Gaming levels up

Pokémon Go gives players a reason to get outside, socialize

Ryan Inouye (in gray) searches for Pokémon with his newfound friends on the Chico State campus.

Ryan Inouye (in gray) searches for Pokémon with his newfound friends on the Chico State campus.

Photo by Mason Masis

Ryan Inouye stood in a group of over a dozen new friends on the Chico State campus late one recent evening. Around them were other similar clusters of people, all of them holding smartphones or tablets, hoping to catch an elusive Pokémon and comparing collections.

Inouye, a 34-year-old Chico resident and psychologist with Marysville Joint Unified School District, said he never visited the Kendall Hall lawn during his seven years as a student—he earned both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in psychology at Chico State. He’s no stranger anymore, thanks to Pokémon Go. On this particular evening, he was already prepared for the exact minute the sprinklers on the west side of the lawn would turn on: 1:07 a.m.

That appears to be part of the point: to get people outside and socializing. In fact, the game’s website proclaims “Get up and go” boldly on its main page. Gaming experts point to its ease of use and the mobile platform as ways it reaches that goal.

Inouye is too old to have grown up with Pokémon—the franchise started in the U.S. as a Game Boy game in the late-1990s and evolved into a popular TV show, card game, comic book series, etc.—but he acknowledged the newest iteration’s allure. He compared Pokémon Go to a slot machine, explaining that it uses “variable reinforcement” to get people hooked. Though that may sound ominous, he said the game was great for social interaction, especially for people who have trouble in social situations.

“I think everyone feels a little vulnerable playing Go,” he said. “We aren’t going to attack each other.”

At least not in real life. Pokémon Go’s basics are simple: Players download the game (for free) to a mobile device and then use the camera feature to seek out Pokémon and catch them. Players and their Pokémon gain levels as they play, allowing them to catch and train better Pokémon to spar and battle with other players. Team functions get friends working together and Pokémon Gyms and PokéSpots, which are real-life locations where players can advance their virtual games, unite people.

Interviews with dozens of players in Chico revealed that the game’s stated goal, to get gamers outside, is working. Sitting in a lawn chair outside of Kendall Hall last week, Chicoan Hieu Ngo, 29, closed the game momentarily to proudly display his iPhone’s pedometer, which showed a recent uptick in his steps since starting the game.

“I would be doing other things inside the house instead [of playing Pokémon Go],” he said. “I’d be playing some other game.”

Michael Taylor, 25, was playing the game with his 15-year-old brother and a friend near Caper Acres in Bidwell Park. Taylor said since the game’s release he has spoken and interacted with “hundreds” of people he would otherwise never have met. The trio said they have explored Butte County and have gone as far as Sacramento searching for Pokémon.

“I’ve used my mountain bike more in the last two weeks than I have since I got it,” Taylor said, laughing. “I’ve been outside more in the last couple weeks.”

Jorge Pena, an associate professor of communications at UC Davis and an expert in video games and their effect on people and society, said Pokémon has become a household name and, as such, its accessibility was a key factor in Pokémon Go’s popularity.

“It’s free and you probably already own the phone, so it is less expensive than buying a video game console or a personal computer to play a game,” he said.

The catching aspect and the game’s somewhat competitive nature allow players to compare their collections, he said, resulting in the natural formation of relationships.

Pena cited reports of people falling off cliffs as an example of negative aspects of the game. Overall, however, he called it “an example of how we can harness the power of video games to change behavior [for the better]. I’d venture that any game that has you go outside is a positive,” he said.

Inouye agrees. Although school has been on break since Pokémon Go’s release, the psychologist said he felt the game would mostly have a positive effect on the students he sees.

“It gives them a common language when they are talking with their classmates,” he said. “It’s a shared interest. The more shared interests they have the better.”

He offered some words of caution, too: “I’ve also seen pretty severe addictions in kids with this game, so we’ll see.”