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The White House is a Gym, Pokéstops can be found at churches and synagogues alike, and rare Pokémon are popping up on desks, in toilets and down the pub. Gen Yers may have swapped playgrounds for office spaces since the mid-‘90s, but since the launch of Pokémon GO, there’s nothing that’ll turn their heads quicker than an encounter with a wild Squirtle or a gym on the next corner.

The game – which uses GPS to transform landmarks in a player’s locale into gyms and Pokéstops, and AR to fuse physical and virtual worlds together – has so far accumulated around 7.5 million downloads, and is making $1.6 million daily from in-app purchases in the US alone. Nintendo’s share prices have skyrocketed 40%. And despite the launch’s restriction to the US and Oceania, that hasn’t stopped the rest of the world from getting their hands on the experience — while Brits are finding App Store workarounds, the top app in China is currently a Pokéclone named City Spirit Go.

Gen Y may be the generation who’d rather pay a driver from Uber or Deliveroo than walk 500 metres down the road, but tell them it’s a 5-kilometre walk to hatch an egg they found at a fictional (ish) location, and they’re already out the door. And according to players, it’s doing wonders for their well-being – no wonder, given that 94% of people who take part in outdoor exercise say it benefits their mental health. In short, it’s finally doing what so many media offerings have tried to — maximising the time players spend outdoors, without hurting profits in the process.

So why has it taken so long? This kind of technology has been in circulation for years; in 2010, a Japanese app named iButterfly offered users the chance to catch virtual butterflies in the real world that would give them discounts at real stores, while Ingress – n AR game created by former Alphabet company Niantic Labs, which also worked on the tech behind Pokémon GO — has enjoyed a burgeoning fan base since its 2013 launch.

The game’s success has no doubt been bolstered by the windfall of listicles and memes that are filling up newsfeeds internetwide. Internet culture feeds off enormous swathes of people partaking in the same in-joke; after all, a meme isn’t a meme until a specific piece of media is altered and copied and shared repeatedly. For Pokémon GO the ‘in-joke’ is only strengthened by the familiarity of the interface — whether it’s overlaid across street art in London, park benches in New York or neon signs in Tokyo. “It allows people from diverse backgrounds to feel a sense of camaraderie and empathy in shared life experiences,” says youth expert Andrea Graham Richeson.

But for Gen Yers in particular, it hits the perfect sweet spot between old and new. With 88% of this group saying they enjoy watching films and shows that came out when they were kids, a fondness for the Pokémon franchise is a no-brainer. Grounding the unfamiliarity of AR – studies suggest Americans fear new technologies more than death – in the power of nostalgia is enough to make it palatable, while the newness of AR freshens up an old brand enough to legitimise more than a small-scale run of limited edition products. Just in January, Nintendo launched limited edition 2DS consoles that hark back to the original 1996 titles; today, people are heading out to catch ’em all as if it really were ’96 again.

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Lore Oxford is Canvas8's deputy editor. She previously ran her own science and technology publication and was a columnist for Dazed and Confused. When she’s not busy analysing human behaviour, she can be found defending anything from selfie culture to the Kardashians from contemporary culture snobs.


13 Jul 16
min read

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