Right this minute, as I write these words, there are half a dozen young people wandering around in the street outside my window, eyes locked onto their phones. It’s happening all over the country – people alone or in groups zigzagging along sidewalks and through buildings, staring mostly at their phones and trying not to bump into things, erupting every now and then with a cheer or a shout, calling out: “I’ve got one!”
They look like preoccupied but happy zombies, as if out of some cheerful, benign version of The Walking Dead.
They are not zombies, as it turns out. They are playing Pokemon Go, a mobile phone game sensation that was released by Nintendo, the Japanese video game manufacturer, barely one week ago.
In that short span, it has surpassed Twitter, Candy Krush and pretty much everything else you can do with your phone. It already has more than 23 million active users – an astonishing feat for a game, but also an eye-popping number for almost any other entertainment product.
Put it this way: if 23 million people see a movie in its first two weeks, that’s roughly a US$200 million haul. Any picture that does business at that scale is on its way to becoming an international blockbuster. Or put it another way: when France played Portugal in the final of the Euro 2016 on Sunday, almost 21 million Frenchmen tuned in to watch the match on television. At that very moment there were more people playing Pokemon Go.
The game was released in the United States, Australia and New Zealand on July 6, quickly became the most downloaded app in history, and is responsible for a dramatic rise in the price of Nintendo shares.
But what on Earth is it?
If you’re around 30 years old or younger, feel free to skip the following paragraph.
Pokemon Go is a mobile game based on the Japanese animated television series – and accompanying card-based game – that was very popular in the 1990s, when the twenty- and thirty–something young people who are currently wandering outside my window were young kids.
The show and the game on which it was based depicted the adventures of a bunch of furry creatures, all drawn in that familiar Japanese style that manages to be both cute and creepy at the same time. The creatures were called “Pokemon” and the object was to capture as many as you can, train them to do battle, and then play them against each other, which, frankly, to this well-over-forty something, sounds a lot like cockfighting.
To younger folk, though, it’s a nostalgic experience. They remember watching Pokemon on television, and playing with Pokemon cards, but now they can actually enter the world of Pokemon by downloading the app.
It works this way: your mobile phone screen shows a stylised, Pokemon-style map of your surroundings, sort of like what Google Maps might look like if it was run by Japanese anime designers. As you wander around, you spot Pokemons up ahead, around corners, inside buildings, all over the place, at which point the anime-style map dissolves into a real life view – thanks to the camera on your mobile phone – and the Pokemon appears superimposed on your actual surroundings. This is what game developers call “augmented reality” and despite how irritating that sounds, you’d better get used to it because it really is going to be the Next Big Thing.
At this point in the game you’re supposed to do something on your mobile phone screen to get the Pokemon. I’m not really sure. You see, I downloaded the app last weekend and got about this far along before I suddenly realised that I am way, way too old to be playing at nonsense like this. Besides, to be totally honest, like most of what young people are interested in – environmental activism, Facebook, vegan diets, electronic dance music – I found Pokemon Go really tedious.
Tedious, perhaps, but nonetheless extremely lucrative. Nintendo has captured something powerful with Pokemon Go. It has managed to harness an entire generation’s refusal to grow up with its equally powerful obsession with staring at the screen of a mobile phone. The young people outside my window and walking along the streets of Venice Beach, where I live, are single-mindedly hunting cartoon characters from their childhood while bumping into trees.
They are, at least, outside. Part of the charm of Pokemon Go is that it’s active and outdoors. To play the game requires a willingness to walk in the sunshine and the fresh air, to get up off the sofa and move around, something that the under-30 set often find painful to do. It’s also social – the game is more fun when played with a group, like a scavenger hunt – and people meet each other along the path, become friends, connect with other Pokemon Go groups, and if the groups outside my window are any measure, make a lot of noise.
It’s silly and childish and annoying and pointless. But it’s also the future of entertainment. Pokemon Go isn’t going anywhere. It – and its descendants – are here to stay.
Rob Long is a writer and producer in Hollywood
On Twitter: @rcbl