It was about 2.30pm yesterday and a beautiful sunny afternoon; I was walking along Cheltenham High Street when I first noticed the two elegantly dressed, seemingly normal women. They were in their 30’s I guess, and as they approached I suddenly realised something was wrong. I looked again – businesswomen perhaps, enjoying a late lunch? And then I realised, and my blood ran cold — neither of them had their phones out. THEY WERE NOT PLAYING POKEMON! I thought of taking a picture to prove that deviants like this still exist, but then I thought no, shaming weirdos is wrong. They probably have not even noticed that everyone else in the town centre is trying to throw balls at a Drowsee, collect their fiftieth Ratata of the day or excitedly gossiping about rumours of a Pikachu seen at Proud Lion the games shop…
Yes, I actually was surprised to see two women NOT playing Pokémon. Cheltenham’s only rpg and games convention Grand Tribunal is two weeks off (come along – tickets from www.grandtribunal.org ), and maybe by then the obsession will have wound down. Right now though this is the Summer of Pokémon, and I expect our grandchildren will laugh at pictures of our silly fashions and primitive games, as we smile at photos of the Haight-Ashbury in ’67. In Cheltenham at least, it seems EVERYONE is playing Pokémon
So there can be very few people who have not heard of Pokémon now, the game you play by running around with your phone frantically throwing balls at imaginary creatures. In the very best tradition of Moral Panics since time began the press are whipping up a frenzy with stories ranging from the person who found a body in a river to the teens who got lost in caves while apparently playing Pokémon, not forgetting the pair who walked off a cliff while playing. They obviously had not been paying attention to the loading screen, which shows a player engrossed in their phone about to walk off a jetty while a huge sea monster lurks hungrily, and has a clear warning to pay attention to your environment at all times!
Anyway these stories are not great, because the game is thin gruel for Moral Panic stirrers. The thing is pretty harmless, and while it may have been condemned by a few religious types as ‘occult’ it seems to most simply a kid’s cartoon fantasy game, daft but cheerful and unlikely to scar anyone. Yes a few of the Pokéstops where you collect them may have ended up in inappropriate places, and yes some kids will do daft things. There is just no scandal here. If you get lost in a cave looking for Pokémon you are not so bright anyway, given the game a) works in 2D – being up or down makes no difference to collecting and b) you need a mobile phone signal, and how many cave systems you know have wifi or mobile reception? And if you have a mobile phone and either, how did you get lost? One of my friends points out the cave system in question has geocaches – that is far more likely how that one happened. Pokémon is just getting attention because it is new and hip or whatever the kids say nowadays.
So as a games designer, do I think it is any good? Yep. I was working on a ghost based GPS concept in augmented reality, and have been running persistent (real world real time) LARPS for over 20 years, but this has impressed me. There are a few serious design glitches about the way power escalation works, that should have been obvious at design stage but I need to play more to see if there are hidden answers to these apparent pitfalls. The game has deeply inadequate obvious documentation, but in a way learning to play, finding the help files and then learning strategies off other players is in itself fun. Anyway that’s not what I’m talking about today.
I suffer from problems with heat regulation, and can’t go out much in the current heatwave scorching town. The last few nights however Becky and I have wandered in to town, to catch pokémon. And you know what? We are now alone! I have never seen town as busy. Perhaps it is the heat – yet Thursday night had a light rain, and there were still scores of us out walking around. From ten pm through till half two I have been out there, catching Pokémon, and so have probably hundreds of others, of all ages, from maybe 12 to late 60’s.
Now town is not as busy as it was when I was younger, and half the clubs have closed down. The students are away on Summer vacation, and in Cheltenham that is a huge number. Even so I have seen so many people on the streets that I even risked St.Mary’s churchyard at midnight, and ducked down dark alleys like the one to Cheltenham Chapel and the Elephant Mural up by LIDL. I have walked kilometres – I know as I need to to hatch the eggs I collected in game, and talked to quite a few other players. Mostly though we just nod, or gather around benches, occasionally exclaiming as we run out of balls or a strange creature runs by.
I have felt a few times intimidated by drunks, or a couple of lary lads walking passed us near Dancing Ken’s in the early hours, but mainly I have felt safer than I have in years. I live in a pretty sketchy part of town, by the Lower High Street, and have to pass the junkies and alcoholics every night clustered around the shops, but Cheltenham is actually pretty safe, and we have a good community spirit round here. I regard it as dodgy – but actually the students walk through it every night oblivious to danger,and come to no harm, which says to me there isn’t much?
Now however, the town centre at least is transformed. Young women walk alone with their phones not on an emergency number but on the map, giggling girls wander round in pairs hunting down Goldeens and Magikarp, and crowds of respectfully quiet adults stand about statues, outside churches and in every public space. From the viewpoint of crime you would have thought this was amazing – a mugger can steal loads of phones – but when you have this many people on the streets, even the most vulnerable folks are suddenly a lot safer. If anyone screamed out there, a hundred ears would hear them, and everyone would come running or more likely call police on their (ready, to hand) cell phones.
It was Becky who first pointed it out – she just felt much safer. Busy streets are safe streets, and people playing Pokémon are not drunk, loud or intimidating. I repeat – I have seen young women alone walking around town in freedom well after midnight and apparently unconcerned, standing about catching Pokémon, and feeling safe.
So whatever you think about Pokémon, it has done something unintended but as wonderful or magical as any Snorlax dozing in your garden for a little while – it has taken back the night and made our cities safer places to be after dark. Long may it continue! Oh and the businesswomen I saw? I realised soon after they had passed me – batteries must have run out. Happens, even to me. Now excuse me, I gotta catch ’em all!
CJ, July 2016