Down and out in the Pokeverse

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Like nearly everyone on the planet, I’ve spent much of the past few months playing Pokemon Go, and then wondering why I ever played it in the first place. In the span of a few weeks, I became utterly obsessed (enough to reach level 20) and almost as quickly discarded it.

The primary mechanic of the game, hunting Pokemon, is accomplished by throwing a ball at monsters that you encounter. Yes, that’s right, the game that has set the world on fire is essentially an elaborate virtual cornhole game.

Pidgey
Staring into the endless void, tossing yet another pokeball at yet another Pidgey.

Catch enough of the same type, and you earn enough “candy” to evolve or power-up your most powerful Pokemons. But due to the sheer number of potential Pokemon, and the ridiculous amounts of candy needed to perform evolves and power-ups, the game feels like an endlessly repetitive cycle of catching Pokemons for no other purpose than to gain virtual resources. What initially felt unique and exciting and novel (“OMG, cute monsters living in the world!”) quickly turned into a mindless slog.

It’s this aversion to repetitive experiences that have kept me from being a long-term player of MMOs and other “gamified” experiences. The mechanic that these experiences are based on are pure, weaponized behaviorism – do a thing, get a reward. Keep doing that thing, get more rewards.

Yes, Pokemon Go does encourage you to go exercise. It does encourage you to explore your city. It does encourage you to collaborate and play with people in the real world.

But it also encourages you to walk back and forth between two random street corners, because both street corners are Pokestops with lures and the reset timer almost exactly matches the time it takes you to walk between them. And it also encourages you to look at your phone constantly while you’re out on a hike, because you’re just 1 km away from hatching that egg and whyohwhywon’ttheGPSregisterhikingispointless.

My favorite gaming experiences aren’t too dissimilar from my favorite reading experiences – after I’ve put down the book, I feel enriched. For months, even years afterwards, I can remember my favorite sections in vivid detail, as if I lived through the experience myself instead of just reading or playing through it.

But years from now, when I think back to Pokemon Go, I’ll just remember looking at my phone and catching another damn Pidgey. Rather than feeling enriched by the experience, I just feel manipulated.

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