Wide Angle

Pokémon Go Is Thriving Even Though Everyone’s at Home

Two longtime players debate whether the game’s recent adjustments represent good social distancing—or profiteering.

Pikachu leaps forth, wearing a surgical mask and gloves
Photo illustration by Derreck Johnson. Image via Nintendo.

Slate is making its coronavirus coverage free for all readers. Subscribe to support our journalism. Start your free trial.

Marissa Martinelli: Sam, can you possibly remember back to the summer of 2016? It seemed like just about everyone was outside, running around with their nose in their phone, catching virtual monsters. The hype around Pokémon Go has long since died down, and we’re living in a time when leaving your house unnecessarily is silly or even dangerous—so why am I playing more Pokémon Go than ever? And are you doing the same?

Sam Adams: I probably can’t go that far, if only because I’ve progressed to the point in the game where there’s not all that much left for me to do, even in a time when taking long walks didn’t feel like taking your life ever so slightly in your own hands. (Also, like a number of friends, I bought a Nintendo Switch the day it became apparent that my 10-year-old was going to be stuck at home for the foreseeable future, so Ash and co. are competing with Mario and Tom Nook now.) But considering that Pokémon Go’s core task—move around in the real world looking for stuff—is a pipe dream for many people right now, it’s a surprise that it remains playable at all, and that, based on both hard data and the activity of my Pokéfriends, a lot of people are returning to the game who’d drifted away. Have you been seeing the same?

Martinelli: I have noticed that most of my Pokéfriends—many of whom are total strangers from England, Finland, Japan, etc.—are sending me gifts nearly every day, which means they must be going out to visit Pokéstops fairly regularly. Pokémon Go is funny that way, because there’s no chat feature, so you can wind up basically just exchanging postcards, sometimes for years on end, with a stranger. I’m glad they’re OK and hope they’re being safe!

I do wonder what’s causing this resurgence, whether it’s just restlessness or if the measures Niantic has taken during the pandemic are luring players back. Ordinarily Pokémon Go is only fun to play when you can move about freely, because Pokéstops and gyms tend to be in well-populated areas, and Pokémon are more plentiful there too. Right now we’re supposed to be avoiding those areas, but Niantic has been offering in-game supplies like incense to attract Pokémon to the player, and Pokéballs to catch them, all essentially for free. They’ve also made it possible to carry more gifts at once, so you don’t have to go out as often to collect them, and they’ve waived a walking requirement for their new battle feature, which lets you fight random users.

The result, for me at least, is that I’m much more active in the game than I was before. When I do venture out, I stock up on Pokéballs and gifts the same way I stock up on groceries, with the expectation that it’ll be a while until my next run. I used to feel like living in the suburbs was a disadvantage for Pokémon Go, because there’s more activity in the city, more Pokéstops and gyms, and more people to help fight in raids. Now I’m just grateful to have a car so I can pull up and play in isolation. But does that defeat the point?

Adams: Is Pokémon Go even Pokémon Go if you can’t … go? Discuss. The New York Times’ James Poniewozik (who is a great critic but frankly could be opening his gifts a little more regularly) wrote about the melancholy of playing a game premised on movement when you are supposed to be sheltering in place, and though I live in a part of a city where it’s relatively easy to get out and walk without violating social distancing, my Pokédomain has been vastly curtailed. I’m rarely making it more than a few blocks, and though they’ve doubled the active distance for gyms so you can take part in a raid battle without crowding other players, the idea of any gathering, no matter how spaced out, just isn’t very appealing at the moment. You can’t grind out candy by buddy-walking for miles—losing my commute has been a blow in that respect—and when your radar turns up a ’mon you haven’t caught some distance away, you just have to leave it and hope it turns up somewhere closer to home.

I do think it’s good that they’ve taken steps to make playing the game safer during a global pandemic. But I’m also feeling a bit cranky that those steps seem to involve spending money to keep playing. As you mentioned, they’ve offered virtually free packs of incense to attract Pokémon so you don’t have to roam around to find them, and Pokéballs to catch them with, but the latter especially run out fast, and without being able to visit Pokéstops there’s only one way to replenish that stock: with cash. (Well, technically two, since balls arrive in gifts, but replenishing those is also dependent on visiting stops.) Pokémon Go revenue jumped by a full two-thirds during the week of March 16, and I’m skeptical that’s just from old players returning to the game. Am I just being a grump here? Or is it fair to raise the specter of profiteering?

Just an entire screen full of Snorlaxes
A few of the co-author’s Snorlaxes. Marissa Martinelli

Martinelli: See, I’m amazed that you ran out of Pokéballs, since I’ve been playing every day, and I still have hundreds in my pack! I haven’t spent a penny on Pokémon Go since the pandemic began (or ever, for that matter). Some of this may have to do with our different strategies. I’m not as fussed about candy or catching every Pokémon that crosses my path, preferring instead to just capture at least one of each—with the exception of my 34 beloved Snorlaxes, whom I love very dearly. I’m more interested in collecting and sending gifts, completing research tasks, and leaving Pokémon in gyms around town. Mostly Snorlaxes.

I think it’s a little unfair to accuse Niantic of profiteering. Profiting, certainly, but they’ve made so many accommodations in the interest of public health and safety already that I can’t begrudge them that. I just hope they stick with some of these new modifications even when (if????) this crisis ends, like the more generous gift limit and the features that can be played at home, so that the game is more accessible to people who live in rural areas or who can’t go outside easily even during ordinary, nonpandemic times.

Adams: I am carrying a lot of anger around (it helps distract from the fear), so maybe Pokémon Go is just getting some of the spillover. And since so many of the things I used to spend money on—eating at restaurants, going to concerts, traveling distances greater than I can walk—are currently not feasible, I do have some extra cash lying around. But I do wonder what playing the game will feel like after this is all over. Pokémon Go’s map of the world is already a few years out of date, which in my neighborhood means you can visit murals that no longer exist on the walls of buildings that have since been torn down. I can’t go inside a church or a restaurant, but I can spin their Pokéstops. But how many of those places will still be around a year from now? There are going to be a lot of reminders of the way the world used to be, even once we’re able to move around without wearing masks.