What Is Pokémon Go, and Why Is Everyone Playing It?

A comprehensive guide to the game the world is going crazy over.

Sameer Uddin and Michelle Macias play Pokemon Go on their smartphones on Monday outside of Nintendo’s flagship store in New York City.
Sameer Uddin and Michelle Macias play Pokémon Go on their smartphones on Monday outside of Nintendo’s flagship store in New York City.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Is this a safe space to admit that I have no idea how Pokémon Go works and only a very tenuous grasp on what Pokémon even is?

Ummmm, definitely don’t disclose that to anyone else, but yes.

OK, can we start with the real basics?

Pokémon began as a Japanese Nintendo game in 1996 for Gameboy and then launched in the United States in 1998. It’s a role-playing game, and you control the protagonist—originally called Red—who is on a quest to capture all 150 pocket monsters (Pokémon) by throwing Poké Balls at them. This is ostensibly scientific field research to catalog every Pokémon for the protagonist’s mentor, a professor. Along the way, this main character cares for and strengthens his Pokémon by battling with other Pokémon trainers, an arch-nemesis, some evil crooks, and the leaders of Pokémon training centers called gyms. The game combines an epic quest with cute, creative little creatures, and the fact that they’re collectible makes it more addictive. What could be better?

In the 1999 Prima Official Strategy Guide for the original U.S. Pokémon release, Elizabeth M. Hollinger wrote, “I was hooked and found myself playing this game everywhere and anywhere, from my bedroom in the wee hours of the morning to the checkout line at my local grocery store.” In a way, this foreshadowed Pokémon Go. Pokémon games have always triggered obsession and offer an immersive universe that feels oddly parallel to our own.

Fine, but why am I getting the sense that you have a copy of that 1999 strategy guide at your house?

Just mind your own business, how about that.

How does Pokémon Go fit into all of this? Have there been other Pokémon games since 1996?

So. Many. There have been seven generations of the main game, which has evolved as Nintendo’s portable gaming consoles have changed. After the original games for Game Boy and Game Boy Color, Nintendo consistently released more for Game Boy Advance, Nintendo DS, and Nintendo 3DS. These releases came every couple of years. Other games have depicted the Pokémon universe as well, such as the classic Nintendo 64 games Pokémon Snap and Pokémon Stadium, and more recently games for Wii, WiiWare, and Wii U. It never really ends with Pokémon, and at this point the universe houses way more than 150 monsters. Currently, there are 721.

Now, let’s talk about Pokémon Go. The mobile game, released for iOS and Android on July 6, is significant because it’s really the first time Nintendo has allowed the Pokémon universe, or any of its games, to come to smartphones. The company has been weighing its mobile options for a while and ultimately chose to partner with a location-based augmented-reality gaming company called Niantic. Originally a division of Google, Niantic spun off in 2015 but still received funding from Google (along with Nintendo, the Pokémon Co., and some venture capitalists) to develop Pokémon Go.

What’s with all this “augmented reality” talk?

Niantic builds location-based augmented reality games, meaning the company creates digital worlds that incorporate players’ actual GPS positions with gameplay. Niantic’s first project was Field Trip, released in 2012, which tracked users to give them information about the world around them from prominent attractions to unmarked or unassuming landmarks. Niantic built on this mapping and location-aware technology to create Ingress, a massive multiplayer capture-the-flag game that sorts players into two teams and takes place around the world. Ingress, released in beta at the end of 2012, was Niantic’s first augmented reality game, combining the real-world environment with projections from the game. In Ingress, significant places (like a statue in a park or a mural on a building) contain portals that either team can claim for itself and use to build larger “control fields” over a geographic area. The innovative thing about Ingress was that it actually motivated players to get up and walk around so they could find game elements like portals. You couldn’t make progress in the game by sitting at home on your couch.

Spotted: Zubat in the bathroom.
Spotted: Zubat in the bathroom.

Screenshot via Pokémon Go

So what do you actually, like, do when you play Pokémon Go?

Though it has different objectives, Pokémon Go clearly draws inspiration from Ingress and is also built on the Ingress world map. Each player is represented by a Pokémon Go avatar who can be male or female. This avatar walks around maps of the real world that are a lot like maps we use every day for navigation—Google Maps, Apple Maps, Waze, etc. The avatars can encounter things on the map at local landmarks, like Pokémon Gyms where they can battle their Pokémon against other players’, or Poké Stops that dispense items. But the augmented reality feature really comes out when an avatar encounters a Pokémon. If you want to catch the Pokémon (you may be vaguely aware that the Pokémon franchise’s motto is “Gotta catch ‘em all!”), you enter a part of the game where the Pokémon is superimposed over whatever your smartphone camera is trained on at that moment. Then you throw Poké Balls at the Pokémon to try to capture it. This is the single most charming gimmick of the game, and people are all about it.

