Whether it meant to or not, Pokémon Go has incentivized fitness in a way that’s moved couch-bound gamers and TV-addicted children into the real world, replacing hours spent sitting with hours of walking and socializing. My once quiet neighborhood is now a bustling thoroughfare of kids, teens, and adults on the hunt for Pokémon. It sounds too good to be true, but the genius of Pokémon Go versus other fitness apps is that it isn’t a fitness app; it’s an augmented-reality treasure hunt that requires you to physically move in the real world in order to level up in the game.
As you follow your character across a cartoonified digital map of your actual location, Pokémon randomly spawn for you to catch; blue beacons called Pokéstops that hold special collectible items poke out of the grass in the distance, begging you to walk just a few more blocks; and animated rustling leaves pop up as you move, signaling a Pokémon is nearby. What could it be? Better walk over to find out. It’s addictive, but in a weirdly positive way.
I tried it for myself, and within five minutes of stepping outside my door, I witnessed a dad and his young son running around the playground on an epic Pokémon adventure. Further along at the Quatama MAX station, I spoke with a mom who got off the train two stops early so her son could run and catch a nearby Growlithe (a tiger-like creature known for its flamethrower attack). “It’s the first time he’s actually jogged for fun,” she said. “I love it—anything to get him away from his computer at home.”
To keep users moving even more, the developers created a feature wherein players could hatch special Pokémon by incubating their eggs over distance, not time, forcing people to walk, jog, or run in order to unlock them—up to 6.2 miles in some cases. Down the street, I met a group of twenty-somethings who had just walked four miles trying to hatch eggs they had collected at Pokéstops all over the neighborhood.
Pokémon Go also made walking around with your phone surprisingly social. Instead of hiding behind an avatar in a chat room, this game puts you face-to-face with real people. Within one mile of using Pokémon Go, I’d met three new neighbors, one of whom claimed Pokémon Go would be amazing for neighborhood watch (it’s hard to break into a car with dozens of people on their phones meandering about) and a man who told me Pokémon Go was awesome for his dog (it was the third walk they’d been on that day). My boyfriend and I enjoyed a beautiful sunset that we would have missed had we sat inside on a Netflix binge.
Dissenters say that Pokémon Go is just another distraction—that it’s sad how people need a game to get them actively enjoying the outdoors—but let me remind you that according to the World Health Organization, inactivity is the fourth-leading risk factor for death in the world, and prolonged sitting (that is, sitting for more than 12 hours per day) increases a person’s chance of getting type 2 diabetes by 90 percent. And unfortunately, modern entertainment like video games and the internet pretty much keep our butts in a seat from the minute we get home until we go to bed.
Any game that seeks to upend our largely sedentary culture—even if it’s with geocaching for digital cartoon animals—is a literal step in the right direction. I’d love to sit here and write more, but it’s a lovely day, and I have Pokémon to catch!