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On Friday evening, I opened the Google Play store, searched for Pokémon Go mobile game and pressed the download button. The download was fast. The installation was simple on my new Samsung smartphone.
During the opening sequence, I chose an avatar: a boy with a visor, red and white hoodie, black shorts, matching socks and trainers. I named the character RealCoccoBill to honor the hot-tempered Italian Western comic character, who helps sheriffs to capture criminals. I was armed and ready for the Pokémon Go night tour, a mass event, arranged by a few enthusiastic fans at Kaisaniemi Park in Helsinki center.
Along the way, I tried the game for the first time. To my surprise, while walking around the Töölö Bay, I saw a green dinosaur lurking in the bushes. It turns out it was a Bulbasaur. I threw a Poké Ball at it, as I’d heard that it’s the way to catch a Pokémon. Boom! I caught it.
I didn’t see other Pokémon on my way to Kaisaniemi but at the minute I arrived at the open sand field of the park, where hundreds of gamers were sitting in groups, a yellow creature appeared on the screen. There was no doubt about it; it was the most famous Pokémon of them all – Pikachu! The yellow mouse-like thing with pointy ears looked at me straight in the eye. And puff! It was gone.
“Did you see that thing?” I asked a young lady tapping her cell next to me.
“Yes. Everybody can see the same creatures.”
This time, we both were too slow for Pikachu.
I started strolling in the crowd. Many young adults were sipping beer with their left hand and tapping the phone with the right. The crowd was thick. Three different types of music genres were playing in three different directions. Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” turned into cacophony while mixing into Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid” 10 meters behind a tree. A turn to the right and a Finnish rapper added offbeat lyrics to the mix. This, however, didn’t seem to bother the furious tapping of the phones.
And why should it? This gathering was about peace and unity and social networking – all made possible by a mobile game, launched on July 6. City after city in Finland – and around the world for that matter – are now sucked into the phenomenon of people exploring the city with eyes glued to their smartphones.
The name Pokémon is an abbreviation of “pocket monsters.” The goal of the game is to collect each one of the species and train them into a good team. Pokémon Go adds a layer of real-world interactivity to the console concept and lures children, teens, and even whole families out to explore the neighborhood. And that is the whole point. “Everyone is spending all this time inside, by their computers. No one goes to the local parks,” said John Hanke, the chief executive of Niantic in an interview for the New York Times while talking about implementing augmented reality to games. “We wanted to do something that was aspirational: Let’s get people outside.”
The roots of Pokémon franchise reach back to ’96 when Nintendo Game Boy console released the very first version. But it wasn’t until 2013, when Niantic, a company with Google geolocation engineers, came out with a game based on augmented reality, Ingress, where the player captures portals at statues, monuments and such. But it took a marriage of a 20-year-old franchise and mapping technology to make the concept successful. On July 25, TechCrunch reported that Pokémon Go had been downloaded 75 million times since its launch. The game has added billions to Nintendo’s market value since its release.
There were sudden, loud screams at Kaisaniemi Park. People were staring at their phones, tapping and howling. A few ladies, wearing Pikachu hats, rubbed their heads nervously.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“It’s a rare Pokémon,” said a guy wearing a wool cap, glasses and holding a large smartphone. “It was Lapras.”
“Oh wow . . . but aren’t people supposed to be walking to catch Pokémon?” I asked.
“Not necessarily. They can sit here and hatch eggs and see what kinds of creatures will appear,” he said. “Then they just tap the screen and catch them.”
I continued wandering about in the warm, cloudy evening. It was getting darker but people were still coming in. More beer cans were opened and some people were swaying around the park; drinking and tapping.
I started my stroll back to the Töölö Bay.
When I had reached Elielinaukio, next to the railway station, CoccoBill came across a target, Postitalo, the main post office in Helsinki. Poké Balls appeared and I was supposed to throw them at the building. I threw three balls and hit with none.
Oh well . . . this game is obviously more complicated than the first look reveals. I’d heard about gyms and stuff where you can train your Pokémon and then fight other Pokémon and I’d heard about people going as far as allowing a free access to the camera of their smartphone to film around their own house and then invite other players at the door. I’d heard about the dark side, too, about thieves setting up fake Poké Stops (hotspots where you can collect special items) and when the player comes, he or she simply gets robbed. A guy in Florida had opened fire upon some teenagers, who had been hunting the species in the vicinity of his home. Crazy.
Pokémon Go seems to affect our primal instincts . . . humans, ultimately, are gatherers. We are also obsessed with achieving things while walking around. Let’s think about it . . . golf, disc golf, freaking birdwatching. The game is also seriously addicting. The other day, while I was having lunch at the Töölö Bay, a group of tourists ran a foot away from me almost knocking over my salad, all while their eyes were glued to their smartphones.
Pokémon Go is in the news everywhere. Local papers with cities of few thousands are reporting of teens wandering about with their smartphones. I’ve heard reports from Northern Finland, where people who never have seen sunlight are suddenly roaming the streets.
I’ve seen fathers and sons strolling the streets of Helsinki, walking shoulder to shoulder, their eyes glued to the screen, and talking to each other calmly, enjoying the fresh air and the Finnish summer.
After all things considered, maybe Pokémon Go has something to offer for humanity. The youth of today, often blamed for their lazy and passive ways, are definitely becoming more active, which alone comes with health benefits. The game is uniting families and cultures.
Not even Nikola Tesla could have predicted in 1926 that a yellow mouse-like creature with pointy ears could uplift the spirit of the world 90 years later.
We are living through weird times.