A screenshot from the game

A screenshot from the game

Last week, the smartphone game, Pokemon Go, dropped like a ton of bricks onto starry-eyed, nostalgic 20-something’s phones. The game has been hyped for a while and despite some issues with the servers, it’s a huge hit. Some are already heralding it as the most addicting app in years. While video games are not a typical topic for us at Strong Towns, Pokemon Go's unique format makes it worth a discussion here, .

Pokémon is a beloved video game franchise with a great history; it’s arguably one of the most successful games ever. The premise of the previous games was that you were a character who traveled a fictitious world hoping to collect a series of cute monsters. But this game is very different. In Pokemon Go, you actually have to get out, walk around, and look for the monsters. Yes, this game makes you physically walk around your city or neighborhood to catch and collect Pokémon. That unique twist is undoubtedly part of what's made the game an instant success.

It should be noted that video game players are a community that is typically maligned for being lazy and sedentary. Not any more. Millions of people are now outside, walking around trying to catch these little monsters and they are loving it. Gizmodo published a tongue-in-cheek article essentially saying that we have a walking epidemic, and Minnesota Public Radio report, "Pokemon Go invades America, finally gets us to exercise."

In addition to encouraging walking, Pokemon Go is also very interactive: It’s not just strolling around waiting to catch monsters, you also have to pick up items at “Pokéstops” and they are all mapped to public spaces or landmarks. There are also eggs that will only hatch after you’ve walked two, five or ten kilometers. Additionally, the game creators made sure that it’s hard to cheat: There’s a speed limit built into the game so you can’t just drive around hoping to obtain the same results.

I think the best part of this game is that it gives people a carrot: We’re all guilty of having tasks that we could accomplish on foot, but we're simply too lazy, or we come up with a flimsy excuse to use the car. Well, with Pokémon Go, you actually want to accomplish your tasks on foot or bike because you never know what Pokemon you’ll catch along the way. I live in a small city of 50,000, and I have seen more people out and about in this last week than I ever have.

For an urbanist and game-player like me, it’s a double win. I get to go out and enjoy the game, but I also get to take note of all the places lacking infrastructure or aesthetics for people on foot in my town. And while I’m sure some members of my community have noted these issues for a while, now that middle class nerds have to deal with them, that might help catalyze a movement in a positive direction.

Of course, the Pokemon Go hype will eventually fade, but this could be the beginning of a very interesting marriage between the public realm and the private phone. I doubt this one app will be the catalyst that pushes us into a golden age of walkability, but one thing is for sure: if people are going to be out walking, for whatever reason, we need to step up our game in keeping them safe and happy.

(Top photo from Bago Games)


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