It’s been available to download in the U.S. for less than a week, but the OMG stories surrounding “Pokémon Go” are piling up higher than a king-sized Snorlax.
There’s the woman who found a dead body while trolling for rare Pokémon in Wyoming, reports of criminals using the game as lure to rob players, and the guy in Massachusetts whose house was mistakenly tagged as a Pokémon gym in the game, causing it to be overrun by hordes of zealous players. Just yesterday, UW-Madison police issued a warning for local players of the suddenly ubiquitous augmented-reality app to avoid wandering into traffic, since no one obviously paid a moment of attention to the “Remember to be alert at all times / Stay aware of your surroundings” warning that accompanies the game’s login screen. Go figure.
The app turns every part of your real-world universe into a place to hunt for Nintendo’s ubiquitous pocket monsters, and it’s taken over the world — and Madison — like an Articuno hurricane move. Pasqual’s at Hilldale becomes a Pokéstop that dispenses Pokéballs to catch more critters. The Mallards’ east-side Duck Pond is a gym where you can battle other Pokémon, and level-up the ones in your ever-growing mobile Pokédex. My own office is a place where you can apparently encounter and catch a Rattata. Who knew?
Those unfamiliar with the Poké-phenomenon (it’s celebrating its 20th anniversary this year) have tossed out the word “geocaching” as a point of comparison to try to wrap their heads around the appeal of “Pokémon Go.” That’s not a bad start, but it vastly underestimates the licensing half of the equation that’s driving this augmented-reality bus. (Local mobile developer Perblue has had its own ARG, Parallel Kingdoms, available for years.) After all, the stuff you find at geocache sites isn’t typically a cute (and, if you’re lucky, rare) lil’ monster you can name, keep on your device and evolve into something even more powerful. As ever, the collection vibe is strong with this one, as it has been since the original card game was first introduced two decades ago. It’s just a hell of a lot more socially acceptable to catch ’em all on your smartphone — particularly since most of us have one — than it is to whip out the Nintendo 3DS you may not even own.
For most of Madison, “Pokémon Go” is an opportunity to shake our heads at yet another thing that’s driving all of us to jam our faces into smartphone screens and stumble into trees and traffic. That’s a fair criticism, particularly if some oblivious Pokémon trainer just cluelessly slammed into you on State Street. But that eye-rolling reaction discounts the positive social aspects of the experience. In a way, “Pokémon Go” captures the same kind of camaraderie you’ll find at a convention or a sporting event — a shared sense of community that comes from a common interest. You can see it in the guy who gives you a knowing look and a thumbs up when you arrive at the same location to score a Horsea. Or even in the woman who asked if I was okay when I hopped off my bike by the fountain behind La Brioche on University Avenue to collect a new stash of Pokéballs. We’re all in this hunt together, even if not all of us understand what exactly it is we’re supposed to be looking for.
Better still, “Pokémon Go” is getting kids — and adults — outside and moving around their environments, which is a hell of a lot more than Wii Fit or any of the original Pokémon games ever managed to do. There’s probably no shortage of parents who are marveling this week that a videogame — a videogame! — is sparking both physical exercise and an interest in local geography.
Given all that, it’s a bummer the app’s also apparently a Titanic-size security risk if you’re logging in using your Google account, as the majority of the game’s players likely are. The game’s sketchy user agreement gives the app full access to everything associated with your Google account — emails, documents, personal info, etc. — basically everything except Google Wallet. It’s doubtful the developer was looking to engineer a massive data grab here, but if you want to keep playing and still maintain your privacy, change your access permissions and set up a burner Google account.
The eye-rollers among us may not want to hear it, but we’re a long way from done with “Pokémon Go.” The two biggest features Pokémon vets love and crave — the ability to trade Pokémon with and battle other players — aren’t even part of the app yet, although they were teased yesterday by the developer, along with a global leaderboard. Assuming the game isn’t derailed by those troubling privacy concerns, expect the screen-staring to continue. Those things aren’t going to catch themselves.