived and experienced in the everyday. Pokémon Go brought with it the sudden increase of people looking at their phones in public. A wave of news stories surfaced about absent-minded mobile phone users endangering lives, breaking property boundaries and turning previously highly regulated spaces such as workplaces such as offices, hospitals, police stations, as well as cultural sites like war memorials and museums into playable zones. Pokémon Go, with seemingly careless ease, reordered and destabilised previously established location-based networks of performance and behaviour.
The feelings of euphoria and discovery that characterised Pokémon Go play by people across the globe looking into their phones to see the world anew, was reflected on in the tweet from Nathan Sharp:
The launch of the app coincided with the original series celebrating its twentieth year, with GameFreak releasing a new Nintendo DS game, Pokémon Sun and Moon. The new game updated the player’s experience but kept intact the vision of its creator, who synthesised elements of the Shinto and Buddhist cultural experiences of his earlier life, bringing them together with his love of bug collecting. Unlike GameFreak, Pokémon Go’s developer, however, was not a traditional game development company and the app lost many players as Niantic changed fundamental aspects of the game after launch. Very few games companies would, or would be able to, remove core design elements post-launch.
At the time of writing, while the initial disruption and playful sense of discovery have abated, there remains a colossal and very active contingent of players around the globe. The game remained in the top five grossing apps available via the Apple iTunes store, with over $950 US million in revenue and attracting millions of previously non-gaming consumers to the market in 2016 (Stewart, 2017). The Pokémon Go app was released to the public in a very unfinished state -providing a bare minimum experience – it continues to be updated by Niantic in non-regular updates that remove some elements of the game and change others. This makes the play experience less stable and predictable compared to other Pokémon games.