Mumbai’s Carter Road promenade, a haven for lovers and joggers, has been witness to strange activity lately. For the past week, an unusually large crowd has been descending on its undulating pavement, walking determinedly and uninterruptedly, all the while fixated on their smartphones. Their numbers have been so great that even the hard-to-faze residents of Bandra have begun to wonder – what in the Susegad-loving world is going on?
A game of Pokémon GO, that’s what.
The city’s popular recreational spot is another addition to the ever-growing list of Poké Gyms in the augmented reality game Pokémon GO.
Over the past few years, the smartphone-wielding generation has had its fair share of obsessions, including games such as Flappy Bird and The SIMS Freeplay, but few of those prompted such life-stopping, route-altering extremes as Nintendo’s latest offering. And India, like every other nation, is taking the newest fad to dizzying heights.
Part of the appeal lies in the game’s virtual reality set-up, even if that means pulling a stop on all social activity. In 1990, Japanese video game designer Satoshi Tajiri decided to adapt his insect-catching hobby into a game with exotic creatures called Pokémon. An animation series based on that game, with protagonist Ash Ketchum travelling the world with his best friend-cum-pet Pokémon Pikachu, was a part of every ’90s kid’s childhood. Everyone wanted to be Ash Ketchum and have a childhood where wanderlust and bug-catching could be satisfied in equal measure. Children wanted to rather have a Pokémon as their best friend than a breathing human being. At least, the Pokémon would fight for you and help you win leagues and matches.
Pokémon GO takes that childhood fantasy and actualises it to neurotic measures.
Walking into awkward situations
The game’s framework is relatively simple to navigate. The app uses your real time location, and picks out Pokémon spots – places where the Pokémon can be caught – in your surrounding. Every Pokémon carries a certain number of points, depending on their powers. With enough Pokéballs, all you need do is go to that spot and swipe your Pokéball to capture a Pokémon. The more you’re on the road, the more spots you can access and the greater your tribe will grow.
Mumbai resident Ameya Nayak, a knower of all things Pokémon, explains the brilliance. “There are three factions in Pokémon GO – Mystic, Valor and Instinct,” he said. “Players can choose one of the three once they cross level five. This is basically a virtual turf war. Each team is battling for dominance over one or many territories by capturing, reinforcing and maintaining their coloured flags and Pokémon atop the Gyms. This rivalry is also something that makes the game somewhat competitive, adding to the addictive factor that it still possesses.”
The need to capture all the Pokémons you had ever wanted as a child is prompting youngsters to do what they most hate doing – leave their rooms and take a walk.
One of the most amusingly exasperating metrics of the game requires users, the Pokémon trainers, to physically travel and find the Pokémons they wish to get hold of. Attesting to that is the self-confessed homebody Shiv Parashar. “I’m someone who loves to stay holed up in my room, and here I am braving the rain, walking 15 kilometres at a stretch in search for my Pikachu.”
When he’s casually told that someone caught a pudgy, electricity-emitting Pokémon at Lokhandwala back road, Parashar’s feet begin to twitch, restless to leave the conversation at once. And leave he does.
It isn’t merely walking the talk that has certified Pokémon Go’s popularity. It’s the lengths fans of the game are going to. They would willingly place themselves in awkward situations if it meant a prized Pokémon was nearby waiting to be caught.
“I successfully infiltrated a random building to scout for a Pokémon,” said an avid fan of the game. “A rare Pokémon showed up on the game radar and after an instant ‘MINE!’ from my brain, I decided to enter the building. I had a backup plan ready in case the guards got suspicious about my presence. If caught, I would ask whether this building was indeed ‘insert random building name here’, then apologise and get out. Luckily, their security was flawed, and I managed to catch a 756 CP Dragonite flying next to a scooter inside a building.” He beamed proudly and added, “I would definitely infiltrate again.”
The internet is filled with such stories – of bravery, adventure, travel and at times foolhardiness. A gamer exclaimed, “There are people who have climbed mountains, hopped fences, even taken kayaks to the middle of a lake to either get a Pokémon or capture gyms.”
A fanatic bid his office a temporary goodbye, blamed the city rains for a non-existent flu and walked around Mumbai to gather his Pokémon team. Yet another girl exclaimed, “I walked around a locality for about 20 minutes unable to trace the Pokémon stop indicated on my radar. Not even the suspicious glares of the watchmen were going to stop me.” Just a few days ago, fans of the game met at Mumbai’s Marine Drive so as to outwit each other and gain control over the stretch.
A report in the media noted that the most prevalent Pokémon stops – notable locations in the real world marked on your in-game map – in India are temples, forcing an irreverent generation to make regular trips to spots of piety. The mothers are thankful for never have they known their children to be so outgoing or devoted. But if the creators of the game are to be trusted, it is to get more intense.
What make Ash Ketchum’s story the personal motivation of every fan was his participation in leagues, his English motto “Gotta Catch ’Em All”, and his journey to the top of the trainers’ table. Nintendo is well on its way to creating a virtual battlefield replete with leagues, matches and victories. While the current takeovers are merely happening on the basis of stats, newer versions of the game will lead to Pokémon wars in augmented reality: players will be allowed to battle their Pokémons with those of others on the app, like in the television show. Never mind that Pokémon GO is gracefully taking your phone data, when you Gotta Catch ’Em All, little else matters.