It’s no secret that Pokémon Go is the most popular game since Candy Crush, Farmville or Angry Birds. Seems like everywhere you go someone is playing it. Here in New York City, it’s not as if the sidewalks weren’t crowded enough to begin with, people are already on their phones not paying attention to where they were going. If that wasn’t bad enough, now they’re hunting Pokémon as they step off a curb into ongoing traffic.
In just a few short weeks, Pokémon Go has become a phenomenon with downloads in the millions, and new countries coming online almost daily. But, given that it’s 2016, anything this successful has to come with a heaping helping of controversy, warnings about danger and dire predictions. Most of these are ridiculous, and, as always, common sense and cool heads can avoid most of the supposed “dangers.”
But, first, let’s look at the storm that’s being stirred up. Could Jigglypuff be leading your children into the hands of predators? Could Charizard be trying to control your mind through the game? Is the recent software update of the game the worst thing that has ever happened in the history of the world? This and more hysteria is on tap from your local TV and online media. With the exception of the mind control story, which came from Detroit Lions Guard Larry Warford, as reported by CBS; yes, you can attract people to a specific place where there are Pokémon creatures waiting to be caught. The software update reset the game for a lot of people and cancelled some features that players had grown dependent on in three weeks. So, yes, it is really bad.
“Could Jigglypuff be leading your children into the hands of predators?”
Except when it’s not. The fears make the news because fear and what “might” happen floods our airwaves right now. There is no data to support that children have been lured to their abduction as they innocently chase Pikachu. Fear mongering (Let’s call it “Pokémongering,” shall we?), is stock in trade of the news—and what gets you to tune in. And, remember, things make the news because they are unusual, not because they’re common. Still, fear is a great motivator, and the fear of the new or the different is ingrained in our culture. Remember when trains couldn’t be trusted because the human body was never intended to travel at 30 miles per hour? If not, I’m guessing it’s because in the early 1800s, but people were scared silly about that all across England. And that’s just one example.
So, in case you don’t know, Pokémon Go is an app game in which you collect Pokémon characters that you find in the world around you. Basically, you shoot your camera at your environs and maybe a character appears on the screen. Flick the Pokéball at it, and you’ll capture the critter. You can battle them and so forth, but the idea is to collect them all. That’s it. The Pokémon characters represent different elements and they evolve and stuff. Not really any different than when the game first came out, well, except you don’t need a separate game machine and a cartridge, and it’s free—at least until you go for in-app purchases.
The value is that it’s got a lot of the things that really make great games. It’s easy to learn, but has escalating challenges with different, intermittent rewards and it takes a while to master, which is a component of virtually any successful game. The game makes use of augmented reality, which is pretty cool and new right now.
But the other key thing about Pokémon Go is something else that every great game has shared: it has a social component. While the actual game play is a solo experience, people are getting together to play and sharing the experience with one another. Game inventor Brian Hurst, inventor of Out of Context and other hit adult games in the 1980s, always said that the best games are “social lubricant,” in that they give people an activity and a focus and social interaction springs naturally from that. Certainly, observing players in Madison Square Park and Central Park over the past couple of weekends indicates that complete strangers will suddenly start interacting, and sharing locations where they found creatures. It’s as if the entire world has become the family game room, and everyone playing the game is invited to share. On that level, it’s actually pretty cool.
So, if you’re a parent with a kid who’s playing Pokémon Go, you really don’t need to get hysterical or worry, unless you’re looking for something to pin your free-floating anxiety to. Use a little common sense and some basic parenting and we’re confident you’ll be all right. Here are some things that may put your mind at rest:
• Understand the lure function. This is the one that’s being touted as a way to attract children into danger. Could it? Maybe. But there are so many variables that make this highly unlikely.
In Pokémon Go, you set the lure function to get Pokémon to come to you, so you don’t have to move around to catch them. Other players who may be in the vicinity can see on their screens when a lure has been activated nearby, and can go towards it in order to get some more Pokémon. The person who activates the lure has no control over who responds.
It could by my grandmother, the UPS guy or a gang of kids. Could someone set a lure in a remote place and harm someone who comes in the vicinity? It could happen. But here’s where that ol’ common sense kicks in.
Don’t let young kids go off by themselves unsupervised, and educate older kids about how to behave around strangers and give them boundaries on where they should go geographically.
No, they don’t have to be scared; they just have to be attentive. For the most part, people playing the game are—ahem—playing the game. Oh, and by the way, you don’t need to be right on top of the person who has activated the lure to find the Pokémon, and lures are only active for 30 minutes.
• Use incense instead of lures. Incense is another way to attract Pokémon to come to you. The difference is that the person who uses the incense is the only one who will benefit. It will not attract Pokémon to other players, so you do not attract attention.
• Encourage kids to play together. As noted, one of the really cool aspects of Pokémon Go is the social aspect. Kids playing together get the benefit of interacting with one another, sharing the adventure of the game and perhaps even catching more Pokémon in the process. Plus, children outside together in groups can watch out for one another, especially when older and younger children are playing together.
• Set boundaries. You can set boundaries for where kids can go on their own, how much time they can play and so forth. Particularly now as kids are getting ready to go back to school, game time should fit into other activities.
• Play as a family. This game is pretty addictive, if you want to know the truth, and it can be something that becomes a family activity as well. Taking family excursions to go hunt Pokémon can be fun, family time and provide all kinds of opportunities for interaction. As the parent, you can be “supervising” while at the same time being engaged in a shared activity. One of the things we think is so great about Pokémon Go is that, like Candy Crush or Angry Birds, it’s not just a game for kids. Players of all ages are getting into it.
As we said above, the people kids are going to meet when playing this game almost exclusively devoted to playing the game. Think more of the social skills kids can develop as they meet new people than the fear of “stranger danger,” which if you dig into the statistics is pretty much a myth to begin with.
Whatever it is, be a smart consumer of media. The reports of risk, potential danger and dire consequences exist for one reason: to get you to keep watching the news. They are specifically designed to get you to watch, have an emotional reaction (versus a rational response) and talk about what you’ve seen on the news. Virtually every activity carries some level of risk, but when something is as hot as Pokémon Go, news media exploit that risk to get you to watch. Pay attention and be informed to be sure, but don’t let fear prevent you or your kids from engaging with something that is super hot and super fun.
And, finally, remember we’ve seen this all before. Every once in a while a game comes along that really captivates the culture. Today, thanks to social media and TV that captivation can happen faster than ever before, but a little historical perspective is always a good thing: think of the crazes that surrounded Pictionary and Trivial Pursuit in the 1980s. Go back to the turn of the 20th Century, and you’ll find that the Parcheesi craze created millions of obsessed players. That’s the fashion nature of the toy and game business.