technology

The Weekend Pokmon Go Took Over America

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Kate Lovero couldn’t figure out why her friends were ducking out early from her party this weekend. She was grilling; the steaks weren’t done. “Where are they going?” she asked. The answer: They were headed out into the streets of Boston to catch wild Pokmon a few blocks away.

At San Francisco’s AT&T Park, groups of fans gathered around statues of famous baseball players staring at their phones, battery packs heating up. They werent taking pictures of Willie Mays; they were catching Pokmon. Gossip said that Charmanders were lurking at the Cupids Span sculpture along Embarcadero, they said.

Customers were pouring into Supreme Beans Coffee Shop in Daytona Beach—happy for the free Wi-Fi and the hot and frozen espresso-based drinks, but much more interested in the gaggle of Rattata—enough to start a small army. People were coming into the shop saying we were a ‘gym,’ says Supreme Beans’ co-owner Brandy Glenos. I had no idea what it meant.

What it meant was Pokmon Go, a game that turns people’s phones into cameras on an parallel universe, one in which mythical cartoon beasties with Harry Potterish names frolick amid familiar landmarks and places. Download the game, hold the phone up, and you see them—and can “capture” them and train them to fight in “gyms,” also locked to real-world locations. What it meant was that, this past weekend, crowds of people went outside to play a game, alone, together, in the real world and in an augmented reality.

It’s not the most popular smartphone game ever, but it’s certainly the most performative. People are chasing Pokmon through Central Park in New York, battling them outside a coffee shop in Birmingham, Alabama, and a taqueria in rural Idaho. Hell—they’ve even shown up in Mosul, Iraq. This weekend Pokmon Go became a cultural phenomenon seemingly overnight, clogging social media feeds, obsessing kids and adults, bringing people together, even inspiring clever thieves. This is something new.

How It Works

It started at Google, as these things tend to. A few years ago, a startup inside the company called Niantic Labs developed technology that could link game-play to GPS locations, effectively turning the entire world into a game board.

 

If you really want something to be worried about, though, consider what it means to have game that, by definition, knows exactly where you are when you play it. If you sign into Pokmon Go with a Google account, you sign over full access. That means Pokmon Go can technically access your contact lists, emails, and more.

Separately, a rash of fake apps populate Google Play, so make sure youre downloading the one that says its from Niantic and has a blue badge next to it. And never, ever, ever try to sideload the Pokmon Go application package; theres more malware than Magmars out there.

 

Niantic

Pokmon are appearing everywhere. Even places they maybe shouldn’t. An intrepid trainer can find Ghost-type Pokmon in cemeteries, Pokmon gyms at local churches—including Westboro Baptist—and a Poke Stop at the 9/11 Memorial Pool.

And that’s just what happens when the system works; when it doesn’t, you get situations like Boon Sheridan’s, whose home, a former church, is mislabeled as a gym, encouraging trespassers at all hours of the day.

If Pokmon Go does represent a sea change in augmented reality, then it’s one that’s going to force us to rethink our approach to designed spaces, public and private. So many of the places people gather center on communal tragedy or reverence: funerals, war memorials, religion. What do you do when someone whips out their phone to catch a Geodude at the Holocaust Memorial? Or, as is apparently already happening, Auschwitz? Games, with the weight they bear—of play, of fun—might have once seemed inappropriate for those places. But now those places are squares on the game grid.

People don’t have a single reality anymore. You can, if you choose, live in several at once: the real and imagined stacked on top of each other. Game designers and urban planners are about to have a lot to talk about. Almost as much as the neighbors gathered around local landmarks today, trading Pokmon secrets.

“It’s a waste of battery, far as I see it,” a man said in Boston’s John Elliot Square Monday.

“Hey,” the player next to him said, “it got us talking, didn’t it?”

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