As did millions of Americans this weekend, I spent a good deal of time wandering the streets, eyes glued to my phone, collecting Pokémon. At this point of my journey, I’m stage 10, Team Mystic. Or, in other words, addicted.
A lot of outlets have reported the mental and physical health benefits of the game and I somewhat agree. If I’m being honest, at least half of my Sundays in town are spent on the couch of my poorly-lit San Francisco apartment. But there’s another benefit besides using your legs and a dose of vitamin D that comes with downloading this silly game that drains all of your phone’s battery (play with lowered brightness, low-battery mode, and an external pack for recharging): Pokémon Go forces you to explore the world. In two days, I traversed about 12 miles of the Bay Area, where I live. I know this because I incubated four Pokémon eggs, which required about three miles each of me. It’s one of many built-in motivators that the developers baked in that keep you moving.
With the help of Google, the game’s developers identified highly trafficked, central locations for Pokéstops and gyms, which are essential to any serious gameplay, and have diversified the placement of Pokémon across regions. In pursuit of points and rare creatures, I found myself strolling through a lot of weird spots—dark alleys, empty church parking lots, an Ann Taylor Loft—but some pretty awesome ones, too. I caught the elusive Abra in a rose garden in Oakland. I was lured to a popular bar in my neighborhood that I had never been to by a lure, a device players can drop to attract Pokémon to their locations. And, in the occasional idle moment when nothing was jumping on to my screen, I rediscovered just how amazing it is that every other block in my neighborhood is covered in the most intricate murals. I actually left the weekend appreciating the place I live more.
Was I fully engaged? Of course not. Make no mistake: This thing is silly! I’m a grown adult who spent the last two days catching 129 Polliwags, Bulbasaurs, and Zubats! I know that is absurd. But so is most television. Or sending selfies with purple eyes and flower wreaths to friends on Snapchat. So are many forms of entertainment. Unlike some distractions though, Pokémon Go, in small ways, is connecting people.
Certain pockets of cities have become meeting places for players (or trainers) and that will surely continue as Nintendo launches the app worldwide in coming days. You can browse activity maps to find these hubs and, therefore, bump shoulders with other users. In New York City, for instance, you’ll notice that most places are densely trafficked with players but especially the stretch along 14th Street near NYU. Same for Los Angeles’s Little Tokyo, where Pokémon crawls were organized this weekend.
I spent most of my time in San Francisco’s Mission Dolores, ground zero for tech workers with video game addictions. Let’s just say it was much easier to spot couples, parents and kids, and large packs of friends hunting for Pokémon than it was the occasional pedestrian who was annoyed that no one was looking where they were going. I’m not a particularly chatty guy with strangers, but I even met a neighbor on the curb yesterday, who kept me company during some battles.
Like a lot of modern beings, I often travel between point A and point B in a daze with headphones on. But there’s a certain expression people have begun flashing the last eight days since the game launched: a knowing smile that says Hey, I see you. You’re also trying to catch that amoebal blob with eyes. This is totally crazy.
© 2016 AFAR Media