The Outsiders

How Pokémon GO is changing who gamers are

Words: Cayleigh Bright | Illustration: Kelly Poole

Beneath the hype and the hot takes, Pokémon GO has genuinely done big things in the last few weeks. If you’ve been online at all during this time, none of this is news to you: more installs than Tinder, daily users drawing equal to Twitter, and more ways to download it worldwide even though officially, it’s only available in a handful of countries. Basically, the game’s exceeded all expectations, and it’s easy to get carried away when expounding its virtues.

Already, depression sufferers are reporting the positive effects of the game’s system of simple rewards, and it’s clear that Pokémon GO is drawing an audience who’ve never before considered downloading a game, much less picking up a console. This is the first widely popular app that actually forces you to get moving, getting some exercise, breathing some fresh air, and potentially seeing new things. But is it as accessible as we’d like to think – and, why exactly does that matter?

GQ Games Editor Aléz Odendaal points out that in the very recent past “buying a console made you 'a gamer', a designation that came at a financial expense as well as a social one, because gaming then became an identity – one that came with new qualifiers to establish in-group and out-group statuses within and without gaming circles.” And, sure, many gamer stereotypes weren’t positive, but that wasn’t what was keeping potential gamers away. For women with a casual interest in gaming, the concern may have been a little about being considered uncool, but probably had a lot more to do with the cries of “fake gamer girl” that are unfortunately evident from even a cursory search of the hashtag “Gamergate”. Sure, this isn’t a problem unique to the gaming scene – it’s often hard for society at large to believe that women are interested in much without the end goal of ensnaring a man, whether that “something” is sports or makeup – but it is present there nevertheless. Then came smartphones, and games that could be played in the privacy of your own device – a device which you already owned, and didn’t need to go out and acquire. For millennials, a generation less likely to want to conform to the "rules" of one subculture and more likely to pick and choose their favourite aspects of each, this holds huge appeal. As Pokemon GO RSA Community Creator Quinton de Bruyn explains, "Pokémon GO integrates with basically anything in our current surroundings. Parks, bars, shopping centres, educational institutions – this is where it defeats all stereotypes. All age groups, professional and non-professional, fit and unfit come together."

“Think about it,” says Educade founder Regina Kgatle, “how many people have you sat next to in a taxi, bus or train, and they were busy slicing watermelons, or crossing  over colourful squares? The players of these games are often not seen as gamers.” Data shows that as the divide narrows, something significant shows up: that when you include those gaming on their phones in the broad category of “people playing games”, women are for the first time in the majority. In other words, Kim Kardashian on the cover of Forbes with the line “The New Mobile Moguls” is less the marketing gimmick that some see it as and more an accurate representation of what an “average” lover of gaming might look like now. “She made $45million from one game,” says another, smaller line next to Kim’s face, its tone hushed and a little disbelieving as she makes defiant eye contact and gives a sanguine smile, chic choker and immaculate makeup in place. This is a woman who's pleased with herself, and aware that being pleased with oneself is not a crime.

But consider Kim, self-made superstar all from a home movie: she’s stood up against chauvinistic critics, showed the receipts to the music industry’s most powerful when they made allegations against her husband, and stood with the woman slut-shamed by that very husband, but that doesn’t mean that she’s not privileged. Are the people who are starting to play Pokémon GO and other mobile games the same ones who technically could’ve become gamers in the past, but didn’t? This is the category that I fall into. Growing up, I’ve had a lot of friends who’ve liked playing on Playstations, Game Boys and Xboxes – among my female friends, these were mainly girls with brothers – but never really took much interest in games beyond the CD-Rom spin-offs of TV shows like Magic School Bus, and, later, Theme Hospital and The Sims. Pokémon GO is the first game I’ve played with any level of interest since I got really good at Snake II on my Nokia 3310. If I’d wanted to get a Playstation for my birthday and played the games my friends loved in the privacy of my own room, I could’ve. Likewise, I now have an iPhone to tap away at as I gather Pokémon – I’m privileged too.

Technology journalist Nafisa Akabor calls the game “a great way to ‘kill time’,” pointing to its value as good old-fashioned escapism, and adding that it’s even made her a little more sociable. “It makes you forget your problems, by just having a little bit of fun now and then… It certainly beats browsing Facebook to kill time because with Pokémon GO, you’re making progress at something; it’s rewarding. It’s why we keep playing.” Precisely. While being glued to our phones is nothing new, we’re now making a move to spending time on an app that’s less potentially stressful than social media, and that comes with the potential to make us feel better. And do the anecdotal reports of Pokémon GO’s positive effects on mental health check out? I asked psychologist Walter Bradley just how a game could alleviate the symptoms of a notoriously hard-to-shake problem. “People who suffer from depression struggle to cope with the fact that they no longer receive positive reinforcements like before,” he explains. This lack of positive reinforcement could be actual or perceived, but either way, it results in a vicious circle where not much is achieved thanks to low self-confidence – leading, in return, to a further slide or plummet in levels of self-esteem. “A game could provide the person with a feeling of achievement, and could increase their chances of repeating the behaviour. Even though it might be a short-lived sense of achievement, it could motivate the person to go onto bigger life tasks that seemed overwhelming at first.”

