The whole deal with Pokémon Go used to be that you had to be outside to play. “Trainers” like us players call ourselves, had to tread the real world to capture virtual creatures, and just like you would otherwise use the GPS to find your friend’s house party address, we used it to find Pikachu or Chansey. In fact, the really cool thing about Pokémon Go was that the gamer, who is conventionally a traveller, got to experience being one in this virtual-cum-real world without any sophisticated server set-up or gaming tools.
Even now, in the thick of a pandemic, the game will first warn you to be aware of your real-world surroundings while playing. I was agog about this—in the past, I’ve changed trains to travel 50 kilometres to the Magikarp-spawning nest at Mumbai’s Gateway of India, stopped in the middle of a crowded street for a Snorlax, even asked my Uber driver to park for 15 minutes only to be near a Pokéstop. 2020 was Pokémon Go’s best year so far, reaching $1 billion in player spending in the first 10 months alone. Players criticise the game for putting several of its features behind a paywall like extra Pokéballs and Pokémon “storage” to be able to hold Pokémon, candies, potions—everything that makes up the trainer’s tool box. But to people like me, who still can’t afford gaming consoles, playing Pokémon Go was incredible, going way beyond the average mobile-phone gaming experience. This is why I could appreciate it when American software development company Niantic’s changes turned it into a game that can be played at home too during the pandemic. Not only did this make it accessible to trainers in remote areas or having disabilities, but it’s also expanded the virtual playground from our homes to the entire world in the way only technology can make the world smaller. In India, many of us were not even aware about an event like the annual Pokémon GO Fest. Since 2017, Pokémon Go has hosted a big festival, where players would assemble to win special Pokémon and finish event-based tasks. But this festival wasn’t accessible to players outside the USA. But in 2020, Niantic designed the event to be online-only. No more FOMO, everyone could attend it live. My sister (in the photo below) and I made a holiday of it with music and beers while catching Pokémon, enjoying the absence of the teeming festival crowds.
The GO Fest was regimented like any live festival with pop-ups and buzz. Apart from discussions with quick turnarounds on live blogs and Reddit threads, players watched confetti drop from the virtual sky, shape-shifting by the hour to indicate which Pokémon types would be appearing in the wild. Trainers had to participate in time-limited global tasks. Niantic even arranged posters and origami Pokéballs that we could print and collect. But the most important development was the remote raid feature. A raid is a cooperative gameplay experience where a powerful Pokémon called the “raid boss” takes over a local Pokémon gym, which is a real place like a shop or a sculpture around you. You and other trainers team up to reap enticing rewards and defeat the boss that would be impossible to defeat on your own. It’s the only way you might chance at legendary Pokémon like Giratina or a Kyogre and win real XP points (points that are required to level up in the game). So far, to raid, you depended on the Nearby feature, which would point you to a nearby Pokémon gym where the raid would be happening. But with remote raiding unlocked, you could now accept an invitation to a raid anywhere in the world. It was from one of these live threads that a group of us came together on WhatsApp to join the remote raiding party of a couple in Austria, who volunteered to drive around their neighbourhood on a Pokémon hunt. I found myself suddenly paying attention to these throw-away images of far-off places making up display pictures of Pokémon gyms—a pet shop hoarding, a supermarket’s parking lot, or a Stolpersteine (a brass plate memorial to the victims of the Holocaust). After 10 raids together, the trainer known to me as Bloxikon on Reddit, asked us how we enjoyed our trip around Graz.
“It was nice to be able to play alongside other members from around the world. Unfortunately you can’t talk to them on the game itself,” says Jin Wang from Taipei, a member on the WhatsApp group we have unimaginatively called “Raids!”. Another member, Jonas Wosnik from South Germany, has participated in over 50 remote raids. “I love the diversity in our group and it's always fun to play with people from other countries or cultures. The only thing that is a bit annoying are all the different time zones, so it is rare to have everyone in one raid,” he said.
But despite this inconvenience, many posts on social media groups specifically seek trainers from other countries or regions. “I’ve always referred to [this tendency] as #LifeAfter40 (when Level 50 wasn’t yet an option) because it basically gave Level 40 players more things to explore and keep playing such as shiny-questing [trying to catch shiny Pokémon], or looking for lucky trade distance. Some people may be looking for Pokémon from a home country; it also could be a desire to display the specific name of the location of a regional Pokémon,” says Matt Zecchino, who co-owns the Pokémon Go Remote RAIDERS (PGRR) Facebook group with 27.9k members, alongside Eric Lubarsky. “Trainers are very creative with what they want to do and why they want to do it! Being honest, we feel mostly people just want to raid.” Socialisation is essential to this game. Niantic had earlier considered adding a chat feature within the game like in Ingress but decided against it in sticking to what felt authentic for Pokémon Go. Nevertheless, the discussion happens off the game, online. You’ll find entire communities sharing memes, rants and humblebrags dedicated to Pokémon Go. Zecchino says that most members of the PGRR group are North America-based but that’s less than 50 percent of the server. “The remaining areas stem from the entire globe; we tap into all countries and have had raids hosted in every place imaginable. We have wave hosts or trainers who facilitate raids for groups of five or ten other trainers at a time. They back out of the raid themselves to send additional members or trainers through and defeat the raid boss and repeat the process with five or ten new trainers. So we run ‘waves’ against raid bosses and the wave host is the heartbeat. These hosts have sent records of 15-plus groups of trainers into the same raid at the same location in 40 minutes.” Admin Lari Lenhard of the PGGR group states, “Some of our more experienced wave hosts have been known to send 60, 70 or even more players into a single raid across multiple lobbies.”
Because of the way the game has adapted, it’s also enabled a different kind of homecoming in bringing back players like Dim Orfanos, who had stopped playing the game three years ago but restarted during the pandemic. “I was in Glasgow at the time and the game really was a way for me and my friends to forget a bit about the pandemic, and free our minds doing something we enjoyed,” he told VICE. “My two roommates, friends and I would find a time that fit all of us and compete in raids together.”
As I’m writing this, Niantic is rolling out a new set of updates in the game including a Friendship event, which encourages trainers to raid more to earn double XP. The new raid bosses, Uxie, Mesprit and Azelf are some of the rarest legendary Pokémon in the game. They are region specific—you can find Azelf only in Greenland and the Americas, Uxie in Asia-Pacific and Mesprit in Europe, Middle East, Africa and India. Remote raids have made it possible to truly catch ’em all. I have finished around 30 raids and two-minute teleportations to gyms in the U.S., Germany, Spain, and even Switzerland. I’m checking off Pokémon like Lugia and Mega Houndoom like people check off the places they have visited on a map. I’m a part of the transformed gamer cult as a strange new kind of virtual flâneur. Though not as frequently, “Raids!” still raids together. We exclaim our congratulations when one of us wins a rare, four-star Pokémon, leave the raid when a glitch kicks out one of us, and share sympathies when a legendary Pokémon escapes someone's last ball. And just like that, it’s through a game that our lockdown realities have been augmented. Follow Eisha on Twitter.