Why 'Pokemon Go' Sucks in the Suburbs

How much fun the game lets you have is entirely dependent on your real world surroundings. Why? Because America has lousy level design

The joys of 'Pokemon Go' are much more apparent in dense, urban locales. Credit: Photo: Getty Images - Anadolu Agency

Ever since Pokémon Go conquered the zeitgeist, there’s been a strain of rosy tech utopianism running through much of the media coverage of it. This mobile app has got Americans on their feet and walking around! They’re exploring their surroundings and interacting with strangers like they're Europeans or something! It’s reconnecting players with the world, and with each other!

This sort of rhetoric, especially when it comes to tech, is usually just duplicitous bullshit that’s meant to sell you something or plunder your personal information. There are certainly legit privacy concerns about Pokémon Go, and the fact that I am sorely tempted to pay $39.99 in real world currency for 5,200 Pokécoins is deeply distressing to me. It's also hard to shake the fact that I'm having a relatively rarefied experience with Pokémon Go simply due to where I live – that if my address were in the suburbs as opposed to one of the densest zip codes in the country, I may not be enjoying it much at all.

Pokémon Go is about discovery, both in the real world and in the augmented reality (or "AR") overlay of the real world in which the game takes place. And as is obvious by now, there simply is more to discover in dense, urban areas. I thought I knew my neighborhood in downtown San Francisco well. But in the course of playing, I have stumbled upon strange pieces of street art, tiny parks, unusual museums, and hundred-year-old advertising murals that I never noticed before. It's an embarrassment of riches in game terms when it comes to Pokémon Go.

Traditionally, when we see people out and about with their faces buried in their phones, we think of them as being sealed off from their surroundings by a hermetic bubble of data. But Pokémon Go, and the avalanche of location-based AR apps that may follow, have the potential to turn that bubble into a window. Maybe this game really can nudge our collective national behaviors in a different direction.

James Sinclair, who runs a blog dedicated to issues of urban planning and transportation called Stop and Move, is impressed with Pokémon Go's potential. "Many organizations and local governments have invested heavily in promoting walkability, and getting people to learn about their neighborhoods and their neighbors,” he says. "And this game has accomplished that so quickly.”

Just as Pokémon Go is the result of an ambitious partnership between Nintendo, The Pokémon Company, and Niantic Labs, it’s also the result of an ambitious collaboration between Niantic and the people who play its games. There are millions of PokéStops and gyms around the world, each of which is anchored to some local point of interest.

These points of interest were mostly created by players of Niantic’s previous game Ingress. "We spent some time thinking about what kinds of locations should be at the core of a game that's designed to get you outside and moving around,” says Niantic Labs CEO John Hanke. "We really thought that it would be most interesting to build that around places that had some cultural attribute. A place that if you wandered up to it, you would be happy that you did. You would learn something new, you would see something cool or interesting to you.”

He points out that Yelp or Google Maps will give you an exhaustive rundown of area shops and business, but not all of the culturally interesting locales. "The statue in the park with the benches around it, that wasn't really mapped in any systematic way,” he says. "We initially seeded the data set with some historical markers and public artwork, and then we set up a system within Ingress so that users could submit new locations to us. So it's crowd-sourced, but then filtered on our side to get the good stuff from all the stuff that was submitted.”

Ingress has well over a million players, a figure that seemed quite impressive before Pokémon Go came along. The points of interest that Ingress players had photographed and geotagged were imported directly into Pokémon Go. It’s sort of staggering how many tags there are. However, there’s no denying that our bold location-based AR future is unevenly distributed at present.

There were naturally far more Ingress players in densely populated big cities, where there are plenty of points of interest for them to tag. I live in a dense downtown, and whenever I log into the game, I see a half dozen Pokémon Gyms, and hundreds of PokéStops where I can pick up tools and power-ups to aid me in the game. But not every locale has the critical mass of content that I’ve been enjoying.

In a recent blog post, Sinclair noted that the fun factor of the game is highly dependent on your real world surroundings. "The game experience is entirely different between those who live in dense, urban areas with tight street networks and scores of points of interest, and those who don't,” he says. "You don't need a Manhattan-style grid to enjoy Pokémon Go, but you do need some density if you want to have any fun.”

If you visit forums like the Pokémon Go subreddit, you'll see people who live in suburban sprawls or rural areas commiserating about how their area is a PokéStop desert, and their gyms are uncontested. "Closest PokéStop is five miles up the road,” bemoans one redditor. "Almost 30 miles from any Pokémon, PokéStops or Gyms,” writes another. "Not everyone lives in or even near a city.”

One way to look at this is that it’s a design flaw of the real world, not of the game. America itself has bad level design. Many urban theorists argue that the features that make cities vibrant are the same sort of features that would make a game like Pokémon Go particularly fun to play in cities.

"Gaming and urban redesign are not the same thing, but they’re related; they incentivize one another,” says Geoff Manaugh, architecture writer and author of the book A Burglar’s Guide to the City. "One of the things that has really drawn people to cities throughout Western history has been surprise, juxtaposition and adjacency. Rural and or suburban environments tend to be almost the opposite. They try to control landscape, and control the experiences you might have there. People move there specifically for a Groundhog Day experience.”

Another way to look at this is that most of the country is – once again – being left out in the cold by the urban elites. The game was built by a San Francisco developer, and its world was populated by geeky tech-savvy people who tend to congregate in urban areas and college towns. Just as the economic recovery from the Great Recession hasn’t been felt as much by people outside of major metropolitan areas, Pokémon Go players in other areas don’t get the same experience. (There have even been reports of virtual redlining, with a dearth of Pokémon Go locations in black communities.)

The challenge for Niantic Labs and Nintendo going forward is not just to build out the game by making it more robust and less buggy. They have to make the density of the game more uniform. Last Thursday, the developer created a form that allowed players to petition for new PokéStops and gyms, but it was taken down soon after it appeared.

Hanke insists that he wants players outside of major metropolises to have a good experience too. "I grew up in a small Texas town of a thousand people," he says. "It had one blinking stoplight, but it did have a library, it had a small museum, it had some murals painted on the sides of buildings, it had some public artwork in front of city hall. There are a number of places that are portals and PokéStops in that community and that's true of most small communities around the world at this point. No doubt there are places where people might wish the density was higher, but it is something that we've been thinking about for a long time.”

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