Whitman Campus Raid Group 3JPG.JPG

Pokémon Go is the augmented-reality game that has players from Walla Walla to Yokosuku, Japan, catching virtual creatures in real-world locations. Players of all ages snag the colorful, animated Pokémon almost anywhere and everywhere: city parks, shopping malls, government buildings — even living rooms and backyards.

This means a lot of fun for players, and a lot of cash for the American software company Niantic. According to Forbes.com, the three-year-old game grossed $1.8 billion at the end of 2018, and with over 800 million downloads, it’s one of the most successful mobile games in existence.

Walla Walla students Olivier Nicault, 16, and William Huntsman, 17, are part of the global Pokémon Go phenomenon. They’ve been playing “on and off” since the game’s release in July 2016 and stress that it’s a good game to play with friends, especially for those who like to stay active.

“It’s something to do when you’re bored,” Olivier says, careful not to sound too excited.

It’s around 5 p.m. on a sunny Saturday, and Olivier and William have biked to the front lawn of the Kirkman House Museum to meet up with a small group of Walla Walla Valley Pokémon Go players. The group connects using the chat channel on the mobile phone app Discord. Discord is a free software that assists players of all types of video games with communication and collaborative play.

When players meet up through Discord, they often identify each other by their Pokémon Go handles. As Olivier and William — known as Olivergarden and DankLordofMemes — work to take down a Pokémon Go raid boss at the Kirkman House Museum’s PokeGym, they’re being assisted by players Adam Wolfgang, known by Pokehandle WolfgangxZ, and his friend McKenzie, who laughs that her Pokehandle is “not appropriate” (it’s not so bad) to share.

Adam and McKenzie stress that Pokémon Go is about community more than gaming.

“It runs on team play. Virtual gaming communities can be toxic, but Pokémon Go encourages cooperation,” McKenzie says. “It’s fun.”

Adam adds that, “On the weekend, there’s always something: community day, raids, x-raids.”

They both acknowledge it can be difficult to get a raid group together, hence the popularity of Discord.

McKenzie moved to Walla Walla to intern in the laboratory of Providence St. Mary Medical Center. She started playing Pokémon GO with her roommate while walking to the Washington State University campus in Pullman. For McKenzie, the game is a good incentive to exercise. In fact, her academic adviser lost 20 pounds playing Pokémon GO.

This kind of gamification — that is, making a task fun by adding gamelike elements (Mary Poppins did it when she wanted the kids to clean the nursery), yields scientifically proven results.

A study published in the The Journal of the American Heart Association reported that “Pokémon GO participation was associated with a significant increase in (physical activity) among young adults.”

Josiah Ward of Walla Walla, who drove his truck to a downtown Pokémon Go raid with some friends, acknowledges that not all aspects of the game promote exercise. He usually doesn’t have a difficult time finding support for raid battles because there are plenty of interested players — in fact, he mentions that the Walla Walla Pokémon Discord boasts over 500 accounts.

Josiah’s grateful for the thriving community of players: “You’d be surprised by the diversity — nurses, cops, wine-industry people — every type of person plays,” he says.

It’s especially apparent on during community day, a monthly three-hour window during which players have the opportunity to catch ‘mons with a special move set (it can make ‘mons better fighters) and earn extra “Star Dust” (this boosts a Pokémon’s power or allows players to trade ‘mons) or “XP” (the “experience points” needed to level up) in the process.

The elusive, “shiny” (alternately pigmented) ‘mons are far more prevalent during community day. Josiah notes that during a recent community day, he counted over 100 Pokémon Go players walking around Walla Walla’s downtown.

Downtown Walla Walla has a high concentration of Pokestops and Pokegyms, and for Diana Herrmann and her 11-year-old son, Kieran, it’s a favorite place to play. Diana and Kieran regularly make what they call “downtown runs,” hitting as many stops as they can, but they also enjoy playing at Pioneer Park. The Pokémon Go duo can’t always play together; Kieran goes to school and Diana works at Walla Walla Community College. Still, at the end of the day, Kieran’s favorite question according to Diana, is: “Did you get anything new today?”

He wants to know if she caught or hatched any new ‘mons. Kieran nods at his mom. “I’m always bummed out when you say ‘no.’”

When the answer is “yes,” Kieran fully evaluates the acquisition by crunching the numbers.

“It’s always an intensive research project,” Diane says. “He knows all the stats — that one’s good for that, that one does that.”

She smiles at Kieran. She started playing the game because Kieran wanted to — Diana knows several moms who started playing at their child’s request. After all, the game requires access to a smartphone, something many kids don’t have.

According to the website Business of Apps, only 32% of all Pokémon Go players are aged 18 or younger, and 40% of players are 35 or older.

Pokémon Go draws a diversity of players for a whole host of reasons: staying active, connecting with community, exploring a town and participating in global impact events such as Niantic’s Earth Day cleanup campaign. There’s also the game’s cuteness factor.

Pikachu, that little yellow ‘mon with a lightning bolt tail, wears holiday-themed hats: a Santa hat in December and a witch’s hat in October. The recent release of the Pokémon Detective feature film coincided with a catchable detective-hat-wearing Pikachu.

Perhaps even cuter, some Pokémon have “baby” versions of themselves that can be “hatched” in the game. Happiny and Mantyke, baby versions of ‘mons Chaunsey and Manteen, respectively, can set hearts aflutter. 

Alongside the copious doses of cuteness, there are equally gnarly ‘mons (Kabutops, Pinsir, and Skorupi aren’t cuddly); bizarre ‘mons (Breloom, Drifloon, Exeggutor, plus the deeply unsettling Mr. Mime), and lots of cool dragons (Tyranitar, Salamence, and Rayquaza, to name a few). It’s no wonder hundreds of millions of people “Gotta catch ‘em all.”

Whether residents of Walla Walla realize it or not, their neighbors, friends, baristas, health care providers, teachers and winemakers are playing Pokémon Go.

And unlike so many online gaming communities with reputations of aggressive bullying, the moderators and administrators of Walla Walla’s Pokémon Go communities on Discord and Facebook work hard to make gaming fun for everybody.

The Walla Walla Valley Pokémon Go Facebook group admins acknowledge that “Pokémon Go brings together people of many backgrounds, including a variety of religions and age groups.”

They ban profanity, cheating, harassment and trolling, and they do their best to make gaming with the Walla Walla Valley Pokémon Go community “a great experience for all.”

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