'Pokémon Go' Has Been The Highlight of a Terrible Year

The return of Pokémania – this time for phones – was the perfect antidote to a relentlessly bleak newscycle in 2016

Niantic's 'Pokémon Go' is as much a social experience as a mobile game Credit: Glixel / Getty

In the last six months, I've walked around the city I grew up in with my childhood best friend, revisiting places we'd not been to in more than a decade all in the service of Pokémon-hunting. I've directed a group of grateful teenagers towards a Cloyster that spawned, amazingly, right by a pub in Edinburgh, Scotland that is literally called Cloisters. I’ve exchanged knowing glances and smiles and – occasionally – even actual words with English strangers, which almost never happens. A friend visited Japan this year, and ended up making friends with a guy in a bar who guided him and his girlfriend around Tokyo as they sought out a Farfetch’d (a Pokémon you can only get in Asia).

It’s these real-world memories, forged while physically walking around in places at once familiar and suddenly imbued with invisible magic, that will stick with me this year, rather than the virtual achievements that video games usually offer. Pokémon Go has been a vital source of positivity in 2016, and these bitesize moments of spontaneous connection with other human beings have been frequent bright spots in crazy – and often dark – times. Brexit, "post-truth", "what's an Aleppo?" – there's not been much to feel good about this year. 2016 has been – as Last Week Tonight host John Oliver put it during his season finale – shit: an unprecedented assault on our collective sanity through every available channel. Pokémon Go has been about the only thing I look at on my phone that doesn’t make me feel terrible.

The app, developed by Niantic under license from Nintendo and the Pokémon Company, was a surprise mega-success of globe-spanning proportions. At its peak shortly after launch in July, it was the most popular mobile game in US history, with 44 million players across the world. It is one of a very few games that, for a while at least, had an impact on the world. Australian suburbs home to rare Pokémon were inundated by hundreds of people. If your business happened to be near a Pokéstop, you could expect a sudden upturn in custom. Parts of Tokyo were crowded out with thousands of players after a rumour spread that a rare monster could be found there. For a while, everywhere you looked in my seaside town of Brighton, you’d see at least a couple of people flicking Pokéballs at imaginary creatures while things in the wider world were increasingly going south.

It's easier not to think about politics for half an hour when you’re chasing a Gengar around the center of your city

I can't help but feel that these two things are related. 46% of Pokémon Go players are between 18-29 years old, the exact demographic that has been most vocally distressed by 2016's unrelenting terribleness: the demographic that voted 75% against Brexit in the UK (YouGov polling) and 63% against Donald Trump in the US (New York Times exit polling). What’s more, partly due to the app's design, 88% of players live in urban areas, which have been resistant to this year’s wave of political populism. It is not far-fetched to suggest that a need for distraction and, perhaps, comfort amongst this group of people might have super-charged what would already have been an extraordinary popular phenomenon. It's easier not to think about politics for half an hour when you’re chasing a Gengar around the center of your city. Notably, according to SurveyMonkey Intelligence data, this age group has stuck with Pokémon Go throughout the year despite a large drop-off in overall active players.

A majority of the people caught up in Pokémon Go craze were part of the original late Nineties generation of Pokémon kids with their Game Boys and their trading cards, now all grown up and possessed of smartphones and disposable income. Technology has advanced over the past 20 years to the point where a fantasy universe that we loved as children can be brought to life in the real world using a magic handheld computer, but meanwhile, a lot of the values and promises that we grew up with feel like they are under existential threat – but fuck it, at least Pokémon is still here, right?

But there’s a unique aspect to Pokémon Go that makes it different to every other video game-related phenomenon I’ve witnessed. Most of the time when we talk about how games can help people through hard times, we talk about escapism: how virtual worlds can be a reprieve from the problems of the real one, or offer a sense of achievement and purpose when that's lacking in people's own lives. Pokémon Go, though, is not about escapism, but connection. It connects its players with their local area and the people around them, like you’re looking at the world through a different lens.