The special thing about Pokemon Go: so many people are playing it. Parks are full of people playing it, my coworkers are talking about it, when I’m on a train I see gyms at stations change ownership before the train has even stopped. My favorite experience with the game was when Miranda asked me to meet her at the park behind the library one Friday after work; I spent an hour or two hanging out with her and some of her friends, catching Pokemon and refilling at Pokestops, and then Liesl and Widget came to meet us so we could all four walk home together.

The less special thing about Pokemon Go: the core gameplay consists of waiting for random number generators to give you the creatures you want, so you can fill in Pokedex entries. That is not a recipe for a rewarding life. Of course, I could take similarly cynical approaches towards a lot of things in life; there’s some truth to those cynical approaches, but they’re missing something important as well.


It certainly is true that, when first playing Pokemon Go, a big part of the fun (the joy, even) is that you’re frequently catching new Pokemon. Stepping back, though: you first have to figure out what’s involved in catching them in the first place. The game gives you remarkably little introduction, so just figuring out the flicking takes a bit of experimentation; and then there’s the list of nearby Pokemon (which turns out to be mostly useless for now, but you don’t know that), and these icons that you see on your map, Pokestops and even gyms. I couldn’t interact with the gyms yet (I can’t remember if you’re allowed to look at the Pokemon inside them or not?); Pokestops set up the tension of whether or not I’d be able to keep up enough of a supply of Pokeballs to be able to keep catching Pokemon. If I were in a more rural area, that could potentially actually be difficult; as-is, it added to the texture of my trip to work, because downtown Redwood City wasn’t just the place where Pamplemousse was, it was the place on my trip where I walked past the most Pokestops. (And, in particular, past more than enough to keep my supplied with balls.)

This got me varying my route, which I see as an unambiguously good thing: if I have a bit more time before my train, why not go down a different street instead of waiting longer at the station? Also good are the way that Pokestops make you a bit more aware of landmarks in the environment (or landmarks that have since disappeared!), and the AR camera is a fun toy.

While I was doing this, I also started to figure out the parameters of the Pokemon distribution as well. So many Pidgeys and Rattatas; starter Pokemon are surprisingly rare, though. Pikachus are in the middle, but harder to catch. Eevees and Growlithes seem more promising: they were maybe a little rarer than Pikachus but they seem to have a higher CP number than other Pokemon you see? Every once in a while I’d see an evolved form of a Pokemon, though I wasn’t always able to catch it. Also, I’d have these eggs which held out some sort of unclear possibility of access to rare Pokemon, while encouraging you to always keep the game open.


Once I hit level five, gyms started to tantalize. I’d see Pokemon that were a lot stronger than anything I had, but that were also evolutions of Pokemon I’d seen; clearly gathering Eevees and Growlithes seemed like a good idea. In the short term, though, I’d have to make do with much weaker Pokemon; but there were these options to level up and evolve Pokemon, so I started exploring a bit with that. And that actually allowed me to temporarily capture a few gyms: if a gym only had a couple of Pokemon in it, then my six weaklings might have a chance at beating it.

During this phase, I’d do things like keep the app open on my phone while on the train, trying to access Pokestops while pulling out of stations, fighting gym battles in stations, and occasionally capturing Pokemon there as well. I’d level up somewhat regularly; I’d find stronger Pokemon as a result. Miranda was a little bit ahead of me, so I’d hear about the joys of parks with multiple lured Pokestops right next to each other. She’d even be happy to spend time in such parks with me, if timing worked out.

One of my coworkers also pointed out to me that I shouldn’t look down on Pidgeys so much: they’re common and cheap to evolve, which makes them the most efficient way to gain experience. I didn’t want to do anything about that just yet, though: I didn’t have enough Pidgeys to match my candy supply, and I wanted to combine lots of evolving with lucky eggs. Also, during this period my Pokedex gradually increased, as I would occasionally catch rare Pokemon or hatch them from eggs. I started to hear about nests, too, and to suspect that there’s a Nidoran nest behind the library.


Eventually, I had a bunch of Pidgeys and a bit of free time on a weekend, so I fired off a lucky egg and went on an evolving spree. The first time I did that, I didn’t actually evolve very many Pidgeys: I had a lot of Pokemon types that I had enough candy to evolve one of, so I spent most of my time evolving different Pokemon for the first time. The next weekend, though, I had more time to evolve Pidgeys, and had evolved all the different types of Pokemon in my inventory that I was able to.

This brought me up to level 20, and set up the possibility of trying to make a go at gyms. Doing some reading, though, it seemed like the sort of thing that would require some effort to do seriously: I’d see pages about IV and IV calculators, and about the best moves that your Arcanine could have. So, if I really wanted to be the best at gym battles, it wouldn’t be enough to, say, evolve a Growlithe and feed it some candy: I’d have to go through my Growlithes, figure out which among the high CP ones had the best IV stats, evolve it, and hope that it acquired a good move. That seemed like a fair amount of work for a quite uncertain payoff; and gyms don’t seem to really be designed to let you hold them reliably no matter what you do.

So, while I dabbled in gyms a bit, I ultimately decided that the gym scene wasn’t for me. And, at this point, the game started being less rewarding: I felt like I’d seen most of the game’s systems, and I’d filled up my Pokedex as well as seemed plausible without going on trips to try to get access to more types that aren’t common locally.

And there are downsides to playing the game, even though I was mostly only playing it during my commutes. Having the game open meant that I couldn’t use my phone for vocabulary practice while walking; also, having it open on train rides, even if I only looked at it near stations, turned out to be a surprisingly large distraction from reading books on the train. Juggling the phone while walking Widget is occasionally less than graceful, too.


So I stopped playing the game regularly. I didn’t stop entirely: when I went to San Francisco a couple of weeks ago to meet with Roger, it was fun seeing the local Pokefauna, and also in San Francisco the advanced tracker is available, which is much much more useful. And just this afternoon Miranda and I were picking up new library books, heard some kids talking about an Onix nearby, and we pulled out our phones and caught the Onix ourselves. Also, a combination of changes over the last couple of months have gotten me taking walks over lunch instead of playing Netrunner; having Pokemon Go available while doing that (and while near water, changing the set of creatures) is a pleasant diversion.

I don’t plan to dive back into the game wholeheartedly, but I’m still pretty impressed by it. And I imagine I’ll continue to occasionally dip into it over the weeks and even months to come.

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