The Pokemon Go phenomenon, explained by a millennial

Pokemon Go is more than a viral sensation: it's an ice-breaker, an inadvertent exercise app, and a dream come true for nostalgic Nintendo fans.

What in the heck is Pokemon Go, and why is it everywhere right now?

Pets can't see the augmented reality Pokemon on your smartphone screen, but players really like to pretend they're battling anyway. (Lauren O'Neil/CBC)

Nintendo's new mobile game Pokemon Go is "everything" right now — at least among those who play it.

Fans of the app say it's everything they've ever wanted, everything they dreamed about as children, everything worthy of leaving the house for and everything good in the world. To them, it is literally everything.

To others, "everywhere" may be a more appropriate word.

Confusion about Pokemon Go has been rising worldwide as its unprecedented growth makes more and more headlines.

Since the beginning of its global rollout on Wednesday, the free-to-play augmented reality game has been linked to injuries, robberies, lost jobslove connections, pleas from police, the discovery of a dead body and a $7.5-billion US surge in Nintendo's market value — among other things.

It is, hands down, the fastest-growing mobile gaming phenomenon that this writer (and obsessive app downloader) has ever seen, surpassing Tinder in its number of downloads on U.S. Android devices and threatening Twitter's number of daily active users within just days of its launch.

How did this happen? And, more importantly, why?

Here are five of the main factors driving Pokemon Go's success based on what users and analysts are saying, although, as we're already starting to see, there's more behind the appeal of this game for some

1. It brings people together IRL

The Redditor who took this photo wrote that it took 'less than 10 minutes' for people to start showing up at a nearby Pokestop after he set a lure on it Thursday night. (Reddit/mrjackspade)

Video games have long had a bad rap for keeping kids inside. Smartphones, they say, are turning an entire generation into anti-social zombies. 

Pokemon Go turns this logic and its head, and then some.

Even in Canada, where the game has yet to "officially" launch, stories abound of players running into each other while hunting monsters in the wild. 

By using "lures" — hot spots activated with incense to attract more Pokemon creatures — players are finding themselves surrounded not only by Pokemon, but new human friends too.

Unfortunately for people who live in places that have automatically been designated Pokemon gyms, the same effect is being seen among people looking to train their monsters for battle.

2. It's the first mainstream mobile app of its kind

Augmented reality apps aren't exactly new. Niantic, the Google-owned company that developed Pokemon Go, actually released an AR mobile game called Ingress two years ago. Some people are saying that Pokemon Go is pretty much just a skin of that game, formatted for the mainstream market through the addition of an already popular media franchise.

They aren't wrong, but Pokemon Go is also exceptional in that it doesn't involve using special glasses or a VR headset to experience in full. The app simply taps into a user's smartphone camera to show where monsters are hiding nearby — in real time, everywhere they go, right against the backdrop of their own lives.

"Hololens, Project Tango, Intel's RealSense camera, and many other technologies are extraordinary tools of augmented reality that have struggled to explain their coolness," writes Gizmodo's Alex Cranz. "But some Jigglypuffs and Pickachus just gave us a way to understand the possibilities. Who could have guessed a dorky game for kids would one day be a watershed technology."

3. It's nostalgic

Don't get it twisted, this one isn't about "the kids." 

Rather, Pokemon Go fans appear largely to be men and women in their 20s and 30s — people who were kids in the late '90s when the Pokemon franchise first hit North America.

Many of us would run home after school to watch the TV show and live vicariously through its protagonist, Ash Ketchum. We couldn't "catch 'em all" back then outside of the Pokemon card and Nintendo games, but we could (and can still) sing the theme song by heart.

Now, we can pretty much do both — and that's way more exciting than a Full House remake.

4. It might actually be making us healthier

Gamers are getting out by the thousands to search for and battle their Pokemon, some of them logging so many steps at a time that the app is being hailed as an inadvertent exercise tool.

The game is also reportedly lending additional mental health benefits to some players.

"Tumblr users have said that the game has motivated them to get out of bed," reports ATTN, "which can often be a struggle for those suffering from depression."

5. It's hilarious

A huge part of the game's appeal, especially among those who aren't longtime Pokemon fans, is the ability to participate in a larger cultural movement surrounding it.

This can be done by taking screenshots of pocket monsters in funny places and sharing them online. Much of what's rising to the top of Reddit's r/pokemon go sub is laugh out loud hilarious, but even a quick scroll of the #PokemonGo hashtag brings gold up on Twitter too.

Fans aren't wrong in that this game really does seem to be everything to a lot of people right now — and that in itself is only pushing its popularity further — leading businesses to tailor their marketing plans.


Will this lead the Pokemon Go phenomenon to jump the shark quickly, like so many other great internet things? I suppose we'll find out … if we ever use our phones for something other than catching Pokemon again.


Lauren O'Neil covers internet culture, digital trends and the social media beat for CBC News. You can get in touch with her on Twitter at @laurenonizzle.


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