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Building Community Thanks To A Little Game Called Pokémon Go

Nati Harnik

You've probably heard by now of Pokémon Go -- the augmented reality game sweeping the nation. The game, which came out July 6, is based on the hit ‘90s anime show that followed teens who train mythical animals for battle. It’s become wildly popular. Now, millions of people are running around with the phone game that allows them to find and train Pokémon by visiting real-life locations.

To be fair, the runaway success of the game has led to some problems. Robbers have been caught hanging out near Pokestops, virtual reality spots in the game where you go to collect items that improve your standing, so they can corner people late at night; the company that developed the game, Niantic, came under fire for the extreme data permissions it demands from users who use their Google accounts to join the game; Suffolk County police have recently called on Pokémon Go to prevent sex offenders from using the game to target youths.

But this story is not about those problems. This story is about how, in spite of every legitimate reason people have to hate Pokémon Go, the game is giving users one more reason to stay obsessed. As tech magazine Fast Company aptly puts it: Pokémon Go is helping us fall in love with our cities.

It’s a phenomenon I’ve been seeing firsthand here in New Haven. My house is about three doors down from a park that acts as a Pokestop, or location in the game where people can collect Pokeballs, candy, and other items that help them get ahead. And when people walk by, phone hovering a foot or so from their face, all I have to do is yell, “Pokémon?” to get a conversation with a complete stranger started on my stoop. In a city where I've found strangers are usually reticent to speak to each other, this sudden friendliness is a welcome change from the status quo.

I spoke to players Michael Eskridge and Daniel O’Rourke at a local games cafe, Elm City Games, and they said conversations like mine are happening to them nonstop. “We have met tons of people through this,” O’Rourke says.

Because so many people play this game now, there’s suddenly a lot of strangers bumping into each other -- with a lot to talk about.

“I actually ended up talking to a visiting couple for about 45 minutes just about the game,” says Eskridge.

As if to prove their point, as we leave Elm City Games in pursuit of a rare Pokémon called a Koffing, three complete strangers walk by. “Hey! Hello!” Eskridge says. The strangers ask what team the two guys are on. Some light ribbing ensues. They all go their separate ways.

Molly Sauter, a PhD student at McGill University who researches online activism and digital politics, says the opportunity for real-world interactions like these are one of the things that fans of augmented reality games find so exciting. Sauter says: “When you have something that you know you have in common with someone else it’s a lot easier to say hello to them and exchange information because you have something to talk about.”

People who play Pokémon tell me in these moments, they feel like they’re breaking down social barriers and getting to know their neighbors in a new way. And that cuts through some of the coldness of modern cities.

Sauter says there’s another way people are falling in love with their cities through Pokémon Go. Because the game forces you to go to local landmarks to get candy, Pokémon, or other game benefits, that’s leading people to take a closer look at parts of their cities when they might have just walked by. Sauter says: “Getting you outside and getting you walking around different communities and different places, that’s a really valuable thing."

This is the kind of urban exploration O’Rourke and Eskridge say they’ve seen in New Haven as they run to the different landmarks that make up the city’s Pokestops. “I started wandering my own neighborhood,” says O’Rourke, “and I found a library I didn't know was there before.”

It’s also the kind of urban exploration that Elm City Games co-owner Matt Fantastic is banking on. “It’s super weird that this dumb, incredibly fun game is creating these instant communities,” says Fantastic. “People who would never talk to each otherwise are connecting to each other on this thing.”

He’s been playing the game and setting up lures that draw more Pokémon toward the cafe -- and, he hopes, more customers with the Pokémon. “We’re getting to meet new people who maybe didn’t know we existed,” he says. “I don’t know that it’s translated to a measurable bump in sales, but we’re definitely getting people popping their heads in and stuff like that.”

According to Forbes Magazine, Elm City Games isn’t alone. Businesses and cultural institutions across the country are advertising when you can catch Pokémon nearby.

It remains to be seen how they’ll wield their new Pokepower, or if the bonding power of Pokémon dies down when the novelty of the game wears off. But for now, the game is bringing me down a side street with O’Rourke and Eskridge, to look at a conceptual sculpture in the federal government courtyard while Eskridge grabs a photo.

This interaction may be temporary, but I don't need to overthink it. Thanks to Pokémon Go, this city -- and the people in it -- suddenly feel a little more special.

Kathie is a former editor at WSHU.