Pokémon, for those of us never blessed with a Gameboy, is a game where you collect creatures (the original game had 150 “species”) which you can carry around in your pockets in magical Pokéballs. These Pokémon are highly respected as they are trained for battle*. Towns have gyms in which you can train your Pokémon, and if you beat a gym’s leader, you receive a badge which adds to your Pokémon trainer cred. Collect all the badges, collect all the Pokémon, and you’re officially “the very best, like no one ever was” (lyrics from the theme song).
In Pokémon Go, the new mobile game, Pokémon, gyms, and shops are scattered across real-life cities, so players have to physically walk around outside to make progress. Some Pokémon are only found in certain habitats, so to catch water-type Pokémon, players might need to travel to a local water body.
But notice how I said “cities.”
I downloaded the app last Thursday, excited for motivation to take a long overdue jog. I wandered around my house and yard at my university’s field station, trying to get enough of a feel for gameplay to decide if I could actually use the game on a run. But there were no Pokémon. I thought maybe I just needed to travel further, so I laced up my shoes and headed out with the app running.
I jumped on the North Country trail (which goes right past my house) and ran for about 10 minutes. No Pokémon. I ran back. Nothing. Wondering if I was playing incorrectly, I went to the internet. Facebook told me that all my friends were finding Pokémon in their living rooms. Much to my dismay, a Google search told me that I was playing correctly, there just weren’t (m)any Pokémon in rural areas.
This was a HUGE disappointment. Not just because I don’t get to play like my city-based friends, but because I THOUGHT THAT WAS GOING TO BE THE WHOLE POINT OF THE GAME. I was mislead by the “water-types only found by water” claim, and thought people would have to search for wild Pokémon IN THE ACTUAL WILD.
Here I am, in my house. Looking for... anything.
You can’t even play in the actual wild. Rural players will have to go to town if they want Gyms or Pokéstops—sometimes even to find Pokémon.
How did this happen? Gyms and Pokéstops are tied to points of interest populated by users for a previous Nianatic game called Ingress. These “portals” had specific criteria: historical landmarks, places of worship, local gathering spots, etc. No natural landmarks. This makes them sparse to non-existent in remote areas, while cities can have many per block.
As for the lack of Pokémon themselves, one friend told me that the density of Pokémon in an area is related to how many people are using the app nearby, while another thought they were tied to city greenspaces (I hear Chicago’s Lake Shore is bursting). One thing is certain: you'll find more Pokémon in Central Park than a National Park.
This attention is great—but I get the feeling the ecologists-who-aren’t-playing-Pokémon-Go crowd doesn’t realize that players are confined to cities.
Don’t get me wrong, I love this game. I love the concept. People are getting off their butts and going for a walk. People are making friends at their neighborhood Pokéstop. The internet is exploding with stories of the crazy things happening (good and bad) thanks to the game.
But I still feel this deep disappointment in the fact that instead of drawing people outside and into local natural areas, people are drawn to city centers.
Why not have more Pokémon in the wild, and gyms in cities, like in the original game? Pokémon Go would have a very different kind of impact if this had were the case. Perhaps it wouldn’t have become popular at all if cities only had rats and pigeons (Rattatas and Pidgeys, that is) and you had to travel a bit to catch anything less common. But I would’ve liked to see it try.
The fact remains that people just don't care about the natural world unless they experience it first-hand. It's hard to cultivate the sort of passion the world needs to really make a difference. Pokémon Go could've been a step toward rebuilding that relationship, but instead will continue to keep city people in cities.
Maybe the next AR mobile game will take the next step and find a way to get players back into nature.
*I feel compelled to mention that Pokémon isn't the sort of inhumane dog-fighting ring it might seem. This subject is really well addressed in the T.V. show. Villains in the show are often trainers who work their Pokémon too hard, or give their Pokémon poor living conditions, or otherwise don’t respect them. It’s all very pro-Pokémon rights.