July 7, 2018

Thanks to my recent trips, I have a new side job: I’m a Pokémon importer.

Two years ago I saw a group of guys running in the middle of Summit Avenue in Seattle, near my home, endangering themselves in the hunt for virtual monsters that had taken over the world that day. I tweeted my amusement, then the Capitol Hill Seattle blog quoted me in a news story about the game, and then my colleague Alex pointed that out to me while aboard a #40 bus, and she convinced me to join the game on my own. It’s been two years and “PoGo” is still part of my daily smartphone habit.

What attracted me to Pokémon Go was that it provided an incentive to walk around the city, something I already enjoyed doing. A recent update also favored travel and connecting with distant friends, which I also like. The mechanics are so simple that, like many mobile games, it strains the definition of “game.” At launch, the only thing to do was to swipe up to throw a Pokéball. That’s still the primary mechanic, but now there are group “raids” and “gyms” that must be held by members of the same team. There are now message boards and chat rooms to coordinate groups and teams; I’m in one at work and I recently joined a few on Discord, a public chat service.

In two years I’ve spent about $70 plus tax on Pokémon Go: $35 on a Pokémon Go Plus, an accessory that lets me play without staring at my phone all the time, and $35 on in-game coins. That works out to about $3 a month, a small price to pay for a game I enjoy. The purchases are also strictly optional; a player could reach the highest level without spending a penny. I feel all right about paying for a game I enjoy; I want to reward the developers, many of whom are local to the Seattle area, and I want to show that a game like this can continue to exist without advertising or onerous, artificial delays. Contrast Pokémon Go with The Simpsons: Tapped Out and SimCity: BuildIt, two city-building games that involve literally hours (or days!) of waiting, or payments of virtual currency, to complete most tasks. A player could wander a city 24 hours a day playing Pokémon Go, limited only by their stamina and their set of backup batteries.

The game has brought together people in the real world in largely heartwarming fashion. Frequently in July 2016, dozens of players gathered at a corner of Cal Anderson Park to catch monsters at a cache of PokéStops. They brought boomboxes, they ordered pizza, and many couples charmingly shared a two-port USB battery pack for their phones. A confused Seattle Police officer asked what we were all up to, then when she was told she burst out laughing, telling us all to keep an eye on our surroundings while we play. The game now has “appointment gaming” features like timed raids and community days that offer extra bonuses at specific times of day. I even joined a couple of raid parties while I was in Sapporo recently, although they didn’t spark any casual conversations as they do stateside.

The game has a lot of small subtasks within, but it hasn’t yet crossed the line from “fun” to “work.” As long as I’m having fun, I’ll probably keep playing — and paying for — Pokémon Go.