In an interview with Mashable’s Ariel Bogle, Niantic CEO John Hanke talked about the connection between the Ingress map and Pokémon Go. (Hanke also founded the company that Google bought to create Google Earth and then worked on Google Maps, so he’s pretty experienced in this field.) He said that for Ingress, “There have been about 15 million submissions, and we’ve approved in the order of 5 million of these locations worldwide.” Many of these Ingress portals have become gyms and Poké Stops in Pokémon Go, and this explains why some landmarks are included when they probably shouldn’t be, like the 9/11 Memorial in New York.

Hanke explained:

“The Pokéstops are submitted by users, so obviously they’re based on places people go. … We had essentially two and a half years of people going to all the places where they thought they should be able to play Ingress, so it’s some pretty remote places. There are portals in Antarctica and the North Pole, and most points in between.”

How are the Pokémon distributed throughout the actual world?

It’s not clear how the distribution algorithm works yet or whether you have to go to, say, the North Pole to catch the really rare Pokémon. But, in general, players seem to be seeing all different types of Pokémon if they spend time playing the game and move around a normal amount, like driving or taking public transportation on their commutes, walking in their neighborhoods, covering longer distances for trips, and so on. Hunting for Pokémon during the day versus at night also seems to make a difference.

Also why is this fun?

There’s no doubt that Pokémon Go is exploding right now. The game has more users than Tinder, and it is expected to surpass Twitter in terms of app downloads. Throngs of people are crowding around landmarks to play at gyms or use Poké Stops, and in some neighborhoods it’s common to see people standing around or pulled over in their cars while trying to catch Pokémon. There are a few reasons for all the enthusiasm. First of all, you need to remember that the most popular video games are, well, quite popular. For example, Minecraft has sold 100 million copies and has more than 40 million unique users per month, comparable to Tinder. When you combine the strength of the gaming community with the ubiquity and longevity of Pokémon, it starts to seem possible that everyone and their mother really could be playing this.

Pokémon Go is also appealing directly to millennials by limiting itself to the first 150 Pokémon—for now. People who grew up playing Pokémon in the ’90s and early 2000s, but didn’t follow it after that, can pick Pokémon Go up and feel totally comfortable. The game is also just charming and different from most other offerings. Games offering similar augmented reality features will inevitably crop up, but Pokémon Go has the distinction of being one of the first, and the Pokémon quest universe is a natural fit for the technology because now you’re physically walking around, going on the adventure in the real world along with the world of the game.

When I was playing on a public bus on Monday, I ended up talking to a bunch of friendly strangers who were also engrossed in the world of Pokémon Go. I even met a couple of my neighbors for the first time while playing on my block.

I guess social interaction is cool, but I also keep hearing bad stuff about Pokémon Go.

Yeah, it’s a fair point. There have been some, um, unpleasant incidents—like a Pokémon Go player discovering a dead body in Wyoming while tracking Pokémon by a river. And notably, four suspects were arrested in Missouri on Sunday after they allegedly setup beacons on Poké Stops (a thing you can do to attract Pokémon and other players) to lure victims, who were then robbed at gunpoint. USA Today reports that police believe the suspects used this tactic in a spree of 10 or 11 robberies. There have also been issues with Pokémon Go players trespassing on private property, sometimes because they’re oblivious—and sometimes because places like houses are marked as gyms or Poké Stops when they shouldn’t be. Finally, writer Omari Akil pointed out that the game could endanger people of color because gameplay could be interpreted as suspicious or threatening activity.

I’m not going to try to convince anyone that these situations and observations aren’t a big deal. Like any technology, Pokémon Go and other augmented-reality games will presumably be refined, and society will begin to understand how to safely incorporate the technology. On the bright side, people are really appreciating how Pokémon Go encourages them to go outside, and some have speculated it may be beneficial for mental health. But participating is obviously an individual decision. Like I said, this is a safe space.

I’m intrigued, but I don’t feel nostalgic about the early days of Pokémon. I just don’t know if I’m going to be able to get into it.

That’s valid. I suggest trying out the game so you can see the basic features. Watching your avatar walk around the map as you walk is cool, and capturing a Pokémon that looks like it’s hanging out in the real world is definitely the best part. You may not want to invest actual time in the game, but seeing these things will help you understand how the technology works and what “the teens” are into, as it were.

One of my Slate colleagues asked me, “Can one feel smug about not playing Pokémon Go, or are we really missing out on something delightful?” I think your reaction to trying out the game will answer this question. As always, there will certainly be backlash to all the hype about the game, and there is already plenty of criticism out there. If you stake out the position that you always thought it was trash, you could wind up being ahead of the trend. But if you feel a rush when you catch your first Pokémon, you might as well keep going and see what happens.

You still play original Pokémon on Game Boy Color don’t you?

I think we’re done here.

Read more Slate coverage of Pokémon.

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, follow us on Twitter and sign up for our weekly newsletter.