When it comes to entertainment and escapism, though, it’s unfortunately least accessible to those who need it most. For many would-be players, the benefits of Pokémon GO may be just out of reach, for a number of reasons. 

As it turns out, the financial barrier to entry isn’t as high as you might expect – relatively inexpensive Android-running devices work, though the gamer’s experience may not be as enjoyable as it might be on a more expensive phone – and data use is minimal. What’s even better is that money isn’t going to help you move forward in the game: in-app purchases might be able to give you little advantages here and there, but you’re going to have to get outside to reach the spots that are designated as gyms, pokestops packed with rewards, or the places where Pokémon are lurking, ready to be captured and collected. There’s no reward for getting to a spot before other players, so a faster mode of transport can’t aid your progress. You just have to keep walking, and so it was that I ended up getting further faster than my more tech-savvy colleagues – I walk to work and home again, while most of them drive, and gaming and tech skills couldn’t beat time spent on the game.

For those looking to get an edge on the competition, one of their best bets is a meet-up like the ones that Quinton's group organises: think thousands of people at a pre-arranged venue, sharing tips, tricks and lures, and enjoying a pretty social day in the sun. "We aim to provide the most authentic, safe and enjoyable Pokemon GO experience in South Africa," he says, adding that his time spend extensive amounts of time scouting ideal locations for players of all ages to enjoy. And that's just it – you can't escape that the game's design means that an authentic experience is going to get you levelling up faster than whipping out your credit card will.

Cultural critic Tauriq Moosa has written extensively about the way that social issues affect and intersect with the world of gaming – and when I seek his opinion on Pokémon GO he's quick to point out that augmented reality games aren't the first to be affected by, well, real life. "Even console games are affected by our identities: for example, if a game is racist, homophobic, transphobic, etc., many of us won't play it. Here those same elements take on a more physical dimension because the game itself is engaged more with the physical world."

First up, sexism: Walking the streets as a woman is always going to be more stressful because of the constant, nagging knowledge that you're likely to be harrassed in one form or another no matter what you're wearing, the time of day or whether you have indeed remembered to smile enough to appease your male audience. Then, of course, there’s racial profiling. As anyone who’s followed the Black Lives Matter movement or ventured into a “neighbourhood watch” Facebook group can attest, a black kid wandering around apparently taking pictures of the ground, walls and other people’s shoes is likely to be viewed in a very different light to a white kid doing the same thing, and just might face some significant consequences. “Racism has certainly come into play with who is 'allowed' in what neighbourhoods at what times,” Aléz says. “It's also problematic in that South Africa's 'safer' neighbourhoods tend to be those where people can afford the kind of security that allows players to walk around their block looking for Pokémon. That's an issue of financial and racial privilege.” Meanwhile, it’s been reported that “black” neighbourhoods have fewer Pokéstops in them, thanks in part to the fact that Pokémon GO producer Niantic borrowed data from another of its games, Ingress, to inform the location of Pokéstops. By the game’s nature, Ingress favours historical points of interest, and just like that, historical bias makes its way into today’s gameplay: if your neighbourhood doesn’t hold any sites deemed worthy of the history books, you’re going to have trouble catching ‘em all. "I think it just highlights real life doesn't go away just because we're playing a game," says Tauriq. 

“This is an excellent time for the industry to start considering the power of social impact in building games,” says iOS developer Daniel Galasko, who points out that Pokémon GO’s success is just beginning its life as an example to mobile developers of how to build an app that users love. “The idea of hunting easter eggs has always existed in games but making it the core purpose of a game is something that hasn’t been done to success like this. Another thing to take away is how businesses have been using Pokémon GO to attract players into their shops by dropping lures that attract nearby Pokémon.” Stores lucky enough to be positioned on or near Pokestops can indeed set them up with lures, which bring rare Pokémon to the site, and some sweeten the deal with specials aimed at Pokémon GO players. Level 10 or higher? Free slice of pizza for you! Meanwhile, McDonald’s has made marketing history in Japan by becoming the first to partner with Pokémon GO, positioning gyms at several of its outlets. Now there’s an oxymoron for you. If all of this sounds corporate and sinister, it’s worth considering the reverse: that it may well be evidence that Niantic is in the business of giving players what they want, and that they may even listen to feedback about where more Pokéstops are needed. In a broken, divided society, this might just be a moment for disruption.

When Tyler the Creator rapped in 2013 that kids his age were “sitting on Tumblr, never outside or enjoying the weather,” the lyric already seemed a little outdated – when last was it necessary to sit inside to enjoy any social media site, as tech companies rush to make products that users can take anywhere with them,as to make it accessible from any location – outdoors included? But Tyler, who’s spoken and rapped extensively about his own mental health struggles, may have been onto something – it seems that just the option of getting outside isn’t always enough, and sometimes we need a strong incentive. For millennial gamers, it seems, that incentive takes the form of a healthy dose of nostalgia, a little bit of Peter Pan syndrome, cute graphics, a first serving of augmented reality, and little rewards that keep us craving more, all wrapped up in the no-work workout we’ve been seeking for decades. For all its flaws, the tools exist to improve Pokémon GO. But that’s not the point: the game that’s changing is the way society operates, and rather than the products under construction, games are part of the process, and some of the best tools at our disposal.