Jul 12, 2016

How playing Pokémon Go around Bengaluru connected me to a city I had never explored before

Chasing fictional monsters on a screen made me come to terms with the fact that I had never explored my neighbourhood properly before.


[Edit note: If you want to know how to download Pokemon in India]
It’s 7am on a rainy Sunday in Bengaluru and I’m walking down a winding route from Cunningham Road to Koramangala. It’s quite some distance to cover – about 8km – but I am prepared: I’m wearing comfortable walking shoes, and there’s a bottle of water in my backpack. About a quarter of an hour into my walk, I can see the leaves at the edge of the footpath rustling. I fling my Poké Ball and boom — a Pidgey, a small, bird-like Pokémon with angry eyes and sharp claws —  is mine.
I am, of course, playing Pokémon Go, the hot new mobile game based on the wildly popular Japanese animated series owned by gamemaker Nintendo, that is currently taking the world by storm. If you grew up in urban India at the beginning of the century, you will have heard – at least in passing – about the Pokémon universe. Pokémon, or Pocket Monsters, are creatures with special powers. The show follows protagonist Ash Ketchum, who devotes his life to catching them in order to become a great Pokémaster. In his quest to catch these creatures in the wild or by fighting other catchers, he goes on adventures where he also makes new friends and enemies.

Pokemon Go is such a viral hit that it has added $9 billion to Nintendo’s market value causing a 25% jump — the highest since 1983.

The brand new Pokémon Go game is such a viral hit that it’s already bigger than Tinder and is about to overtake Twitter in terms of daily active users, and has added $9 billion to Nintendo’s market value, causing a 25% jump — the highest it has been since 1983.
The game is special because it combines augmented reality (AR) with the Pokémon ecosystem. The game uses GPS and your phone’s camera to superimpose the Pokémon universe onto the real world around you, and you can ‘catch’ Pokémon by walking around your city or neighbourhood. The more you walk, the more you catch. In order to catch different varieties of these monsters, you have to explore the city. On the way, you will land up at ‘gyms’, fictional arena-like places that are mapped onto real-life landmarks. In Bengaluru, for instance, the Jumma Masjid in Shivajinagar is a gym location. You can capture gyms, fight other players in the city and earn more rewards. The more gyms you capture, the less you have to walk every day, because capturing a gym gives you daily rewards.

Pokémon in India

Pokémon first came to India in 2003 as part of Cartoon Network’s Toonami segment that featured anime dubbed in Hindi and other Indian languages. I was 13, but my post-school lunchtime slot was reserved for watching Pokémon along with my seven-year-old brother, which means that I lived and breathed Pokémon through my teens (I still know the title track in Hindi).
I am going to attribute the initial success of the game to seamless way it blends the real and virtual worlds into one coherent experience. You don’t have to be a Pokémon fan or know anything about the Pokémon universe to play. So far, I’ve seen a professor, a very busy female friend with little knowledge of Pokémon, and a fellow Scrabble-head get hooked and run around to find a Clefairy, a chubby, star-shaped Pokémon, in someone’s parking lot.

Right off the bat, I was assigned a Charmander, a lizard-like Pokémon with a flaming tail, by default.
Right off the bat, I was assigned a Charmander, a lizard-like Pokémon with a flaming tail, by default.

I discovered Pokémon Go late last week, just two days after its launch in a handful of countries, after American friends started posting pictures on social media. It’s available for both iPhone and Android, but if you’re an iPhone user in India, you’re going to have to jump through a few hoops to get it, since it’s not available in the country through the App Store yet. On Android, hundreds, if not thousands of Indians, are already downloading a standalone installer from less-than-official sources.
My first day was uneventful. I was assigned a Charmander, a lizard-like Pokémon with a flaming tail, by default. Although I could see leaves rustle as I walked, (a sign that you are near a Pokémon), the only successful catches were two Zubats (low-level, bat-like Pokémon). But on Saturday morning, I opened the app, and found a Cubone, a spiky Pokémon with horns on its head, right outside my house. As I traipsed through the city, I kept collecting more Pokémon, but I was disappointed that places like Cubbon Park or Ulsoor Lake didn’t have many – the company claims that you’ll find water Pokémon near real-life water bodies.

Dodging traffic and circling a park twice to sniff out a hidden creature became the new normal, and so did getting stared at by people around me thinking I was filming them.

