Why Pokémon Go really is a national health service | Gaby Hinsliff

What looks like a silly mobile phone game is in fact a parenting holy grail: a reason to get out in the fresh air and move

If parenting is one long process of discovering that it doesn’t really happen like they say in the books, then school holidays are proof positive that Swallows and Amazons was fiction. Every July starts, at least in this house, with starry-eyed delusions about a summer spent messing about on rivers, climbing trees and having wholesome adventures. Or failing that, perhaps a summer of cheery educational play as per the more optimistic newspaper supplements, where the kids thrill to your kitchen science experiments and treasure hunts round National Trust properties.

And every July ends with the realisation that actually it’s not going to be like that. We will not spend summer picnicking and playing beach cricket, because it is going to rain all August. We won’t be that family in the museum whose kids just beg to hear more about the ancient Egyptians, because we will be that family whose kid rolls its eyes sarcastically at the very idea of filling in the museum’s lovely quiz. There will be afternoons where nobody looks up from Minecraft. And yet a tiny flicker of hope remains, for this is the summer of the Pokémon Go app.

The craze for this remarkably silly mobile phone game – which involves chasing cartoony little virtual monsters through the surrounding real world, as they pop into shot on your phone’s camera – is currently outstripped only by the craze for stories about stupid things people do while playing it. A holocaust museum in Washington was forced to remind visitors that it’s crassly inappropriate to catch imaginary gonks on your phone while wandering round a memorial to victims of genocide. Tragically, a teenager in Guatemala was shot while playing the game – although whether the game had anything to do with the death remains unclear. There are reports of drivers crashing cars while surreptitiously playing on their phones; and a woman rescued by emergency services after getting stuck up a tree while chasing Pokémon.

Yet what makes Pokémon Go irresistible is that it’s basically a good old-fashioned treasure hunt crossed with a fairytale, adding up to that parenting holy grail: an excuse to go out in the fresh air and move.

Friends with boys in the awkward tweens – too old and self-conscious for running round the garden, too young to hunker moodily in bedrooms – report a sudden revival of “playing out” in the park under the guise of Pokémon hunting. It’s as if the app gives them an excuse to be kids again.

Bosnian man ignores a sign warning of a minefield as he plays Pokémon Go.
A Bosnian man ignores a sign warning of a minefield as he plays Pokémon Go. Photograph: Amel Emric/AP

And those dry police reports about increased “foot traffic” in cities thanks to overgrown kidults playing the game? That’s code for what public health campaigns have struggled for decades to achieve, namely getting people out of the house and walking. If I were the NHS, I’d be pleading with Nintendo to cluster Pokémon characters along hiking routes and bike trails, up mountains and in woods. For every nine players who move through, not lifting their eyes off the phone, there will be one who looks up and sees something they might not otherwise have.

Yet all new technology must seemingly pass through three stages before we can reach such acceptance, and Pokémon Go is no exception; first comes the fear that it’s somehow going to kill us (tick); second, the inevitable articles about how single women in New York are using it to meet men (tick); and finally a moral panic over what it supposedly reveals about human nature that actually we already knew (getting there). Yes, people have done dumb and risky things while playing Pokémon Go. But replace the words “playing Pokémon Go” with almost any activity and that sentence remains true. Why, it’s almost as if the fault lies with people, not with the tools we ingeniously devise to satisfy that most endearingly human of instincts: play.

Is Pokémon Go good for your health?

Talk of British creative industries, and people think of theatre, music or film. But gaming is a multibillion-pound player now, the point where arts meets tech, and as embedded in British culture as telly, without being quite so generously acknowledged. Having never got the bug myself, the sight of anyone hunched over a screen will never make my heart sing, but watching my son and his friends play dispels the fear that there’s something inherently antisocial about it. They don’t want to play alone, or with faceless strangers over the internet. What they crave is to be all in the same room, hooking up their individual devices to one Wi-Fi, building a sprawling collective Minecraft empire in which they share virtual adventures while chatting away in real life.

They’re deep in an imaginary world, just as I was as a little girl playing shops, but it’s interleaved with the physical world around them, and they move quite naturally between the two. No wonder, then, that this summer’s hit isn’t some overhyped virtual reality game but an augmented reality one that takes game elements and overlays them on our shared real world.

As all games do, it has the potential to get messy. There’s always someone who gets carried away, tips the Monopoly board over and ruins it for everyone. But humans will always want to play, and there’s something oddly moving about the lengths to which we will go to invent new games for each other. How touching that, after all this time, we still so badly want to play together.


Gaby Hinsliff

The GuardianTramp

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