Remembering 'Pokemon Go', the Craze that Swept July 2016
Little is said of it now, but there was a brief moment where the world had gone Pokémon mad.
"The past is a foreign country" is a phrase LP Hartley chucked at the start of one of his books. Looking back at July 2016, it's easy to forget how that particular 31-day-long foreign country was annexed by people leaping in front of cars in an attempt to catch Pokémon.
Nowadays those who didn't live through that period rely on history books to tell them about the names, faces and trends that defined July 2016. Those books tell of how wildly the fallout of the Brexit vote was underestimated, and of President Trump's journey to the Oval Office. In popular culture you'll read names like Justin Bieber – as they were then known – and Drake, while the record books show that it was Portugal who won what turned out to be the last UEFA European Championships.
Little is said, now, of Pokémon Go, which in July 2016 reimagined a mid-1990s computer game as an app that allowed users to catch digital creatures in real locations, and was being used by tens of millions of users in the US alone within days of release. But with clear blue water between the 'then' and the 'now', we're able to examine its significance – and ponder how those events of July 2016 affected the way we live today.
"In a sense, we're always looking for something to believe in," suggests Dr Aaron Rosen, author of Art and Religion in the 21st Century, and Professor of Religious Thought at Rocky Mountain College, when he considers the Pokémon Go phenomenon. "There are so many periods of obsessional neurosis in history – from tulip mania in 1637, to the South Sea Bubble in the early 1700s, or even the Crusades – but what's interesting is how accelerated that was by July 2016."
One man who experienced the highs and lows of that acceleration was Sam Clark, who made headlines that month when became the first person to catch all UK Pokémon – and lost two stone in the process. He's still alive today, and speaks to VICE from Southampton.
"I put a video on YouTube when I'd caught them all," he recalls, "then the BBC got in touch. The phone didn't stop ringing for three days. It was like a super-hype. I ended up on CNN; Newsnight wanted to Skype me. NEWSNIGHT! The BBC story got four million hits. I had crime reporters asking for my advice about playing at night. I'd been around gaming all my life, and I'd never seen any game have that much attention. For three weeks every news story was Pokémon-related. 'Someone's trapped on the beach – it's because of Pokémon Go.' 'Someone fell off a cliff – Pokémon Go.' 'I've cooked a meal while playing Pokémon Go.'"
But with his fame Sam faced what he refers to as "the dark side": a wave of trolling and abuse so extreme that, in the end, he gifted his Pokémon Go account to his nine-year-old nephew. It was a decision he grew to regret, and by September 2016 he'd started a new account – and caught every Pokémon for a second time.
New Zealander Tom Currie also made international headlines in July 2016 when he quit his job to become a full-time Pokémon trainer. Back then he was a 24-year-old barista; now 24, he can still recall the day Pokémon Go arrived in his life. It was the 6th of July and he was staying with his father in Charleston, a very remote village on New Zealand's south island.
"There was barely any cellphone reception, so I'd have to go up the hill to get a signal," Tom reminisces. "I was out for a walk, collecting rocks because I was making a rock garden. When I got to the top of the hill I checked my phone." A friend had recommended Pokémon Go on Facebook – the social networking site that at that point still boasted over 1.7 billion users. "I thought, that looks exciting," Tom remembers. "So I stood on the top of the hill for 30 minutes while it downloaded over my limited reception. I was in the middle of nowhere; there were no PokeStops or gyms. I popped an incense, and caught a couple of Pokémon."
The next day he quit his job. "I called up my employer and resigned over the phone," is how Tom remembers it. Did he explain why? "Absolutely not."
He spent almost two months traveling New Zealand, during which time he caught all but one Pokémon. By September 2016 he'd got a job with US company Gamer Sensei, giving gaming coaching via Skype, and become an ambassador for a Finnish solar backpack company. He'd also got his job back, but he insists that Pokémon Go improved his life. "I ran out of money after about a month," he remembers, "and wherever I went I was hosted by Pokémon trainers and friends. I was fed, sheltered, taken out and shown amazing places. I was shown the best hospitality I could possibly have asked for. I'm a much better person for it, and it made me want to become a better person, to repay all these people for their kindness."
