clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Pokémon Go: 9 questions about the game you were too embarrassed to ask

Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

Pokémon Go is an inescapable force of nature. Building on the giant video game franchise created in the '90s by a Japanese insect collector and game developer, Pokémon Go has become a phenomenon that takes advantage of our nation’s ADD nature, our reliance on smartphones, the warm fuzziness of nostalgia, and our human thirst for escapism.

In a way, playing the game is like giving your brain a warm, relaxing bath. Pokémon Go makes just one simple and non-aggressive request: Gotta catch 'em all. There is no time limit. There are no consequences. The worst thing that can happen in the game is that a Pokémon escapes a life of living inside a Poké Ball.

It’s not even that great or stunning of a game.

But it’s one nearly everyone you know is playing right now. And, well, you may have some questions about it. That’s understandable. Here are some answers.

1) What is Pokémon Go?

To fully understand Pokémon Go, you have to go back to the canonical beginnings of Pokémon. Around 1990, a video game designer named Satoshi Tajiri began hammering out the concept of Pokémon, which combined his childhood hobby of insect collecting with his love for video games.

"Places to catch insects are rare because of urbanization," Tajiri told Time in 1999. "Kids play inside their homes now, and a lot had forgotten about catching insects. So had I. When I was making games, something clicked and I decided to make a game with that concept."

Six years after Tajiri came up with this initial concept, with the help of Nintendo and designer/illustrator Ken Sugimori (Sugimori drew the initial 151 different Pokémon himself), the first Pokémon game was released on Game Boy.

The word Pokémon itself is the Americanized/Westernized contraction of "pocket monsters" — which, yes, can sound sort of inappropriate — and the original first-person game centered on a young trainer capturing 151 different types of Pokémon, ranging from ones that vaguely resemble turtles (Squirtle) to humanoid ones (Jynx) to the most recognizable Pokémon in the world, Pikachu.

Pikachu. (Polygon)

That this combination of Nintendo 8-bit processing magic and lack of color was so magical is a testament to the ingenuity of Tajiri’s initial idea.

It’s easy to see Tajiri’s insect-collecting inspiration and base concept; the game wasn’t visually impressive (nowhere near what it is today) and relied on the appeal of collecting and childhood imagination. All the different Pokémon, some of them totally freaky-looking, had special abilities and origins on their own. And knowing which Pokémon were effective or weak against other Pokémon would help you capture and battle other trainers.

The eponymous cartoon TV series, which debuted in 1997 in Japan and 1998 in the US, added to the Pokémon lore. It added in characters like trainer Ash Ketchum; the villains Team Rocket (Jessie, James, and Meowth); and allies like Misty and Brock. It also gave Pokémon live-action traits (for example, all Pokémon could only say their own name).

The new game, Pokémon Go, was released on July 5. It’s specifically a mobile game, a celebration of Tajiri’s initial idea and the original 151 Pokémon. Available for both Android and iPhone operating systems, Pokémon Go uses your device’s ability to track time and your location, and allows you to catch Pokémon the same way as in the original game — by virtually launching red and white "Poké Balls" at them.

Pokémon Go expands on Tajiri’s initial idea that Pokémon are all around us, and his intention to encourage kids to realize the world around them, to create an augmented reality world where you can catch 'em all.

2) Am I the only person not playing Pokémon Go?

No. According to expert estimates on Monday, Pokémon Go has been downloaded around 7.5 million times.

For context, in 2013 the US Census Bureau estimated that there were 242,470,820 adults in the United States, and according to a 2016 Pew report, 72 percent of adults have smartphones. That means roughly 174,579,000 adults have smartphones they could use to play Pokémon Go; 7.5 million is a fraction of that.

However, it’s worth noting that Pokémon Go has been downloaded more times in a week than the popular dating and hookup app Tinder has in its four years of existence; Pokémon Go is estimated to be on 5 percent of smartphones, while Tinder is only on 2 percent.

Pokémon Go users are also expected to surpass the number of Twitter users if the game continues its current growth trajectory:

And if you’re of a certain age, it can seem like literally everyone you know is playing. This chart helps explain why:

(Alvin Chang/Vox)

The initial Pokémon game released 20 years ago was extremely popular among tweens and kids at the time, meaning that a lot of today’s adults probably played that first game. Those adults — millennials! — are probably the ones you hear talking about their glut of shitty Zubats or gloating about their cute-ass Horseys.

