When “Pokémon Go” was released in July of 2016, the world opened up for my angsty 13-year-old self. As a shy middle schooler, I didn’t get out much outside of my small group of friends. I liked video games, I was too sweaty and I was full of raging insecurity. Despite this, “Pokémon Go” allowed me to transcend those notions of awkwardness. I felt as though world peace had been achieved: Kids that never spoke to me at school were suddenly adding me as a friend in-game and hanging out with me downtown to catch as many Pokémon as we could. Kids that spent all their time playing video games indoors were now flocking to the streets in groups to advance their rank. It was a time like no other, yet the worldwide phenomenon seemingly died down after that summer.
Developed by Niantic, “Pokémon Go” is a mobile game that incorporates location tracking in order to place Pokémon at your location in real time. The game imports a map of wherever you are, showing real landmarks such as bodies of water or major buildings. As you move, your in-game character moves with you, and more Pokémon appear as you walk. The game’s “PokéStops” and gyms are also based on real locations — many of the University of Michigan class buildings are PokéStops, including Palmer Commons, the Michigan League and several more. Interacting with one of these locations grants players additional items, such as Poké Balls that can be used to catch more Pokémon. There’s a huge incentive to play as you walk outdoors; you can gather more items, catch more Pokémon, trade and battle with other players and even hatch Pokémon eggs. The more kilometers you walk, the more eggs you hatch, which is one of my favorite features of the game. I feel rewarded simply for going to class (outside of furthering my education, of course) when I see a cute Azurill hatch from my phone.
I left my “Pokémon Go” account behind shortly after fall of 2016. It seemed as though my peers weren’t as invested anymore. I was moving on to high school and didn’t want to appear immature, either. I never stopped loving Pokémon as a franchise, though — I still kept up with all the major console releases and was even asked out by my boyfriend for the first time via a special trade in Sun and Moon. But it seemed as though the mobile game wasn’t a hot topic anymore; since the community aspect was what made the game fun, I felt no need to continue playing.
My father convinced me otherwise about a year ago. After I moved out, he began playing frequently and sending me screenshots of each Pokémon he caught. He had the same enthusiasm I did as a middle schooler; he would go on long trail walks with the sole purpose of catching rare Pokémon, always urging me to join him. With that overflowing love, I was inspired to re-download the game.
I tried to convince my two roommates to join the party, too, assuming I’d be the sole player in Ann Arbor. However, I could not have been more wrong: “Pokémon Go” has been an unexpected blessing in my college social life. There were seemingly hundreds of players around town; I was shocked to see active PokéStops and gyms. On one of my first days playing, I was having a coffee on State and Liberty, battling Pokémon at the Starbucks gym. A mysterious, kind stranger in-game was battling by my side — we were in the same Starbucks, but I never saw them. It’s a strangely magical feeling. In the world of “Pokémon Go,” you’re never really alone. There’s a mutual acknowledgment of in-game success between us, even though we are two strangers passing on the street.
Sometimes the interactions are deeper than that. A few weeks back, my roommate and I were playing on a Friday night, running around town like giddy schoolchildren at midnight. We decided to pick up some pizza at New York Pizza Depot, waiting in the ever-winding line alongside other rowdy students. As I was standing in line, catching myself a Gastly, I felt someone unfamiliar approaching me. “Hey, add me on Go.” I lifted my eyes to see a student holding up his phone, showing me his friend code. It was beautiful. I felt that same sense of whimsical, childlike joy as I had in 2016, and scrambled to give him my code. To say I made a friend from this experience may be an exaggeration, but we continue even now to send each other daily gifts in-game, pushing each other toward Pokémon success. It’s a rewarding experience, to be seen in a vulnerable, nerdy state and feel accepted. That brief moment of conversation with a complete stranger about a common interest fills me with warmth.
I’ve even joined the “Ann Arbor Pokémon Go” Discord community, which at the time of writing has over 3,000 members. It’s moving how dedicated people are to helping each other out — the server has designated channels for battle codes in order for users to join together and win big. The community’s website even has a list of restaurants that are conveniently close to clusters of PokéStops, which is a cute touch. Whenever I’m with my roommates at Quickly, we take advantage of the cluster of PokéStops around us, joyfully sipping our boba teas. It’s the perfect way to take a break during a long day of studying. While I’m out and about waiting for a coffee order, I can stop to smell the roses by checking what cute Pokémon are around.
I can vaguely check in on all of the friends I’ve made along the way through the in-game gifts feature, too. Each day, players have the opportunity to send each other a prepackaged gift of items similar to those you’d find in a PokéStop. However, these gifts differ as they’re based on locations you’ve visited, as well as customized with a cute sticker of your choice. My online friends can show me their favorite hometown restaurants; my Ann Arbor friends can let me know where they’ve been on campus. When my dad travels for work, receiving a gift from him is a perfect way to start a conversation. He sends me a gift from an airport in San Francisco, alongside a text of a rare Pokémon he caught there. It’s been really fun to keep in touch this way; we save each other lots of Pokémon to trade when we get the opportunity to see each other in person.
At the end of the day, I love “Pokémon Go” because it’s not a game I ever lose sleep over. It’s casual and fun, meant to be played alongside friends and family. If there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s that the Go community is by no means dead. In Ann Arbor, “Pokémon Go” is alive and well, proving itself to be a wonderful way to supplement my stressful college life. If you’re looking to start your own Pokémon journey, this guide is a great help. Happy catching!
Daily Arts Writer Katelyn Sliwinski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.