How Pokémon Go encourages players to get outside and meet other people

Utah players find the mobile-app game’s “raid” feature breaks the stereotype of gaming being a solitary pursuit.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A group of Pokemon Go players participate in a raid at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Oct. 19, 2017.

Nickie Zenes moved to Utah from Pennsylvania in August — and when she wanted to meet new people, she went searching.

Her tools were her smartphone and the Pokémon Go mobile-game app.

Playing Pokémon Go, an augmented-reality game that employs the popular Japanese franchise’s characters in real-world settings, has become “a fun social event,” Zenes, a grad student studying ecology at the University of Utah, said.

“I appreciate being able to meet people [through the game],” she said, though she acknowledges “I didn‘t really like it at first, because I couldn’t do any of the legendary raids because I didn’t know anyone.”

It’s the “raid” feature, a recent addition to the game, that has taken Pokémon Go beyond the normal video-game experience, becoming a way to get people from all walks of life together in the real world to defeat high-powered versions of the franchise’s “pocket monsters.”

“It gives me a little something extra to do with my friends who play,” said Andrew Moore, a pre-med/political science major at the U., who met Zenes and other players on a recent afternoon on campus.

The game wasn’t always so sociable. When it was released in July 2016, Pokémon Go was a worldwide phenomenon, but often a solitary one. The stereotype of lone players engrossed in their screen action became so prevalent that the game’s developer, San Francisco-based Niantic Inc., incorporated a warning against such behavior in the game’s start-up screens.

“It felt really shallow when it came out, in terms of features and complexity,” said José Zagal, associate professor in the U.’s Department of Entertainment Arts and Engineering. Zagal teaches about video games and is an avid player — even slipping out of his office on a break if a Pokémon Go raid is approaching.

The game, in its initial release, worked in two modes, Zagal said. One was catching Pokémon: Players would walk around and wait for the Pokémon characters to pop up on the smartphone screen, then catch them by swiping the screen to flick virtual Pokéballs toward the creatures. The other mode was battling, which required players to go to “gyms” — fixed locations established by the game — and fight computer-controlled characters.

Zagal said it’s a misperception that video games are antisocial.

“Are movies social? At a movie, everyone’s quiet, and they look at the same screen. But what happens outside the movie theater is incredibly social,” he said. “Video games are just like that for most people.”

Even with single-player games, Zagal said, players will talk with their friends at school or chat online about their gaming experience, trading tips and troubleshooting problems.

With Pokémon Go, setting the AR function in the real world, he said, “you have to catch them, so you have to go out.”

Still, the actual game remained single-player until this June, when Niantic introduced the raid feature. A high-powered creature — like an Entei — will “hatch” at a gym and be available to catch for an hour. It takes more than one player to bring such a creature to heel, so people must team up and battle the creature together.

“But because the game is so poor in creating socialization,” Zagal said, “people do it themselves.”

In the Salt Lake City area, players have established an extensive network on the web-messaging app Slack.com. They alert players to when and where creatures will hatch, then try to arrange meet-ups so groups of players can battle together.

There are as many types of players as there are of people. A regular Pokémon Go player might see businessmen in suits, moms driving a van full of boys, an old man carting an oxygen tank, or an elderly woman playing while walking her dogs. Straight couples and gay couples will play together, as will families — like the guy with a face covered in tattoos out with his three kids, all with phones, tapping away.

It was through Slack that Zenes, Moore and three other players met up near an abstract horse sculpture in front of the Utah Museum of Fine Arts to bag an Entei.

“Did you get it?” one player asked another, tapping the screen of his smartphone to weaken the Entei‘s defenses.

The U. has a concentration of Pokémon gyms, Zagal said, because Niantic developed its maps from a previous AR game the company created, Ingress, and that game’s maps tended to focus on places where engineers congregated, like universities. Urban areas, like downtown Salt Lake City, also are thick with gyms and “Pokéstops,” landmarks where players can stock up on items needed to catch creatures.

It takes at least four players with average-powered Pokémon to take down a Legendary. The five players in front of the art museum bring the Entei to heel in short order, and some of them are able to throw their Pokéballs with sufficient force and finesse to capture it.

The five then walk from the museum toward the Olpin Union Building. A Slack message has told them another raid is set to start in about 10 minutes by the giant block “U” in the center of campus.

They find another dozen or so students waiting, and everyone agrees to split into two groups for separate battles. The players tap their screens repeatedly, but the action is so rote there‘s plenty of opportunity to chat about past conquests and game-playing experiences. Once battles are over, players dissipate as quickly as they assembled.

The Slack network calls for another gathering downtown. An Entei is about to hatch in front of the Triad Center.

Five men answer the call outside the building, joining forces with an unknown number of players working inside. (The building is home to KSL and the Deseret News.) Being guys, no names are exchanged.

The men include two nearby office workers, a student from the nearby LDS Business College, a worker from a fast-food place and an older man in a suit who says he started playing the game with his kids but quickly surpassed them.

“Being downtown‘s a huge advantage,” the suited man says. Downtown, like the U., has a concentration of Pokémon gyms.

In the suburbs, where gyms are fewer and farther between, hunters stick to their cars. In the parking lot of a Draper dentist’s office on a Saturday, player Teresa Webster is sitting in her SUV, waiting for a raid to start.

“I went to a raid earlier, and there was a mom and a grandma driving with their son,” says Webster, from Draper, who works in a South Jordan brokerage firm.

Webster was a tad embarrassed when she arrived at the dentist’s parking lot, because she found a co-worker there, too. Dustin Oates, who lives in West Valley City, was in the Draper area on business — but he’s also a Pokémon fanatic going back to the trading-card game and saw on Slack that a raid was happening soon.

Webster and Oates wait a minute or two for more players to come. Soon enough, another car pulls in, with a couple in front and a child in the back seat. Everyone logs in for the battle, and soon another Entei is defeated.

Webster, who has three kids and sometimes lets them use her phone to play on their Pokémon Go accounts, says the raid feature has helped her meet other players and improve her game.

“Every raid I have gone to, people have taught me more and more,” she says.

(Courtesy Niantic Inc.) A screen shot from the mobile-app game Pokémon Go, showing the preparation for a group battle to capture an Entei, one of the "legendary" monsters in the game.

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