To be a Master…

There are a number of things I ought to be doing right now (finishing papers, job applications, time capsule duties…) but I wanted to spend a little bit of time trying to capture what I’ve experienced during the first week of the Pokemon GO phenomenon being unleashed into the world.

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Last week we were celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Astronomical Society of Australia with the annual week-long scientific meeting taking place at the University of Sydney. Incidentally, Pokemon GO was released in Australia on Wednesday and it was quickly taken up by various astronomers attending the conferences (mostly students with some exceptions!).

I have to say, since the late ’90s, I’ve been waiting for virtual reality to let me don a headset and run around in the world of Pokemon catching ’em all just like Ash did all those years ago. I always pictured it as a personal VR sphere that you walk around in, a completely immersive and individually-isolated RPG-style game. Niantic Labs and The Pokemon Company have just revised all of my expectations with their brilliant take on augmented reality, where your phone becomes a portal to Pokemon appearing in the world around you. It’s truly awesome!

Actually, the last time Pokemon and the real world combined in such an entertaining way was when Google celebrated April Fool’s Day in 2014 by planting Pokemon throughout the Maps app for you to catch. I remember it well because I was in the middle of thesis-writing but obviously the quest to become a Google Pokemon Master took priority for the next couple of days! I did manage to catch them all (including Mew), and two years later I’m somewhat bummed to discovered that I missed out on personalised business cards as a reward because I didn’t know we had to claim them… Anyway, as it turns out it isn’t quite a coincidence that I was reminded of this because it turns out that the April Fool’s Day event was actually the starting point for what developed into Pokemon GO. And if you watch the Google trailer for the Maps event, it’s almost eerie to see our current world reflected there!

The last week has been both interesting and surreal. You almost cannot walk down a street in Sydney without passing someone playing Pokemon GO, and the turnover time on gyms is amazingly fast unless you’re in possession of a 1500+ CP Pokemon. We parked our car near Epping while trying to capture a gym for Team Instinct, only to find the car in front of us contained fellow Team Instinct members who helped us defeat the gym. There have been many grins exchanged in passing as we all subtly acknowledge the real reason why we’re outside wandering in the “real world”. Last night, about 9pm, a friend and I decided it was definitely a good idea to leave our warm houses to spend a few hours walking through Circular Quay chasing Pokemon and PokeStops (alongside many others doing the same). I also ran into a (Team Valor! D:) friend from undergrad today on campus, and we caught up and shared Pokemon GO escapades over coffee.

Beyond my own experience, Pokemon GO has had a noticeable impact on Sydney (and the world). A park in Rhodes featuring 3 PokeStops has become overrun with “GOers”, to the extent of police intervention due to neighbourhood complaints. There have been reports of muggings where players were targeted through the app, as well as a player in the US discovering a drowned person while chasing Pokemon. NSW Police have also stepped in a couple of times to have their say on this phenomenon:

Personally, I think it’s amazing that Pokemon GO has had such an overwhelming reception around the world. I’ve already had a lot of fun chasing Pokemon and claiming gyms (even if only for a few minutes!), and I’m looking forward to seeing the app develop with the release of new features in future. In many ways this has surpassed what I’d dreamed of as a kid: it’s an externally-focused game rather than internal, and it is really making people get outside and walk around and even interact with other Pokemon GOers along the way. When a completely new type of game breaks into the mainstream world like Pokemon GO has, it will obviously take time for both the game itself to be stable (server issues, privacy concerns) and for the world to realise the boundaries it must obey for it to all go smoothly (ie. no trespassing, no reckless driving, avoiding potentially dangerous places at night).

On the plus side, I’m loving all the augmented-reality photos of Pokemon showing up in random places, especially all the Exeggcutes that keep appearing in frying pans. And who knows if the game will encourage me to keep this up, but for now, I can report that my 7-day step average has increased from 6500 to 10900!

Well played, #PokemonGO – keep being excellent! And stop tempting me to go outside into the cold to help reinforce my nearby Team Instinct gym…

UPDATE: 10 min later, the gym is now blue! Oops.
UPDATE: Another 5 min… Team Valor has swiped the gym!

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