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Thoughts on Pokemon Go as a Fitness Game

It’s been a while since I posted to the blog, and that’s sadly because the world of exergaming has largely been stagnant. The Wii is long gone. Microsoft’s and Sony’s attempts to mimic the success of motion gaming with the Kinect and the Playstation Move fell woefully short (despite huge investments in concepts like Xbox Fitness). And with the lack of motion games on the Wii U and the upcoming Nintendo Switch (as well as the demise of concepts that Satoru Iwata championed such as Quality of Life initiatives), it looks like none of the major console companies will be doing much further with motion gaming.

Smartphones have largely taken over the vacuum of casual gaming, and in turn exergaming applications. We’ve reviewed a lot of the top games for iOS and Android here, but most of them have largely remained relatively obscure.  The one exception is Pokemon GO. According to Apple, Pokemon GO was the top downloaded app on the Apple Store in 2016. Granted, most of the users who downloaded it have either pretty much stopped playing, or only open it upon occasion. But there are still enough players out there to be making the good folks at Niantic a lot of money (it’s been estimated that they’re still pulling in somewhere between $1.5 million and $3.5 million a day).

As I’d mentioned in an earlier post, as a Gen X’er I never played nor even understood the Pokemon craze. I used to roll my eyes at kids at church when they’d break out their decks of cards and be able to recite the stats of every pocket monster. So when the game came out last July I didn’t really expect I’d become a fan, much less an obsessed player. I figured I’d download the game, review it on the blog, and then toss it aside.

But from the time I caught my first Squirtle in my living room, I knew this was something different. And pretty soon, I found myself starting to change my habits because of this game. I work in New York City, and instead of taking the subway to work every day, I’d walk the 20-30 minutes (my walk happens to pass through both Bryant Park and Rockefeller Center, two hotspots for finding rare Pokemon), even on days when it’d rain or be too cold. I’d keep the app open at my desk the whole day and from time to time when a rare Snorlax or a Dratini would spawn, I’d jump out of my chair and run outside to find it. On nice days during my lunch hour instead of sitting at my desk, I’d sometimes walk the 10 blocks uptown to Grand Army Plaza outside of Central Park (a fabled Pokemon hunting location). I’d find myself walking completely out of my way or taking new routes just to hatch eggs or track down rare spawns.

It even helped my home life. In the past too often when I’d come home I’d be so exhausted that I’d just want to flop down on the sofa and veg. But now when my wife wants to walk or wants me to run an errand, I’m happy to go (she’s accepted the fact that I’m going to be playing the game, while I’ve done my part to minimize my distraction and “be there” as much as I can through the use of the Go Plus and Apple Watch–see below).

full north american pokedexOn October 4, I’d basically “finished” the game by finally “catching ’em all”; I got all 142 Pokemon that you could catch in North America. In December I added a “Farfetch’d” on a trip to Taiwan (no trips to Europe or Australia planned yet as you can see by the lack of a Mr. Mime or Kanghastan in the Pokedex to the right, but hopefully one day).

I was expecting the game to get old then, but the funny thing is it didn’t. Aside from catching Pokemon, the other part of Pokemon GO involves fighting in gyms. And that requires building up your top Pokemon (which as of now include Dragonites, Snorlaxes, Rhydons, and Vaporeons) to have high enough combat power (CP) to occupy the best spots in your local gyms, as well as building up an assortment of all the best Pokemon to fight battles and train. Which means continuing to catch a variety of Pokemon with specific moves, and also catching as many as possible to collect more and more stardust and candy.

For all the problems and annoyances with the game (and there are a lot of them–the game constantly crashes when I’m in a gym fight; there’s sometimes a blank map when the app encounters GPS problems; the UI for choosing Pokemon for training fights is annoyingly cumbersome; the app makes accidental purchases too easy), I have to say that Niantic on the whole has done a nice job making improvements to keep the game fresh.

During Halloween 2016, they doubled the candies you can earn and increased the number of certain Pokemon. During Thanksgiving 2016 they doubled the amount of XP and Stardust you can earn. Around this time they introduced Ditto to the game. And during Christmas 2016, they increased the number of Starter Pokemon in the wild, introduced a special Pikachu wearing a Santa hat, introduced baby Pokemons that hatch through eggs, including Pichu (baby Pikachu), Cleffa (baby Clefairy), Igglybuff (baby Jigglypuff), Togepi (baby Togetic, also introduced), Smoochum (baby Jynx), Elekid (baby Electabuzz), Magby (baby Magmar) and even gave out a free single-use incubator each day during the event. In the process they also revealed new slots for Gen 2 Pokemons, which will undoubtedly be released throughout 2017.

So why am I going on about this game on the blog? I can give you over 12,000 reasons: throughout the last six months I’ve easily averaged anywhere from 12,000 steps to 18,000 steps every day, up from my previous average of maybe 5,000 on a good day. And because my mind is occupied with the game during all those steps I don’t notice nor mind that I’m actually getting exercise. And believe it or not, that exercise has translated to my losing over 30 pounds since July.

Why is this game so much more effective than other exercise games or diets? There’s one simple explanation. It got me to change my behavior. Other games or diets may get you to change things temporarily, but more often than not once it’s over you revert to your previous patterns.

But not with this game. In fact, playing this silly little game has pretty much changed my life. I used to dread waking up and commuting into New York City (which can be as hellish as you’ve heard). But with this game, dare I say that I actually look forward to walking through the City, learning about new landmarks and history, exploring new paths every day, and getting that nice little dopamine rush every time I bag a rare new creature. And watching the pounds come off and being able to fit into clothes I hadn’t fit in 10 years feels really good.

I admit, even with Niantic’s improvements there have been times where I’ve started to get a bit bored of the game, but because of all the benefits of playing I’ve essentially “forced” myself to continue to have fun with the game and keep playing it. Aside from feeling great (I no longer get winded when I have to run to catch my morning train into the City), I’ve probably saved about $200 in subway fares over this time. That’s something that you can’t get with Candy Crush.

Something else that Niantic released during the last few weeks was support for the Apple Watch, something that had been promised during the Apple Watch 2 keynote way back in September. In my last post I wrote glowingly about the Pokemon Go Plus device (aggravatingly, Nintendo still hasn’t figured out how to keep them in stock, but at least the reseller prices on Amazon are around $50 instead of $200, which is a good indication that there there’s a lot more out there).

In my review I questioned the need for an Apple Watch app at all, as I couldn’t think of anything the Apple Watch app would do that the Pokemon Go Plus didn’t already take into account. But that all changed once I got one. More in the next post.

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