Not sheepish, but individ-ewe-al (livredor) wrote,
Not sheepish, but individ-ewe-al

Pokémon Go

So Pokémon Go is basically a terrible game. It's opaque and annoying for beginners, and it ramps up the difficulty in a way that makes the game more annoying, not more challenging as you advance, presumably because it's somewhat clumsily balanced for monetization rather than fun. I liked Ingress better, and that's saying something, because I already found Ingress didn't have much actual gameplay beyond a cool concept.

But it doesn't need to be a good game, because it's an amazing phenomenon. It's just a perfect fit for the zeitgeist, unlike Ingress being launched at a time when smartphone coverage is extensive enough that people other than affluent tech-heads can play. It had a readymade userbase and fandom in the entire generation who loved Pokémon the first time round, which gives it enough of a network effect to make it appealing to old fogeys like me who weren't already fans. And it's the perfect gateway to augmented reality; you walk around in the real world and find cute things. It doesn't really matter what the scoring mechanism is, or that the most of the features and gameplay elements are promised rather than actual, or that that fighting side of the game is grindy and uninteresting. You walk around, you find cute things. Instant reward.

I'm personally somewhat disappointed by a few aspects of Pokémon. Based on my extremely vague cultural knowledge of earlier incarnations of the game, I was expecting trading to be possible as well as just collecting. And when I heard about "evolution" I thought there might be some kind of breeding mechanic, but no, evolving is just a secondary mechanism for powering up. I fairly quickly got to the point where I'm constantly limited for either pokeballs or stardust, which makes the game feel grindy, and I am reluctant to spend real world money on in-game consumables. And most annoyingly of all, the delightful full-AR mode doesn't work on my phone, so I can't "see" any Pokémon in the real world superimposed on my camera images.

Pokémon Go both suffers and benefits from being built on Ingress. Benefits, because there's a ready-made network of locations and it's inherited the aspect of the older game where you get to find new interesting bits of minor public art by playing. Suffers, because the flavours just don't match; in Ingress, the aliens were supposed to be drawn to populated areas and areas of interest, but in Pokémon, it goes against the idea that mons were supposed to appear in more isolated areas away from the major roads and centres. And in practice it means that players have a very uneven experience; playing outside a major urban centre means there's very few resources available and few interesting creatures appear. Ingress kept a list of all the stops I'd visited, and since I like Exploring more than Achieving anyway, I found that really satisfying. Whereas Pokémon only cares about how many different creature types you catch, and has given up on trying to record where you got them from, which for me somewhat defeats the point of the game being set in the real world.

More seriously, Niantic simply don't have the manpower to deal with curating user-submitted game locations. Which means we're stuck with a snapshot of how the augmented reality map looked when they gave up on tackling user submissions for Ingress. A lot of it is out of date, with stops on artworks or institutions that no longer exist. And they never properly fixed issues like game locations inside children's playgrounds where ideally adult gamers shouldn't be encouraged to gather. Even worse, the only places with good gameplay are areas that were highly trafficked in Ingress, which means places that had a population of affluent geeks who were interested in and could afford cutting edge smartphones a few years back. I've seen people arguing that Pokémon Go is racist because stops and spawn points concentrate in white areas and are sparse in ethnically mixed areas, or because some of the gameplay is in places where it's dangerous for people with some skin colour and gender combinations to go. I don't think the game as such is racist, I think the real world is racist and an augmented reality game is reflecting the racist substrate in which gameplay takes place. This is exacerbated by the financial skewing that comes from just inheriting Ingress' infrastructure wholesale.

Similarly, I'm not hugely convinced that the game is ableist; many supposedly public locations are in fact inaccessible to people with mobility limitations, but that's primarily the fault of the disabling built environment, not the fault of the game for existing within that environment. There are some issues with the interface, particularly for visually impaired players and those with poor coordination / motor control, but I'm not sure that Pokémon Go is worse than any other smartphone app in that respect. It's completely reasonable for disabled people to be upset at being excluded from the latest massive craze, but I think the game is getting a lot of attention because it's such a craze, rather than because it's especially bad. I have seen a fair bit of commentary from disabled players who really like the game, particularly people on the autism spectrum who find the collecting mechanic really satisfying, and people with social anxiety and agoraphobia who find that the game's rewards are a good way to help them get out of the house. Doesn't mean it's ok for the game to exclude physically disabled players, of course! But the consensus does seem to be that it's possible to play in a manual or powered wheelchair (I personally haven't tried, I'm just going by what I read on the internet), and the rumour that you could only unlock the ability to play without physically walking by sending Niantic proof of your disability was discredited.

With all those criticisms, I am really enjoying the player community. It's so cool that everybody is playing, all ages, hardcore gamers and people who rarely play video games at all, and everybody's getting excited about it. I love seeing squee posts all over social media, and all the fanworks coming out, and I'm hugely enjoying the [community profile] pokestop DW community. And it's actually really good to play with friends in person, in many ways better than Ingress. Because several people can catch the same mon, you can point out cool new ones to eachother; I've had a lovely date with [personal profile] jack walking along the river catching water Pokémons. And multiple people on the same team can combine forces to take down an over-powered gym together. I'm absurdly much enjoying playing with my partners' younger kids; they are still excited about catching every little ratata and weedle, and even spinning the stops to get items, and they sometimes play pretend-Pokémon when nobody is willing to hand them a smartphone.

So it's a terrible game, but it's giving me a lot of pleasure, and I hope its success will in fact encourage other developers to release better augmented reality games.

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Tags: gaming

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