The ice bucket challenge. The Harlem Shake. Drones. All crazes that swept the world, taken up by hundreds of thousands in a matter of days. But nothing – literally nothing – compares to the obsession that, in the three weeks since its inception, has become possibly the biggest global trend of all time: Pokémon GO.
Up to 75 million people are playing this augmented reality game; thousands more are hooked each day; and hundreds of related incidents have been reported in the news… There’s the man in New Zealand who quit his job to play full time. The two players who fell off a cliff in San Diego. The girl in Wyoming who stumbled across a dead body while chasing a water Pokémon. And the woman from Queens who dumped her fiancée after checking his stats and discovering he’d literally been playing away – at his ex-girlfriend’s house!
Fortunately, here in Cyprus, we’ve had no such tragedies (despite DIKO MP Votsis suggesting the game should be banned on the island for “endangering lives”!). And I’d like to think that’s because our – at a conservative estimate – 2,000-odd Pokémon GO players are vastly more sensible then the global average. All those I’ve met certainly are (though one oblivious player in the middle of the Ledra Palace roundabout did have me rather worried!), and that includes Tony Michaels and Alex Panayides of ANT Comics in Nicosia, who kindly agreed to show me the basics…
I’m certainly feeling fitter!
“Pokémon GO originated with manga” – Japanese comics – “in the nineties,” Alex explains. “Then it was made into an animated series, followed by a video game for the Nintendo Gameboy. Twenty years ago, Pokémon was a global phenomenon; we both played the games a lot, and the roughly 150 monsters in the current game are based on the original, generation one, series of Pokémon.”
In Pokémon GO the aim is to locate, catch, battle and trade Pokémon, or ‘pocket monsters’. “The motto of the game was always ‘you gotta catch ’em all’, and it’s very smart because it brings out the collector and the competitor in you,” Tony adds. “You compete with your friends and with yourself to find as many Pokémon as you can. It’s good for us being based here,” he continues, “because there’s a PokéStop right next door at Phaneromeni Church. Look…”
Dotted around the square are at least four people staring avidly at their phones. One is swiping hungrily at the screen – “he’s gathering candy, which will help him later in the game,” Tony explains – another is turning in circles, apparently looking for a nearby Pokémon. As two teenage players pass by, Tony accosts them with a friendly “Pokemon GO?” and they grin in agreement.
“We’re both Team Valour,” one explains – there are three teams, Valour, Mystic and Instinct; players choose which to join when they reach Level 5 – “and we’ve been playing since it came to Cyprus. I like that it makes you go out and socialise: you meet people and make friends.”
As Tony, Alex and I take a walk round the block, I can see the truth in this statement. A youngster on a skateboard screeches to a halt and stops for a brief chat about Teams and Levels (there are currently 40). Two boys leaping into a car shout advice from across the road: “There’s a whole load of Pokémon just appeared in Aglangia!” And four women – a 46-year-old and her three daughters – tell us they’re up from Limassol for the day to catch Nicosia-specific Pokémon…
It’s the perfect way for us to enjoy a family summer.
It turns out that Pokémon aren’t ubiquitous: certain types reside in discrete locations – water Pokémon are found near the sea and lakes; Nicosia, being inland, has a plethora of rock and ground monsters. “We’ve started playing it as a family,” says one of the daughters, “and we’d heard there were some rare Pokémon here in Ledra Street so we headed up. We’ve seen so much of the island already: Paphos yesterday, Ayia Napa the day before – it’s the perfect way for us to enjoy a family summer.”
“You really do get out and about playing Pokémon,” Tony agrees. “You can’t go over 20km per hour, so you’re walking or biking most of it, and you’re definitely going to meet fellow players along the way.” Checking his stats, he reveals that he’s walked “more than 40km in the last week – time I would otherwise have spent in front of the television or on the sofa. I’m certainly feeling fitter!”
He reports that his girlfriend is also hooked, and greatly enjoys the feeling of camaraderie amongst players: “There’s an instant bond when you see other people doing the same thing as you in the same area – of course you get talking, and it creates a community feeling.”
Both Tony and Alex admit to playing the game for a large part of their day: “Because we’re right here, in the store, we have a lot of time, so I might have it on for several hours a day,” Alex reveals, before attempting to inaugurate me into the subtler mysteries of the game: eggs, stardust, Combat Power, candy, gyms, lures, power banks, and avatars are discussed, along with PokéStops, PokéCoins, and PokéBalls.
“It’s just a great way to get out and about, especially for people who might otherwise be stuck to their couch,” Alex explains, echoing Tony’s earlier sentiments. “The other day some fellow players and I chased a few Pokémon up a hill in Aglangia – a place I never even knew existed. We put down a lure” – this attracts Pokémon to the area – “and spent the next 30 minutes just chatting, enjoying the breeze and looking out over the city.”
“Ultimately, Pokémon GO strikes a chord because it’s something a lot of people knew from childhood,” Tony concludes. “Yes, it can be very addictive, but it’s just a brilliant way to meet like-minded people. And have a lot of harmless fun!”
Pokémon GO is available for Android and iOS and can be downloaded for free. There are also a number of Facebook groups in Cyprus dedicated to the game
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
* Pokémon GO for Android and iPhone was developed by The Pokémon Company and Niantic, and is a free-to-download virtual reality game which uses a player’s smartphone GPS to detect location and create Pokémon to catch
*The game was inspired by a 2014 Google April Fool’s joke in which a job ad was placed for a Pokémon Master and players were asked to explore a map and catch Pokémon. The huge interest in the prank sparked an idea, and Pokémon GO was born
* The game debuted in Australia on July 6, and was quickly rolled out to America, Europe and Asia. It is now available in more than 30 countries
* Pokémon GO was downloaded over 15 million times in the first week of its release, and earns $1.6 million in daily revenue. At one stage downloads of Pokémon GO surpassed those of Tinder, with 60 per cent of US downloaders reported to be playing for almost an hour each day
* The app has allocated PokéStops to some rather strange places, amongst them graveyards, police stations and the headquarters of MI5
* Pokémon Go accounts are being auctioned off on eBay – the higher the level, the greater the cost