Given the poor shape that Bangalore’s pavements are in, I grudgingly wandered, keeping an eye on traffic, hoping to catch more with the least effort. Fighting the common wisdom that Bangalore is a terrible city to walk in, the motivation to discover and catch more creatures made me gradually embody the game’s world. Every time I encountered a pothole, I could relate to Ash Ketchum’s difficulties, though our paths were bumpy for very different reasons. At some point, I was obsessed. Dodging traffic and circling a park twice to sniff out a hidden creature became the new normal, and so did getting stared at by people around me thinking I was filming them (the game requires you to point your phone at the real world to capture a wild Pokémon).
Pokémon Go was probably imagined for cities where traffic signals work, and pedestrians actually have right of way. Here in India, chasing a Pokémon across a busy intersection with your face glued to your phone can mean instant death. To get around this, I teamed up with a friend who also wanted to play. One of us kept an eye on the road, while the other kept her eyes peeled for any hidden Pokémon around.
We toured Shivajinagar, marvelling at real-life temples that were also repositories of coins and potions in the Pokémon universe, catching a Meowth, a cat-shaped Pokémon on a mound of wet garbage, and stopping in our tracks to reckon with the fact that we had never paid such close attention to the neighbourhood.
Here's my Rhydon battling out a a Nidorino smack in the middle of Bengaluru
Here’s my Rhydon battling out a a Nidorino smack in the middle of Bengaluru

There is, indeed, some hipster-like, privileged sense of ‘discovery’ to an app that ‘gamifies’ your own locality, which you could have navigated without staring at a smartphone in the first place. But language, however, has been a big barrier for my discovery of Bengaluru – looking the part and speaking Kannada are essential to access the ‘real city’ in some cases. And thanks to Bengaluru’s dismal traffic situation, we treat intra-city travel as a tedious ritual, choosing, therefore, to focus our attention on the spaces we occupy on a daily basis for utilitarian things: cafes, offices, and restaurants. Pokémon Go afforded me some much-needed motivation to loiter. I wandered over 16km over the weekend according to an in-game counter, a feat that I have never achieved before.

AR goes mainstream with Pokémon Go

Augmented reality games have arguably been a part of mainstream gaming for a few years now – remember Ingress, the location-based multiplayer sci-fi game that achieved cult status around the world  just a few years ago? – but none of them have gone as mainstream as Pokémon Go. Developed by Niantic Labs (which also made Ingress), Pokémon Go is a result of the combined investment and effort of Google, Niantic and Nintendo. In fact, a cursory look at the Pokéstops — places where you can earn rewards by checking in — in India suggests that the game might be using Ingress’ location data. Most of the stops I’ve encountered so far in Bengaluru are churches, temples, mosques, some historic monuments, and, interestingly, public art murals – all locations where Ingress portals existed.

The implications go beyond entertainment. The commercial potential of Pokéstops is obvious and immense.

The challenge with playing such games in India is understanding the fact that we are not the primary or even the target market for them. If the game in question is based on real-world location data, for instance, the experience is not optimised for India. As I crossed entire streets in Bengaluru with little incentive to keep going, I kept wishing that the developers would pay more attention to India (launching the game in the country officially would be a good start). Having a local community around the game will help identify places of interest, and help collect more data about location accuracy.
The implications go beyond entertainment. The commercial potential of Pokéstops is obvious and immense. Buying real world objects to get ahead in the game, or using check-in points to access a real-world item are both directions that games like this can take.  
Pokémon Go is the beginning of a new gaming trend, and evidence that augmented reality works, and can be popular, fun, and educational across the world. Imagine walking for hours around the city as if it were Hogwarts, casting spells, playing Quidditch, or making a pilgrimage to Hogsmeade near Bengaluru’s Majestic bus stand, and not feeling the burden of exercise. In each case, it’s not the novel technology that’s the hero but the fact that we have already been participating in online communities through games, fandoms and fictional universes. Games like PokémonGo only make them tangible.

Noopur Raval is a Ph.D candidate at the University of California, Irvine, in Informatics.  She’s interested in questions of technology, labour and gender.

Edited by: Pranav Dixit

FactorDaily’s journalism is produced by some of the best brains in the story-telling business. If you like our body of work – deep reportage, domain specialist write-ups, data stories, podcasts and the like – consider supporting the FactorDaily journey.

Support FactorDaily

noopurraval is a writer of FactorDaily.