I typically consider myself more of a nerd than a geek, but one area that I do geek out over. I openly admit that I am a big fan of Pokemon. I was sucked into the phenomenon when I was ten years old. My friends came to school carrying their three-inch wide binders. They would slap the binder cover onto the lunch table to expose their extensive Pokemon card collections. My friends and I would stare in awe of each other’s cards. I was hooked by these “pocket monsters.” With my mom’s help, I pulled together my own impressive array of over 800 cards.
An example of the card that I was hoping to get that Christmas
That Christmas I wanted only one thing. It was the most sought after card at the time and the most powerful Pokemon – holographic Charizard. I begged Santa (aka my mom) to find one. She kept saying, “We’ll see.” Christmas morning finally came around, and I stormed downstairs. I woke my parents up in shear excitement. I ran to my mountain of gifts next to the reclining chair (Yes, I was spoiled. I was an only child.) I ripped open my presents one-by-one. I had my eyes on the prize. Quickly, the pile dwindled and was being replaced with a mound of wrapping paper and cardboard boxes. Nothing yet. I dug deeper. Still nothing. There were only a few medium-sized boxes, but all way too big to contain a single Pokemon card. I picked up one of the last boxes, which looked like a clothing box from Boscov’s. It felt light as a feather. I remember how confused I was, and I gently shook it around. I heard what sounded like a small piece of plastic shuffling around. I found it! I ripped open the box, and my dream came true. There it shined in all its glory. Holographic Charizard was all mine. I forgave Santa for the trick he pulled on me and savored the gift he lay upon me.
My addiction grew with Game Boy Color and the release of the Pokemon Red and Blue. They were the same exact game, but I had to have both. Shortly thereafter, Pokemon Yellow came out, and Pikachu could follow you around in the game. Had to have it. I remember many nights sitting in the backseat of my mom’s car playing my Game Boy Color. This was when you had to buy special attachments to have a light for the screen. There was no light inside the device to illuminate the screen. While playing these games, I always thought to myself how cool it would be if we could somehow engineer Pokemon to be real. I wanted to interact with them and train them just like in the games. My imagination ran wild.
As generation 2 came out, I played Pokemon Gold and Silver on Game Boy Color. Shortly thereafter, I lost interest in Pokemon. I was getting older, and the fad seemed to be dying down finally. I would periodically peruse my collection of Pokemon cards when I was bored, but that was about it.
Fast forward over the next fifteen years. Pokemon remained as big as ever. They released six more generations after the initial generation. Each generation was associated with multiple games, the anime series, and countless amounts of merchandise. It was not going anywhere any time soon. However, none of it was enough to pull me back into Pokemon geekdom.
On April Fools’ Day 2014, Nintendo in collaboration with Google released their own joke about a new game where people could interact with Pokemon in the real world. People understood that it was a joke pretty quickly, but the damage was already done. The response to develop such a game was overwhelming. A new video game concept had been born.
Nintendo teamed up with a then small company named Niantic who already had augmented reality (combining video games with our reality) technology from a game called Ingress. It was just now a matter of bringing the Pokemon world to life. It was time to bring out my inner geek again.
Pokemon Go was announced. It was soon going to be possible to hunt Pokemon in our world. You could take pictures of them in your environment. You could join a team and battle others to take control of gyms. It was my ten-year-old me’s dream come true.
On July 6, 2016, the time had come. Pokemon Go was in full swing. I downloaded the game and went full force. All over Facebook I saw my friends posting their pictures and their progress in the first days of the game. News quickly spread of the best places to play and where to catch the best Pokemon. I was out every day after work and all day Saturday and Sunday. My eyes were glued to my phone, as I walked through the parks. There were hordes of people doing the same thing though. Players would scream from across the park if something good spawned nearby. As I mentioned earlier, Niantic, the company responsible for Pokemon Go, was still small at the time. They could barely handle the flow of players, and the game frequently crashed as a result. It was fixed after the first week or so however. Quickly, the game became the most popular mobile game of all-time with over 100 million downloads.