He also saw his fair share of miracles. "I met a woman at the very bottom of New Zealand," he adds. "Her son had autism, and she said he was out walking more in the first day of Pokémon Go than he had in an entire year."
An almost miraculous turn of events, then – and Dr Aaron Rosen can indeed look back and see the game's spiritual significance. "There was a religious parallel," he explains. "Pokémon Go showed a desire we as humans had to find spiritual or virtual beings or entities out there in the world. It was very revealing. If you were to resurrect Emile Durkheim, who was writing in the late 19th and early 20th century about totemism, he would have loved this stuff."
There are so many periods of obsessional neurosis in history – from tulip mania in 1637, to the South Sea Bubble in the early 1700s, or even the Crusades – but what's interesting is how accelerated that was by July 2016.
Rosen brings up Stranger Things, whose first season also debuted back in July 2016. Like Pokémon Go it played on nostalgia and, at the heart of its narrative, also featured an entire community searching for something — in that case a missing child. But, as Rose recalls, that wasn't the only missing persons search going on that month. During July 2016, he received an AMBER alert on his phone. In the US, these alerts were blasted into phones and across airwaves in the event of a public emergency, in this instance, a child abduction.
"I watched people looking at their phones and going, 'oh, it's just another AMBER alert, it's just another child that's gone missing'," he recalls. "And at the same time people were out there looking for Pokémon! People were willing to look for something random that explicitly has no value, and at the same time there was something else on your phone asking you to find someone who was completely real, giving you tangible clues like license plate numbers. But if you asked people to use their phones to look for missing people, the reaction was, 'ooh, I don't know, that sounds like a lot of work'. In a way Pokémon Go was perfectly crafted to appeal to all the instincts of the 21st century: while it's true that we might always be looking for something to believing, we're also looking for something meaningless to believe in."
In any case, the phenomenal early success of Pokémon Go couldn't last forever. By 29th of July, technology website Techcrunch had run a story headlined, rather ominously, "Pokémon Go's paying user base has reached a plateau".
"There's no single reason trends collapse," explains Eric Shapiro, senior consultant at cultural insight specialists Crowd DNA. "But inability to adapt to mainstream exposure is a common theme." As an example he mentions the 2013 Ghetto Gothic scene, and its "shark jump" moment when Rihanna, at that point still best known as a singer, co-opted it for a video. "Because the internet sped up the exposure side of things by 2016, the struggle to adapt was harder. Countless trends had risen and fallen previously, but in 2016 the speed of that process had become weeks or even days, as opposed to years."
With specific reference to Pokémon Go, he adds: "The Pokémon Go craze was fuelled by online speculation and a degree of exclusivity, with some countries able get access before others; the game itself was also initially vague and not particularly transparent, which means those 'in the know' were at an advantage. But as it gained traction, that underground, community factor became vague, lost and overblown. The games makers weren't able to adapt the platform quickly enough to satisfy the experienced users, while new users struggled to cope with being so far behind, and didn't want to put in the time to become competitive in the games battling feature."
Sam Clark, who during July 2016 had become something of a local celebrity in Southampton, remembers that when the media interest subsided, "it was like having climbed up Everest, then jumping off the end."
"Still," he adds, "I lost over three stone playing a game on my phone. That can't be a bad thing, can it?"
From the vantage point of today, the Pokémon Go hysteria of July 2016 might sound ridiculous or hard to imagine; to many the notion will seem as quaint, and as antiquated, as that of plugging a set of headphones into a mobile phone. We live different lives now. But if the past is indeed a foreign country and – and if you'll permit a splicing of over-used literary references – there's some corner of a foreign field that is forever being trampled by those in search of digital monsters.
More on VICE: