Pokémon GO? Oh, I Pokémon WENT

Last week a free-to-play augmented reality mobile game called Pokémon GO became available. I didn’t hop on the bandwagon right away, but I wanted to try it sooner rather than later. I have a reputation as a video-game-liking teacher that I need to uphold come the fall. If Pokémon GO was going to be the big deal my Facebook feed led me to believe, I figured I better at least be familiar with it.

I like to learn about the things kids like — shows, games, hobbies, etc. — because it makes kids feel like their interests have value. Also, sometimes something really popular gives you another avenue of language to explain something. For instance, I can’t begin to list all the math concepts that I have explained using Minecraft examples. So as I played Pokémon GO this morning, I wondered how it might lend itself to classroom discussion, lessons, or activities.

Firstly, I think Michelle Obama might secretly be behind this game, or at least supporting it, because I walked four miles this morning… which is about four miles more than I did yesterday. If you stay in one place, you are not going to get the full experience of this game. You have to keep moving to find more variety of Pokémon, and to interact with locations designated as Pokéstops and Gyms. I also spent almost all that time outside, so I’m glad I slathered on the sunscreen first!

Secondly, the game’s interface is a simplified version of Google Maps. It is not super detailed, and your avatar is disproportionately large on it. As you roam the neighborhood, you can randomly encounter (and capture) Pokémon. Twice I came upon Pokémon that appeared on the interface to be across the street from me. Luckily, I did not need to cross the street to capture them. This was on two separate, busy streets in my city, and I’m an adult who knows better than to step into the street. You may want to review basic safety and alertness with your child before trying this game, even with supervision. The potential to get an injury exists. But, I think it is the responsibility of the gamer to stay aware of their surroundings — just as you must remain aware of your surroundings if you walk and read a book, or listen to music, or chat on the phone. I realized as I played that, while I walked, I could simply hold my phone and feel it vibrate to tell me there was a Pokémon nearby, rather than looking at my phone while I walked, which made me feel safer. I also made a point of not using headphones so that I could always hear cars.

Probably the best place to hunt for Pokémon this morning was a local university campus that is close to my apartment. School is out of session so it was nearly abandoned except for half a dozen other people who I suspected were also playing Pokémon GO. Additionally, there were lots of memorials and statues and such that are designated Pokéstops by the game. Pokéstops are places you can pick up free items like Pokéballs (needed to capture Pokémon), potions (needed to heal Pokémon), and revives (needed to revive Pokémon who have fainted). Finally, because of the nature of this particular campus, there were not a lot of cars driving through, and any that did drove really slow. I imagine that would be a good place to let your kids run around pretty safely. I will be checking out a park later today too; I suspect it will be a good spot as well.

So far, the most talked-about aspects of this game (at least on my Facebook feed) are that it gets people outside, and it gets people moving. But I think there are additional aspects that are good, too. For example, a player can make choices about transferring Pokémon, or powering them up. If you have limited resources, you are forced to make choices. Sure, players may end up making choices they regret, or agonizing over their choices. But ultimately a game is a low-stakes environment for choice-making. And kids don’t learn to make good decisions unless they have the opportunity to make some bad ones. Of course, the game does support in-app purchases, so make sure your child steers clear of that unless you’re willing to shell out for Pokécoins.

Another aspect of the game is that it gets players to engage in their communities in ways they maybe hadn’t before. For example, I have walked through the local university campus many times. But only this morning did I realize they had a statue of Abraham Lincoln near their information center. Funny enough, there was a Nidoking also admiring it. Park pavilions and churches come up as gyms. Luckily, you don’t have to enter a location to interact with it, otherwise the folks my local fire station might get very confused!

I did try playing it in a variety of locations — meaning my aunt’s neighborhood, and my mother’s rural house — and I did not have as much success as I did closer to home. I don’t know if that’s because location or because servers may have been down. (Actually accessing the game the past few days has been hit and miss for me due to server issues.) But my understanding is that, the higher the foot traffic in a given area, the more opportunity for interaction.

There are aspects of the game I can’t speak to, because I don’t have much experience in them yet, such as battling with Pokémon at gyms. But, I imagine that kids who want to know more will be able to find out more information with a few well-chosen search engine keywords, plus carefully evaluating sources and articles to determine how far they can be relied on. Besides, I look forward to learning more! Just waiting for my phone to charge before I coat myself in another layer of sunscreen and run off to my local park. I noticed the gym there changed hands from Team Red to Team Blue and I’m curious to know more.

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