Sociable.

Photographer: JOSEP LAGO/AFP/Getty Images

I Played Pokemon Go. Here's What It Is and Isn't.

Virginia Postrel is a Bloomberg View columnist. She was the editor of Reason magazine and a columnist for the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, the New York Times and Forbes. Her books include “The Power of Glamour” and “The Future and Its Enemies.”
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At 56, I’m way too old to be playing Pokemon Go. After all, the smartphone game’s phenomenal success is built on millennial nostalgia, and I don’t even have any kids to blame. But what started out as research has turned into a mild addiction. It’s fun to wander the streets finding magic critters and the tools to capture them. Along the way I met some nice people and learned some things I didn’t expect (and got yet another confirmation of an unfortunate truth about new technology).

1) Contrary to the common journalistic shorthand, the game isn’t about augmented reality. When I signed up, I thought playing Pokemon Go would be a good way to see what happens when augmented reality, which superimposes computer images on your view of real-world surroundings, meets a mass market.

Not so. The game’s augmented-reality mode applies only when you encounter one of the Pokemon creatures. Most of the time you just see your avatar walking on a stylized map. Savvy players advise turning off the augmented reality altogether, lest real-world distractions make it harder to hit your prey with an animated ball. (AR mode also drains your battery faster.) This feature turns out to be mostly for taking funny screen shots to share on social media.

Expecting an “augmented reality game” actually hurt my early play. When hurling balls at a Zubat, a notoriously difficult creature to capture, I thought it might help if I drove the flapping pest into a real-world corner. Nope. And when I arrived at a Pokestop — a landmark, often some kind of art, where you can collect balls, eggs, potions, and other useful gear — I thought the photo on the app needed to line up with what I was actually seeing. When the sculpture marked as a Pokestop was no longer there, I just gave up.

2) It’s not really exercise. Again, don’t believe the hype. Several hours of intensive play did add two or three miles to my usual daily totals, but the interruptions to collect gear and capture wild Pikachus significantly slowed the walks I would have taken anyway. For someone completely sedentary, the game may improve fitness. But don’t confuse it with working out — or even normal foot travel. It’s stop-and-go strolling.

3) Going slowly is a feature, not a bug. What Pokemon Go is really about is noticing your surroundings. Seeking out Pokestops called my attention to neighborhood details I’d never noticed or had long ago stopped seeing, like the Bacchus fountain on a nearby apartment building or the mural on the Prints Charm’n print shop, where the namesake character sports a robe with his monogram. Much of the game’s fun comes from discovering what’s around you. It makes the familiar new.

4) A heads-up display would spoil the fun. A true augmented reality game would be better viewed through data specs. But Pokemon Go isn’t that game. It’s a geographically based social experience that transforms looking at your phone into an invitation to converse and collaborate. When I saw a woman in a security guard’s uniform standing outside a synagogue on Tuesday afternoon, I feared her presence was a response to some kind of threat. Then I noticed she was staring quizzically at her phone and realized the place was a Pokestop. “Are you playing Pokemon Go?” I asked. She laughed and explained she was trying to figure out how to collect the location’s goodies. Having mastered the right gesture just hours before, I was happy to demonstrate.

After I asked another player for advice, she recounted how she’d found herself in an unlikely conversation the evening before: “talking to a guy in the alley behind BevMo.” Next to the alley is an apartment building whose decorative façade makes it a Pokestop. Under normal circumstances the two strangers never would have spoken, but the game created a feeling of safety and community.

5) Every new invention has its downside and there’s an industry devoted to pointing out Pokemon Go’s. You’ve seen the scare stories: The guy behind the BevMo could be an armed robber. Overeager players could fall off a cliff or get hit by a car. Hackers could spoof the software. You could find a dead body. You could slip and break your foot or, in my case, skin your knees. You could destroy your local business community.

Criticism helps debug new inventions. By the time I signed on, for example, the game had changed the overly broad Google account access that spooked privacy advocates. But the truth is that Pokemon Go isn’t especially hazardous. It’s just popular. When millions of people do something, almost anything can happen. Former marines can capture a fugitive. A jealous girlfriend can catch her boyfriend visiting his ex. Players can save an injured puppy. And it’s easy to blame the game for things that might have happened anyway. Two months ago I fell and smashed my face into a sidewalk without benefit of a smart phone distraction.

The biggest danger is that the frenzy is merely a fad that casual players will soon tire of. With no research excuse, I can’t afford to spend hours a day tracking animated creatures. But now that it’s a Pokestop I really must check out Marilyn Monroe’s grave.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Virginia Postrel at vpostrel@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net