Last week Nintendo launched the Pokemon Go app and almost immediately social media- twitter, Facebook, etc- was all Pokemon, all the time. For anyone who grew up during the first Pokemon craze in the 90s, this felt all too familiar, but with a twist. Pokemon Go uses GPS to populate the environment with Pokemon. Users then wander around the real world looking for these pokemon, with an overlaid map highlighting them as you walk. Augmented reality features then show these pokemon, via your phone's camera, and players catch them by tapping the screen to toss pokeballs. Pokemon are populated based on thematic appropriateness- I.e, you'll find big Pokemon in the forest, water Pokemon by bodies of water, fairy Pokemon at night, etc. You can increase the strength of your Pokemon through items or through gym battles.
It's hard to overstate the impact Pokemon Go has had in just week. It tops all the app store rankings and Nintendo's stock climbed 34% in two days, a record for the company. Some wonder if the game's main moneymaking model- in-app purchases- will be as popular as the game itself, but there's no denying that Nintendo's fortunes, in some trouble with the failure of the Wii U and the winding down of the 3DS, are on the rise.
There are also major implications for the future of app-based gaming. Augmented reality games are, with the success of Pokemon Go, poised to offer developers big opportunities. But curiously enough, given its runaway success, Pokemon Go is derivative of other games which had similar concepts but didn't gain a mass following. In particular, it's based on a game called Ingress, which had players hacking portals which could only be accessed through the physical world. These portals functioned like Pokestops, locations on the map which deliver goodies for players. While Ingress has a cult following, it's enjoyed nowhere near the popularity of Pokemon Go.
Ultimately though, nothing compares to the cultural impact of Pokemon Go. A popular tweet lays out a timeline of Nintendo's work in the new millenium and ends with, "2016: Change the way society functions". That may be an exaggeration, but not much of one.
Pokemon Go has had positive side effects, most notably encouraging users to move about and exercise in the real world. Various tasks in the game (like incubating eggs) require players to not just walk but walk specific distances, and there's evidence it's having na impact. On Twitter and elsewhere the hashtag "sore legs" has become a running joke, as players unaccustomed to exercise find themselves walking miles a day. Some have (only semi-jokingly) called Pokemon Go the solution to the nation's obesity crisis.
However, not all of these cultural trends have been positive.
There are 3 Pokestops in the Holocaust Museum and it has caused consternation among the Museum Directors and some of the public, as players all but invade what should be a solemn and respectful space. Similarly, the people running Arlington National Cemetary had to tweet to ask people to avoid playing Pokemon Go on the grounds.
Even more seriously, four teenagers lured a dozen victims into robberies by using Pokemon lures to create attractive, Pokemon-filled spots, then using GPS to track the players. Another teenager found a body of a victim who drowned while searching for water Pokemon.
With a little luck, and a little common sense, and a little work, these types of incidents will become rarer. And when we hear a big news story involving Go, it'll be more quirky than anything. We'll marvel The White House and the Senate becoming key Pokemon gyms and spawning major trainer battles. Or we'll chuckle at the soldier in Iraq who made headlines when he caught a squirtle in Mosul, tweeting, "Daesh, come challenge me to a pokémon battle. Mortars are for pussies." Then maybe this thing, which after a week is rivaling Twitter and Facebook in reach, will do us all a little good.