Adventures in Pokémon Go

They say dog walkers always find the bodies. Well, it has sometimes felt a bit like that playing Pokémon Go. Over the past five years I’ve ended up in some unexpected places, sometimes at odd times of day and, as a result, in some strange situations.

I’ve been lucky enough to travel a bit, walk a lot, and make lovely friends because of Pokémon Go. I have seen people meet because of this game and get engaged. I have seen others leave marriages and settle down with Pokémon Go players they have found. I’ve seen first hand how it has helped people get through some incredibly tough times.

Here’s a few stories, in order to celebrate this week’s Pokémon Go fifth anniversary.

I moved out of central Brighton around six years ago, and for almost a year really didn’t know anyone around me or any of my surroundings. I remember my parents visiting and asking if I’d visited some local landmark they’d gone to see that morning. I had no idea it existed. Then along came Pokémon Go, pushing me around my local area, which was already filled with in-game locations to uncover. Working in Brighton, too, was a real blessing. At lunch we’d leave the office in groups to catch creatures, or run outside mid-afternoon en masse if something rare turned up nearby. To Eurogamer’s credit, this never resulted in a disciplinary.

It’s hard to remember how basic Pokémon Go was back then, when catching Pokémon was the only thing to do. These early days were also rife with scanners, programs designed to sweep areas and map where Pokémon were hiding. You could see creature locations overlayed on Google Maps, or have Discord bots ping you for anything good nearby.

One evening, around midnight, I headed out for a Snorlax. I live on the edge of the countryside and there was a Snorlax sitting on a path about 20 minutes away. So off I went, past the point where the streetlights stopped and I had to turn my phone torch on. I’d not walked there before and as I passed the last house before the edge of town I realised I was now doing a bit of a nervous jog through the darkness. Eventually I got to the Snorlax, got it on screen and immediately turned around to head home, into the faces of two people standing right behind me. Snorlax blocks paths, not people! And not in the middle of nowhere. “What are you doing?” they asked. Erm.

These people had come out of their house – the last house on the edge of town – after seeing a torchlight go past at midnight. They thought I was a burglar. I held up the Snorlax on my phone screen. “Oh!” was the response. “Really?” After a minute we were chatting about the area and swapping names and then I was scurrying away. I remember one of them was called Badger. The Snorlax ran.

After a year, Pokémon Go revamped its gym system and vastly improved the app’s territorial attacking and defending gameplay. Some people take it very seriously. Even now, areas nearby will always be held by certain colour teams overnight, dependent on where players live. One prolific player we hunted down by putting up posters with their username in the local park where they’d always take gyms, with a message to join our Facebook chat group.

I live beside a cluster of gyms I can hold overnight, confident I’ll be kicked out in the morning and earn my daily helping of in-game coins. If I’m not in at least one of them, I’ll often pop out late and take one of the gyms back, and usually no one will still be awake to claim it back themselves. But this wasn’t the case one night, a year or so back, when someone I didn’t recognise the username of seemed to be camped outside. Another local had spotted the gym repeatedly changing hands between me and this random player, and said they were walking past anyway so would see if anyone was actually around. We suspected someone was spoofing – cheating using an app that fakes their location – and not really sat outside for an hour. But, it turns out, someone was.

More time passed and I didn’t hear back, so I went out to check what was going on. I bumped into my friend outside who looked a little taken aback, and I asked if they were okay. “Yes, but…” They had met the very real person camped outside and had had a quick conversation. It turned out that person was staying in town that night as they were serving as a witness in a local murder trial, and had been playing – repeatedly battling gyms – to distract them from what had been one of the worst days of their life. Fair enough, I said… I think I’ll let them have the gym and go back inside.

Raiding came along and brought its own set of challenges. There was the in-game kind – using the right team to beat the boss – and the outside the game kind – joining raiding groups, corralling people to the right locations at the right times, trying to accommodate for fellow players’ unpredictable natures. Pokémon Go’s userbase really does cover all ages and abilities, and in my local group there’s an amazing mix of teachers, lawyers, students, retirees, shop workers, engineers, child minders, pub landlords… and if you played the game, raiding brought you together out of necessity – you needed big groups to beat the game’s bosses. Raids also helped put faces to usernames seen in local gyms, and really started to spark proper friendships.

One time we were headed to a raid at a church on the edge of town, down a narrow country lane. This was back when a load of us would spend a few hours on a Saturday afternoon scrambling around – or driving that day, I think it was raining – to do every raid in sight. Raids have gotten easier now, as people have better Pokémon, and there are newer benefits for raiding with friends or Mega Evolved creatures, which mean you need fewer folk to defeat a boss. But back then you frequently needed up to 10 players, and people would turn up in multiple cars as part of a convoy.

When we got to the church, we saw the road outside had lots of cars parked on it, but no one was around so we didn’t think much more of it. We were in a people cruiser – one of the big ones with three rows of seats, full of Pokémon-playing friends. Anyway, the raid got underway, and almost immediately an empty hearse turned up. Ah, there was a funeral going on inside. We left as quickly as we could and no one noticed us, but maneuvering the people cruiser around in the tiny lane ended up in an Austin Powers situation where we were doing a 20-point turn for several minutes.

I realise a lot of these stories involve awkward situations. Perhaps that says a lot about the kinds of memories which stick around in my head. The reality, though, is that Pokémon Go has been an almost exclusively positive part of my life the past five years, even if the little daily interactions with friends on the street or afternoons recently spent outside in pub gardens with a beer and a phone just aren’t as attention grabbing.

Some nice memories? Offering up a pair of spare cinema tickets to two local players for a film which, secretly at the time, became their first date – I’m going to their wedding next year. Spotting another pair of players holding hands on their first date in Brighton, sheepishly trying to hide it when I first said hello. Being surrounded by Pokémon Go friends at my wedding when someone demanded the Pokémon theme be played. Various occasions zooming around the countryside in friends’ cars, or crashing through woods in the game’s early days, trying to find something incredibly rare. Community day picnics. Playing abroad, and using Pokémon Go as a common language. Discovering my local area, and walking to stay sane during lockdown. Friends who helped when someone was getting treatment for a serious illness, or who assisted when another friend urgently needed a place to stay.

This week I got an email with some in-game stats from the past five years. I began playing Pokémon Go the day it was released in the UK, 14th July 2016, and am about to tick over to Level 47. I have visited 70,000 PokéStops, and walked over 10,000km. But these numbers only tell a fraction of the story. Like any hobby, Pokémon Go remains about the connections you make with those who enjoy the same things you do, and the memories you make along the way. Here’s to many more.