The meme: Pokémon Go
What it is: Pokémon Go is an augmented-reality game that launched in the United States late last week. In a nutshell, the game lays a sort of semi-transparent Poké-world over your actual, geographical location, which you can explore by physically walking around while staring zombie-like at your screen.
Pokémon Go has some things in common with the Pokémon franchise that captivated kids in the late 1990s: As in those games, the objective is to find and capture mythical creatures called Pokémon, which can be upgraded and squared off against each other.
Pokémon Go differs in a few key respects, though. For starters, as of this writing, there’s no actual mission to work on or some big boss to beat – the point of the game is to amble around more or less aimlessly. You can’t trade Pokémon yet, although that’s allegedly coming, and features such as battling and training have been deliberately watered down. Go also has a wildly popular feature that allows you to take screenshots of Pokémon in the “wild” – i.e., on your desk, on a child’s head or on your wife’s hospital bed immediately before she gives birth. Those screenshots, which have blown up on Twitter and Reddit at a truly alarming rate, are critical to the appeal of the game.
Pokémon Go has already been downloaded more times than the dating app Tinder, and it is rapidly encroaching on Twitter, which has been around for a full 10 years. Nintendo’s stock soared nearly 25 percent Monday because of the game – its biggest gain in more than 30 years.
Where it started: The game was released in Australia and New Zealand on July 6 and was rolled out in the United States the day after. It was supposed to become available in more countries from there, but so many people are already playing the game - overloading its servers - that international rollout has been paused indefinitely. Naturally, that is not stopping some determined players in Europe and elsewhere: It is possible to download Pokémon Go, no matter where you are, by changing your phone’s region settings.
Who started it: Go was developed by Niantic, a company spun out from Google and known to many as the studio that previously brought you “Ingress.” That game is conceptually similar to Pokémon Go, in that you have to get out and explore the “real world” to play it. Niantic chief executive John Hanke explained his motivation this way in an interview with the New York Times last month:
“Everyone is spending all this time inside, by their computers. No one goes to the local parks. We wanted to do something that was aspirational: Let’s get people outside. … Part of the joy of the game is going off the beaten path. We’re not about being strapped in a couch in ‘The Matrix.’”
How to play it as if you know what you’re doing: There are already a million guides to playing Pokémon Go out there, from Polygon’s tips for the “ultimate beginner” to Game Revolution’s “advanced” strategies. Regardless of where you fall on that spectrum, though, the best way to not look like an idiot while playing is to ... not look like you’re playing. Seriously. (Others may think differently about this, but I was sort of embarrassed when a smug stranger in the park across from The Washington Post office sidled up to me and said: “You’re playing Pokémon, aren’t you? EVERYBODY IS.”)
To avoid such encounters, I suggest a dual strategy: One, find a viable cover for your phone-distracted wandering. (A dog is helpful here, as is any car ride in city traffic when you’re sitting in the passenger seat.) Two, limit yourself to casual, incidental checks in public – of the kind you might usually deploy for your email or Facebook notifications. Added bonus: This will also help you avoid walking into people or suffering other accidents.
A smart observation to make at your next nerdy dinner party: More than a mobile game, Pokémon Go is sort of a massive-scale trial run for augmented-reality technology: a chance to get consumers used to the idea of interacting in mixed virtual and physical environments. The more people adopt it, the more situations like the one I described above - where it felt awkward to be called out for playing in public - will actually seem normal, even expected. As the co-founder of one augmented-reality company told NPR, “I think this could be a real driver of early adoption and bringing people into the fold.”