It felt great to be part of the phenomenon. I finally felt like I could let my geek show and not feel ashamed for it. It was probably the closest our world has come to world peace. That may be an exaggeration, but everyone was just out and about enjoying each other’s company. It felt nice.
The initial craze eventually died out, but my passion did not. I continued to grind daily. I played at least for a few minutes a day and even had a “route” I took home from work every day to hit gyms to battle and stops to gather supplies. For the longest time, it was my little escape and time to decompress every day. It was my “me time.”
After playing nearly every day for a year, the game finally bored me. I played to keep up on updates and to get my daily bonuses. I think Niantic picked up on the lull, as many casual players stopped playing altogether. Major changes started to unravel little by little. They released the next generation that some younger players were more familiar with. The gym system was revamped, allowing for quicker turnover between teams. Raids, almost like boss battles, were incorporated into the game. Raids were an opportunity to defeat and catch rare creatures, but it required at least five players to do so.
This pulled some players back into the game, as it presented the opportunity to get their favorite Pokemon. As the social aspect of the game evolved, Niantic then allowed players to add friends in-game for bonuses like trading, battling, and experience. They even added special events like monthly community days where special bonuses are available for a limited time frame. This not only made Pokemon Go a cash cow, but it also brought even casual players back into the picture.
It really got me thinking though about the numerous benefits this multifaceted game possesses for one’s self-care and mental health.
Gets the player out of the house. As someone who suffers from crippling depression and anxiety, this game has provided me with the perfect excuse to get my lazy butt up and moving. When you feel like curling up in a ball, Pokemon Go sparked enough motivation to put yourself together enough to be presentable in public. Many players I spoke to said that it helped them to overcome mental health issues such as social anxiety, depression, and generalized anxiety. For others, it gave them a distraction when life threw them curveballs elsewhere.
Exercise. Even though it is not the most strenuous form of exercise, Pokemon Go requires A LOT of walking and strongly encourages it too. Walking a certain amount of distance in the game helps you to hatch certain Pokemon from eggs and gaining candies to power up or evolve your Pokemon. Pokemon Go even added a feature recently called Adventure Sync, which allows the player to hook up their game to a tracker (i.e. FitBit). Depending on how far that player walks in a given week, they can earn even more bonuses. A friend of mine said that the game helped him to lose close to thirty pounds!
Seeing new places. Pokemon Go has taken me to some amazing new places and to brought me back to old favorites. Word of mouth often leads players to areas where new creatures might be spawning or where they could be new stops for supplies. Many of these places are local parks and historical landmarks. This game has taken me places I otherwise would have overlooked and brought attention to them.
Goal-directed behavior. At the time of this post, there are 44 badges, nearly 500 Pokemon, research tasks, research quests, and 40 levels of experience available. Knowing Niantic, there is more to come. However, it teaches players how to take steps in order to achieve their goals. It also teaches the importance of patience and hard work because many of these goals take at least multiple days to do so. As one friend put it, “It gives me a nice illusion of productivity, accomplishment, and control.”
Meeting New People. Pokemon Go relies heavily nowadays on the social network it created. You randomly meet people during the special events and during raids. You can usually pick these people out of the crowd too. They have their phones out and usually a cord coming out of their pocket charging their device. The fact that you are there together with a shared objective provides a common platform to start talking. Some of my closest friends are people I met playing this game, and I even dated a young lady for a few months that I met playing Pokemon Go.
Quality Time. Many players have made this game a hobby. Several of my friends use the game as an inexpensive way (the game is free to download) to spend time with their loved ones. I see families all the time walking through parks and down the street catching Pokemon together and congratulating each other on their in-game achievements.
Sense of Community. Being one of millions of players makes you part of a unique community. Within that community, there many more often divided up by locale. I am part of at least five or six groups on Facebook to coordinate raids and communicate about in-game news. It is a game about helping each other and being part of something bigger than one’s self.
As with everything, I have heard horror stories about Pokemon Go about people meeting such not nice people, people becoming addicted, the game frustrating them more than helping them, etc. As with anything, balance is key. Overall though, this game has given me a great outlet for my self-care.
I wanna be the very best….version of myself.
-The Caring Counselor