Pokin’ ‘round Esmond with Pokémon GO

By Ron Scopelliti

Recently, I started tiring of my current video gaming pursuits. The settings started to seem repetitive and predictable. For instance, I thought I’d go ballistic if I had to hear one more non-player character in Skyrim tell me about taking an arrow in the knee. And then Pokémon GO came out.

For those who haven’t heard the hype yet, Pokémon GO is a game for mobile devices, based on a franchise that started out as a video game, then spawned a number of sequels, as well as TV shows, comics, toys, and movies. The Pokémon concept centers on collecting little monsters, reflected in the game’s popular catchphrase, “Gotta catch ‘em all.”

What made Pokémon GO interesting to me is that it’s an “augmented reality” game. In this instance, augmented reality means that it uses the world around the player as a playing field. The game accesses your location via GPS and places Pokémon characters on a map of your area. And, it can use the camera on your phone to combine images of creatures you’re pursuing with your real surroundings.

Although augmented reality phone games have been around for a few years, I’d never tried one. I figured this might be a good place to break out of my gaming doldrums while learning more about the Pokémon universe, which I’d never explored. It should have been a win/win situation, but it actually left me unimpressed.

First off, the game doesn’t give your avatar the option of having gray hair. The game designers probably assumed that at my stage in life I would have something better to do than chase imaginary monsters around Esmond. Shows you what they know.

Once I chose my excessively youthful alter ego, the game started and I headed towards a figure on a Google-like map. When I went outside, walked to his general area, and selected the character, my camera display showed a light-blue animated turtle walking on its hind legs on my lawn. I soon learned that I had to capture him by throwing an on-screen Poké Ball at him, and after a few tries I snagged him.

I then found out I could replenish my supply of Poké Balls at virtual PokéStops, and that there was one of these at the East Smithfield Public Library. I actually did have a book to return, so why not check it out? I left the library with one less book in my backpack, but three more Poké Balls on my screen.

So I captured a couple more creatures around Smithfield, and one in New Hampshire, which seemed kind of inconsistent with their “Live free or die” motto. And that was around the time I started to lose interest.

I really started feeling bad about the premise. If you’ve never seen a Pokémon before, they’re pretty damn cute, even to a cynic like me. Not only are you supposed to capture these little guys, you’re supposed to take them to gyms and train them to fight each other. They don’t fight to the death, just until unconsciousness. But still – it reeks of dog-fighting, or cock-fighting, or gladiatorial combat. I just can’t buy into it. I find myself looking forward to the day when my light-blue turtle meets Spartacus and starts a revolt.

On top of that, I could foresee the game having a detrimental impact on my data plan. I tend to use my data sparingly, for professional purposes and vital communication matters. Or sometimes to look up obscure Three Stooges references. Those purposes are all more important to me than using tanker-loads of data to kidnap blue turtles.

Also there’s the issue of wandering around public places looking into the screen of my phone instead of the larger world around me. Apart from reducing my situational awareness, it might make people think I’m some sort of eccentric – I wouldn’t want people to think that.

The reduction of situational awareness has already become evident. Just a few days after the game’s release, the LA Times reported that two men in Encinitas suffered moderate injuries after falling off a cliff while playing.

For the time being, I think I’ll keep my reality un-augmented, and keep my gaming in Middle Earth or Skyrim or the Forgotten Realms, where if I fall off a cliff I can just go back to my last saved game. However, if someone overlays the setting of Skyrim onto northern Rhode Island, it might be worth that occasional augmented arrow in the knee…