I wouldn’t say there are many things which entreat the English to leave the safety of their homes to gather in large sociable circles outside. We are typically a race of tea drinkers round the fire, brisk marchers through wet and muddy fields or knucklers down who just get on with it. There are very few things which will make us willing stay and engage in outside frivolities.
So I was a little perturbed about a month ago when I noticed crowds of people amassing on benches next to the war memorial in the village of Mistley. Rolling down the car window, I was able to make out some ten or fifteen individuals sitting outside, all engrossed in some phone activity. Every time I drove past after that there were more of them. The country seemed to be going slightly more insane by the day: the Brexit decision having been made in June, were we now descending into village greens demonstrations in July?
Finally I chanced upon an explanation for the peculiar gatherings; in the local newspaper there appeared a short column on “Youngsters Hunting Pokémon” at the village war memorial. My heart sank. I would almost have preferred that juvenile deliquents reverted back to hoodies and petty knife crime. However, the chairman of Mistley Parish Council, Martin Rayner, actually praised the Pokémon Go gaming addiction and remarked that it was “great to have people come and visit the area”, although he did add that he hoped that they would “look around and enjoy their surroundings” as well as staying glued to their screens. I had been nothing but critical of the new Pokémon fad since it first appeared on the scene, so it was time to learn a bit more about it.
Launched in the UK a month ago, the new app picks up where the Pokémon card game craze of the 1990s left off. It allows players to hunt and capture Pokémon creatures (using ingeniously named “Poke balls”), train them and engage in fights with other catchers. The real buzz is that it allows you to do this in relation to your current surroundings and engage in a type of augmented reality. You can “see” Pokémon through your phone camera screen whether outside or at home, and real life monuments all over the world have become Pokémon gyms (including MI5 and the London Eye), where “trainers” meet up to enlarge their collection, duel with other keen individuals and swap gaming quirks in the quest to “catch ‘em all”.
And boy has it taken off. Pokémon GO had been downloaded no fewer than 12,000 times in the three and a half minutes that it took to google some download statistics, for example. An article published by Heavy.com last month cited that in the US over 15 million people downloaded the app in the first week after its release and by the 11th July it had 21 million daily users. Survey Monkey claimed that Pokémon Go had already passed tinder and twitter’s daily number of users and would soon surpass that of Google Maps. Essentially, therefore, humans on this planet are more interested in blundering through life searching for Pikachu than they are for future life companions or places of interest in their local area.
Pokémon GO has in fact attracted numerous admirers (Martin Rayner being one of them) for encouraging people to get up and out. From county to county parents have found themselves beseeched and dragged outside by their children for 3, 5 or 10km walks, in order to unlock Pokémon eggs. Higher up the age range teenagers and adults alike have found joy in an app that makes them move around for fun, instead of ones like Fitbit which oblige you to walk up and down the stairs 43 times a day and take up obscene pastoral dances just to fill the calorie burning quota or step count of the day.
Inevitably, there are also those bluff old traditionalists who try and pour cold water on the whole thing. The police have voiced concerns over a rise in traffic accidents caused by individuals so intent on catching Pidgy in the middle of the road that the global rules of physics and road safety momentarily deserted them. There have been warnings of thieves planting rare Pokémon in dark alleys to lure enthusiastic players into being cornered and mugged. Even Mr Rayner of the Mistley Parish council had one negative comment, publically wishing that the flocks of Pokémon trainers would “respect the area and not drop so much litter.”
Has independent research made me change my tune?
Game on, Britain. You have gone truly mad. How is it that we now live in a country which needs pixelated creatures to make us get out of the house and exercise? How have we been so duped by an app that articles issuing danger warnings and European issues seemed to have frittered out of our minds, replaced by those offering the latest gaming tips and cheats? Pokémon GO may have made us swap the sofa for the village bench, but it has also made us blind to what is happening around us.