I was getting ready for the week ahead Sunday night when I got a text from my mom: “How do I play the new Pokémon game?” As true a sign as there is of a phenomenon.
Pokémon Go is a smartphone game that blends the real and digital worlds, tasking players with exploring their neighborhoods to find creatures and treasure for in-game use. Just days after being released in the U.S., Go is seemingly everywhere. Walking around New York this weekend felt like being in an episode of Black Mirror. People were wandering around with their heads in their phones—more than usual—and every once in a while, they would stop and exclaim, “There’s a Geodude nearby!” or some such. The hunt is on.
Go‘s popularity extends well beyond this city. A rapidly increasing number of YouTube videos show players worldwide going for drives around their neighborhoods (they will brake for Pokémon). As of Monday morning, Go is the top free app in Apple’s iTunes Store. Its international rollout has been paused as its developer struggles to deal with the intense server demand. While the game was developed by Google spinoff Niantic, Nintendo investors are celebrating the company’s involvement regardless, sending its stock up over 20% as they cheer a rare success in smartphone gaming. (Nintendo is a part owner of both Niantic and Pokémon’s license owner.)
What explains Pokémon Go‘s seemingly inexplicable popularity? Go offers an interesting twist over most games in that players must set off and move around their physical world. (Blog Gizmodo’s recent headline nailed it: ‘Sore Legs Become Pandemic As Pokémon Go Players Accidentally Get Exercise.’) But beyond that, Go is almost boringly simple: Once you encounter a Pokémon in the wild, Go switches into “capture mode,” where users flick Pokeballs at the creature until they nab it. It gets more interesting a few hours in when players are able to lay claims to Pokegyms, digital representations of real-life landmarks where creatures can battle one another for supremacy.
The Pokémon skin is going a long way towards fueling this fire. Millennials around my age—27—feel considerable nostalgia for Pokémon, which had its heyday while we were middle schoolers. Younger kids, meanwhile, are still discovering (and loving, it seems) the franchise for the first time. It remains the second-best selling game series ever, behind Mario’s many iterations and Tetris. Had this been anything other than a Pokémon game, there’s little chance it would’ve caught fire the way it has. (Indeed, Niantic’s previous and similar game, Ingress, has a dedicated but relatively small player community of amateur cartographers.) It’s also possible that because Go forces players outside, they’re more visible than people enjoying the latest Call of Duty or Madden title.
By plan or by coincidence, Go‘s release was well-timed. The summer months offer the best weather for getting out of the house and exploring on foot. School, meanwhile, is out, giving younger kids plenty of free time. The game also happened to launch at the end of a particularly brutal week in the U.S., offering a palliative diversion. (Go, it should be said, is also generating some unfortunate new stories, ranging from near-miss car accidents and alleged robberies fueled by in-game items used to lure victims.)
Whether the Pokémon Go craze lasts is an open question. Smartphone games have a habit of burning brightly and then flaming out. Remember Bejeweled? Or Words With Friends? Or Dots? Still, the early indications are that Go will last through the season at least. The game already has more users than Twitter, by one count. Go-themed bar crawls are being planned. An unofficial but potentially massive meetup is in the works for the Nintendo Store in midtown Manhattan next month.
Long story short, 2016 is shaping up to be the Summer of Pokémon.