And as my colleague Alvin Chang has pointed out, lots of people are spending a hell of a lot of time playing Pokémon Go:

(Alvin Chang/Vox)

In short, Pokémon Go is benefiting from a perfect storm of millennial nostalgia for the original game and the fact that many of those same millennials spend a lot of time talking about themselves on social media. Throw in the current spate of media coverage surrounding the new craze, and it can feel like everyone is playing it.

3) If Pokémon Go has been downloaded more than Tinder, does that mean Pokémon Go is better than sex?

I’d wager it depends on the Pokémon you’re obtaining and sex you might be missing out on.

Tinder has become shorthand for casual sex, and one of the smirky, implicit suggestions when comparing Pokémon Go downloads and Tinder downloads is that it’s become more popular than a sex app.

Because the internet is a weird beast, and because Pokémon Go is an augmented reality game that relies on smartphone cameras, some people have been quick to tart up Pokémon. Yes, there are people out there who are taking nudes with the help of the game's camera setting. Sort of like a Snapchat filter, Pokémon Go uses your camera and imposes images of Pokemon in the setting around you.

The Reddit forum PokemonGoNSFW (warning: NSFW) contains various photos of redditors’ and redditors’ boyfriends’/girlfriends’ genitalia flailing among various Pokémon. The Tumblr site Poke Peen (warning: NSFW) features an array of men and their members posing with innocent, smiling Pokémon, which hits the sweet spot between disturbing and fascinating and adds a whole new layer to the idea of a "pocket monster."

Is the phallic Pokémon Diglett supposed to make a man’s genitalia more or less enticing? Is Snorlax — a Pokémon known for its massive stature — a size comparison, or are we just supposed to admire the Snorlax? Is it really fair that someone can catch an elusive Venusaur while naked, yet I can walk all over Manhattan and only be able to catch worthless Spearows?

Anyway, people are taking their clothes off. With Pokémon. Live your best life.

4) Is the game any good?

Basically what Pokemon Go looks like

Basically what Pokémon Go looks like.

Pokémon Go is fun, but I don’t think it’s very good. Your mileage may vary, but a lot of the appeal and gameplay of Pokémon Go is determined by your geographical location. If you walk past a body of water, you’re supposed to find water Pokémon. If you go to a forest or Central Park, you’re supposed to find grass or bug types.

The parts of New York City where I live and walk must be full of trash, home to the skittering Morlocks of the Pokémon world, because I’ve collected a treasure trove of C-list Pokémon. Here is a sampling of my roster:

But aside from my freak show of basic, terrible Pokémon — some Pokémon are much more common than others — my Pokémon Go experience has been buggy and unsatisfying. The game crashes and stalls frequently, and I’ve found that if it crashes too many times, it logs you out and forces you to sign in again, putting you in line for a jam-packed server that, depending on how it feels that morning, might take upward of 10 minutes to respond.

The main draw of Pokémon Go is "catching" Pokémon, which is sort of fun. You launch balls with a flick of your finger. And as my colleague German Lopez explained, there’s a battle system to take over "gyms" (landmarks in the game), but it isn’t very complex and is secondary to collecting and building your Pokémon collection.

But even with its faults, I can see why people enjoy Pokémon Go — it’s cute and nostalgic (if I ever get a Psyduck, I might have a meltdown), and it prods you to leave your house and go out into the world (Tajiri’s fundamental plan). I also appreciate that the game is reportedly helping people with their mental health by encouraging them to spend time outside and be more social.

And even if the game's interface and action might not that be great, there’s an addictive, enjoyable element knowing that a rare, powerful Pokémon could just be a block away.

5) Is Pokémon Go dangerous?

Please don’t play Pokémon Go while driving.

Pokémon Go is a lot like texting. Its augmented reality setting that uses your smartphone camera is distracting; even though you’re theoretically paying close attention to your surroundings, you’re doing so through a camera lens with the aim of spotting and catching Pokémon all around you. Crossing the street into traffic or walking into the ocean are both distinct possibilities with this game. Getting lost is a risk too.

Outdoorsy nuisances like bug bites, sunburn, dehydration, and blisters might be part of your experience, depending on where you live and how intensely you play. And in my case, there’s a PokéStop (an in-game landmark that Pokémon can be lured into visiting) that happens to be near a children’s playground. Consider the optics of a grown man with his iPhone pointed at a children’s park for several minutes at a time.

There are also reports of Pokémon Go users getting robbed. One player went out in search of Pokémon and found a dead body instead. Chances are you won’t stumble across any corpses, but you should remain aware of your surroundings nonetheless.

