This week, I deleted Pokémon Go from my phone. I’d been putting it off, mostly because I spent a frivolous £3.99 on incubators, but partly because the game is truly such a lovely idea that I felt bad about not connecting with it more. It was taking up an awful lot of space on my phone, though—space I could use for games that I actually wanted to play—so that was it. Done. Gone. Deleted. All that XP, that Snorlax, that Dragonite that I once used to impress a bunch of 8-year-olds—they’re all in the ether now, ready to be caught by someone who cares far, far more than I ever will.
Because, right, here’s the thing: what I enjoyed most about using Pokémon Go wasn’t the Pokémon bit, or the thing where you spin the Pokéstop and you get lots of eggs, it was the walking. Did you know you can do that bit without having to use up all your phone’s battery and data? I sound like an old man, but it’s true. I wasn’t getting anything out of Pokémon Go itself, although the bit where the 8-year-olds treated me like their queen was rather flattering.
Pokémon Go is a bit like reading a guide to a foreign city. It knows a lot of things, and it can lead you to some incredible places, but then all you’re doing is following a prescribed route to a nice place. You see point A—the place you start—and then you wander, head down, looking at the map, until you reach point B. And then you go “ah yes, very nice, I’m glad I saw this,” but you haven’t looked at point C, or point D, or any number of the other letters, because there wasn’t a Pikachu there.
I had a bit of an unwelcome financial crisis recently—one of the pitfalls of being full-time freelance—and so I did everything I could to cut down daily costs. After looking at my bank statements (and weeping) I realised that the majority of my daily costs were travel. I live in London, you see, and so it costs me about £6 a day to get around. That’s about 4 coffees, or one small coffee in London. So that was the first thing to go—I decided to walk everywhere I could instead.
Suddenly, I wasn’t walking because Pokémon Go wanted me to—I wasn’t concerned with my eggs hatching, or finding some rare creature. Pokémon Go is a carrot, rather than a stick—come over here, it says. There’s a thing here, and you want it. Come and get it. But the reason I was walking everywhere was the stick—you need to walk here, because otherwise you might not be able to eat this week.
When Pokémon Go offers incentives to put your trainers on and go outside, you find pleasure in those incentives; when you have to walk because you can’t afford not to, you have to find pleasure in the walk itself.
Again, I sound like the grumpiest old man, the kind that you’d usually find in the letters page of a newspaper read entirely by grumpy old men. “Kids these days,” I’d say. “Always with their head down, not appreciating the nature and the world around them.” Just to be clear, I’m probably the most millennial person you’ll ever find—I like folk music, artisan bread, and I spend roughly 200% of my time on Twitter #engaging with #brands and #sharing #content. I love my phone, I love apps and I love videogames.
But I just feel like Pokémon Go is a disappointing means to an end. It turned walking—a surprisingly pleasant pastime, at least for someone who doesn’t have a full-time office job any more—into a numbers game.
London is perfect for Pokémon Go, right? Apparently not. Despite a plethora of Pokéstops and a much higher rate of Pokémon appearances, I never really caught anything that made me care. Just like IRL London, it was all rats and pigeons, and I felt annoyed that I was spending all this effort on an app that showed me so little in return.
When I was in the Swedish forest recently (ha! Look at me, the perfect millennial, subtle-bragging about my travels. Will it make you feel better to know that I will never own a house? I sure hope so) I found a rare Pokémon pretty much every time I opened the app. The rate of Pokémon appearing was far lower, but the quality was so much higher.
It made me realise that maybe none of us is really getting the best out of Pokémon Go—you either live in a densely populated area, and get inundated with absolute crap, or you live in the middle of nowhere and see Pokémon about as often as the bus comes. I used to live in a village where the bus came on Thursday morning and THAT WAS IT.
The grass is always greener when it comes to Pokémon Go. Even the people spending actual, real-life money on the app aren’t really getting that many benefits, because unlike most in-app purchases, the ones in Pokémon Go just make it more likely you’ll see more Pokémon. They don’t give you a gold-paved path right to that Lapras you’ve been coveting. This is good news for those of you who don’t want to pay money, because the playing field is a little more level, but isn’t there something incredibly frustrating about a game that so steadfastly refuses to help you out?
It takes millions—actual millions—of XP to get to level 30. It’s like a badly-designed boss in a JRPG—it’s not fun to feel like a miniscule human chipping away at a huge number. There are hundreds of children with far more time on their tiny hands who are running all the gyms around your house with their 3000CP Snorlaxes. The problem with Pokémon Go, like most MMO games, is that it’s just not for casuals. It’s a game made for casuals that got taken over by people who want to have Kotaku articles written about them. You’re left feeling mediocre, facing a mountain of Stuff To Do that just doesn’t seem fun any more, because you’ll always be left behind.
I recently watched a friend play Ingress, the previous game by Niantic that informed much of how Pokémon Go works. In Ingress, you team up with people to attempt to take over swathes of the world, and the way you do that is by capturing strategic points that function similarly to Pokéstops—monuments, cafes, street art and so on. There’s a sense of community, a sense of a goal that you’re working towards (global domination).
Pokémon Go hasn’t captured that. Instead it’s a solitary game that pits you against invisible players that you can’t interact with. You can show friends your Pokedex, your powered-up Hypno—but that’s not what Pokémon has ever been about. It’s about battles and trading, it’s about giving each other training tips and comparing stats. Pokémon Go is about collecting, hoarding and throwing away Pokémon you don’t care about to feed the ones you do care about. It has brought people together in a lot of ways, but it made me feel lonely.
It really is a lovely idea—real-life Pokémon! A community that will wander round towns and cities with you to catch Charmanders! A reason to go outside for people who struggle with that! Perhaps I should credit it with helping me realise that the place where I live is full of adventures, but I feel like the adventures I’ve been having on my own steam are better than the stress of finding another bloody Pidgey. I don’t need inventory management; I need a reason to appreciate the world around me.
Kate Gray is a videogame writer who enjoys long walks on the beach, as long as there’s no Pikachus. She writes for The Guardian, Vice and a bunch of other places, and you should follow her on Twitter @hownottodraw.