Meanwhile, in terms of internet safety, Niantic — the game developer that runs Pokémon Go — has faced criticism for giving itself too much access to information on your phone that you probably want to keep private. BuzzFeed reports:

According to the Pokémon Go privacy policy, Niantic may collect — among other things — your email address, IP address, the web page you were using before logging into Pokémon Go, your username, and your location. And if you use your Google account for sign-in and use an iOS device, unless you specifically revoke it, Niantic has access to your entire Google account. That means Niantic has read and write access to your email, Google Drive docs, and more.

Even if you believe Niantic isn’t malicious and has no plans to do anything sketchy with your personal info (one of its main investors is Google, which probably has a lot of your information anyway), some people are justifiably concerned that a lot of players’ personal info could be compromised in the event that Niantic ever gets hacked.

6) Why are Pokémon Go servers always crashing or down?

To put it bluntly, a fuckton of people have downloaded the game. It’s a phenomenon. There was a thirst for a Pokémon game that wildly exceeded expectations, probably even more than Niantic, the creators of Pokémon Go, anticipated.

When too many people access a server at the same time, the server crashes. But if you’re Niantic, you probably don’t want to spend too much money on servers that might end up being unnecessary. Even though millions of people have downloaded Pokémon Go, many of those people will walk away from the game. Niantic doesn’t want to buy servers for those people. It’s in the best interests of the company to expand its server count slowly and methodically, even if it means dealing with server crashes in the short term.

7) How much data and battery life will I use while playing Pokémon Go?

You will use data, so if you don’t have an unlimited data plan for your phone, be careful. Think about it: Pokémon Go requires your phone to be constantly checking and transmitting your location via GPS. And the very nature of the game — namely, the impetus to get outdoors and keep moving — means that more often than not, you’ll be using a cellular connection rather than a wifi connection.

Additionally, the game’s constant use of your camera will quickly drain your battery. You can try the age-old trick of decreasing the brightness of your screen to save some juice, but your best option is to have some kind of external and preferably portable power source, like a backup battery pack.

Fine, I admit it. I totally use the SoulCycle app.

8) What’s this I’ve heard about Pokémon appearing at the Holocaust Museum and ground zero?

According to the Washington Post, there are people using the game at the Holocaust Museum. There are also reports of people using the app at the 9/11 Memorial. Many people are understandably upset that people are flicking their phones and playing Pokémon in a solemn place.

This problem is the fault of both the developer of Pokémon Go and its players.

Basically, the game features landmarks called PokéStops, where you can collect various items that will help you in your Pokémon-catching quest. And the Holocaust Museum and Ground Zero memorial are PokéStops.

And, yes, that’s weird and inappropriate.

Many of these landmarks and locations are based on landmarks in Ingress, another augmented reality game by the same developer. And it appears that though landmarks like the Holocaust Museum might not have felt encroached upon by Ingress players, Pokémon Go has different features.

"Playing the game is not appropriate in the museum, which is a memorial to the victims of Nazism," Andrew Hollinger, the museum's communications director, told the Washington Post. "We are trying to find out if we can get the museum excluded from the game."

Even if the Holocaust Museum gets Niantic to remove its PokéStop status, that won’t purge Pokémon from appearing there. Pokémon appear when the app is active. Eliminating Pokémon from the museum would require users to stop opening the app at the museum.

Of course, if you’re playing Pokémon Go at the Holocaust Museum or at the 9/11 memorial, well, that is a whole different problem.

9) Is it possible to cheat in Pokémon Go?


First, though it’s not technically cheating, the app offers in-game purchases that allow you to spend real money on items like lures and incense that will help you catch more Pokémon more often. These purchases can enhance your gaming experience and increase your chances of procuring a desired Pokémon, giving you an advantage over people who are just playing the game for free.

And then there are actual cheating hacks, like installing programs that alter or spoof your GPS settings, in order to potentially catch Pokémon in places you might not have access to. Doing this would allow you to, say, nab a Pokémon off the coast of Maine even if you live in Kansas. Altering your GPS settings would also let you "tell" your phone that you’ve walked a certain distance, and one of the features of the game (hatching eggs to give you Pokémon) is based on how far you travel.

But even if you just want that Articuno so very bad, don’t cheat. Cheaters have terrible reputations as game ruiners.

Bonus question: which Pokémon is the best?

Jigglypuff, 100 percent. Look me in the eye and tell me there is anything more adorable than this fucker.