Get Up and GO

So, Pokemon Go. Now that the moment has essentially passed, what the heck was that all about? After an initial record-shattering surge of downloads, Pokemon Go has essentially faded away. As with any fad of this scale, there are certainly important lessons to be learned from the sudden rise and exponential decay of the popular gaming app. Here are my thoughts:

The single most important thing that Pokemon Go proved is that Pokemon is very alive, with a wider fanbase than I think anyone realized. When I told my parents about the game and attempted to explain its appeal, each of their immediate, knee-jerk reactions were, “I thought Pokemon ended ten years ago.” As it turns out, that is very much not the case. Because the franchise aggressively markets itself to older children and pre-teens, it makes sense for those forty or fifty years and older to think about the franchise as an artifact of a bygone era, one that existed exactly when their children or grandchildren were at the targeted age, and died out swiftly thereafter. My parents stopped hearing about Pokemon when my brother and I stopped talking about it constantly, and so they forgot about it. With that mindset, the revival of the franchise in such a public way must seem very odd.

The issue is, not only did Pokemon not die (and as such it continued to indoctrinate new generations of players throughout its two decades), the past players… never really stopped playing. Yes, I stopped watching the cringe-worthy TV show, but I kept playing the games until very recently. Even friends of mine who didn’t keep playing the games remember their time as a Pokemon trainer fondly. When Pokemon Go was initially announced a long time ago (I think around a year ago but I can’t find a source for that), we were all suddenly brought back to that time, and given a chance to relive it.

Little by little, the hype built. News and details slowly trickled out, along with an eventual release date: July 2016. We got a commercial introducing the game, which led to hype. We got a super bowl commercial for Pokemon, which led to even more hype. Finally, the game launched, and we got scenes like these:

One particular corner of Central Park in New York. Quite literally everyone in this picture is playing Pokemon Go. This picture was taken in August, which means that the scene in July must have been twice as crowded.

People went absolutely nuts. All of the people who devoured Pokemon Red and Blue after their release in 1996 were oh-so-ready to jump back into the world of pocket monsters, now accessible through the device you already carry with you everywhere you go. Nintendo’s stocks skyrocketed after the initial launch (though, as the article details, quickly fell after the reality of Pokemon Go’s shared ownership among Niantic and Google surfaced).

After that absurd launch, however, players started leaving. What the hell happened?

Pokemon Go is only the second “augmented reality” game that I’ve played. Before Pokemon Go was ever announced, I was a Geocacher. In a nutshell, Geocaching is a worldwide, everyday treasure hunt. There are nearly 3 million players and nearly as many caches to find. Everywhere I go I spend at least a few hours hiking around, trying to find these little boxes hidden throughout the world.

Essentially, here’s how it works. Using your phone or computer, you locate a geocache near you on a map, like this:

Screen Shot 2016-10-08 at 5.44.06 PM.png
Here are all of the caches near me, right now. There are probably just as many near you, right now. What are you waiting for?

Then, using a geocaching app (on your phone) or a GPS, you navigate to the location of the cache listed online. This may be as simple as walking down the street, or as difficult as hiking to the top of a mountain in the middle of nowhere. Once there, the real fun begins. Unlike in Pokemon Go, there is a physical prize, the cache, to be found. It can be as big as a large toolbox or as small as a fingernail, and it’s up to you and your puzzle-solving skills to find it.

Just today I spent a few hours walking around downtown Mountain View, grabbing a few caches (note the smiley faces on the map above). Some were easy, quick grabs I managed in under a minute. Others took between five and ten minutes, as I walked back and forth around the listed area scratching my head and contorting myself into strange positions to look under rocks and around poles. Two I couldn’t even find.

One cache, the second-to-last that I found today, took around half an hour and is easily my favorite cache to date. Never before have I felt so much on a treasure hunt as I did while finding the aptly-named Treasures Abound.  The listed location of the cache took me to a lovely park just behind the Mountain View Public Library. Amid the rolling green and lazily meandering paths, I set in to solve the puzzle.

Upon arrival, I immediately noticed a nearby sculpture, depicting a couple literary characters that some of you may recognize.

Two animal gentlemen talk near a home in a tree.. I knew I had seen them somewhere.

Noticing the sign on the right that says “Toad’s Book Club,” I googled around and realized that the shorter chap on the right is none other than Mr. Toad, a character in The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame. The solution to the puzzle must be obvious now, yes?

Unfortunately, I still had no idea what to do. I walked around the whole park looking for another clue, but found nothing. In re-reading the description of the cache, however, I noticed that it includes the following restriction:

Note that the cache is only available:
Mon.–Thurs. 10 a.m.–9 p.m.
Fri.–Sat. 10 a.m.–6 p.m.
Sun. 1 p.m.–5 p.m.
These hours could change, and there is no access on major public holidays (and some days preceding or following the holidays).

If the cache were outside, there would be no such restriction. If it were inside, however, it could explain the warning. Sure enough, I went to the nearest door into the library and found that the hours synced perfectly.

As a geocacher, I have to be prepared to go anywhere, including…. into a public library

I was on the right track. Surely, now, the solution is apparent to everyone with a brain?

Apparently, I don’t have a brain. I spent a few minutes walking aimlessly walking around the library, wondering what I was supposed to be looking for and how it would lead me to the cache. Finally, a spark of inspiration – I should look up the book that features Mr. Toad! If I find the book, surely I’ll find the cache. I was pointed towards the children’s portion of the library and walked over.  I found the book and combed through the couple copies the library had in stock and found… nothing. Confused, I stood up and looked around. Suddenly, there it was.


Looking around to make sure no one was looking, I reached to the top of the shelf and pulled down the box. I sat on the floor, and, hoping no one would want to walk into the aisle, opened up the cache.

The cache! Full of trinkets of every shape and size.

The caches always contain a log on which to write your name and the date of your find. Many, like the one above, also contain a host of tchotchkes, knick-knacks, and the like. You never know quite what you’ll find when you open one up, which is part of the fun. The bigger draw though, to me at least, is the challenge of the game. It’s fairly easy to get to the location listed online, but going from a pin on screen to a cache in hand takes intelligence, skill, and patience. Each and every new cache you attempt to find will challenge you; I’ve been geocaching for years and still have to work to find them. Sometimes, you’ll have to go home without finding a single one, but that only makes the successful finds all the sweeter.

Challenge, in my mind, is what keeps Geocaching fun for cache after cache. In contrast, Pokemon Go didn’t die for no reason, it died because it lacked challenge and as such got boring. In the end of the day, it just isn’t difficult to walk to a spot, flick my finger on the screen a couple times, and move on. Every catching attempt, regardless of the Pokemon I found, was exactly the same. Even the illusion of challenge (in the form of higher CP) is just that: an illusion. Your success has more to do with the internal probabilities determined by the game than your skill at playing it.

Geocaching couldn’t be more different. Each puzzle has a set level of difficulty based on where and how it is hidden. You (not the game) determine if you are able to find it. Each successful find adds to your ability to play. Rather than aimlessly looking around the listed location, you begin to learn where caches are likely to be. Is the cache listed as very small? It’s probably magnetic, check everything metal. Are there a bunch of fist-sized rocks near the listed location? Roll them all over to check if any are actually plastic. In an urban setting? Check the free local newspaper dispensers, no one ever opens those. The list goes on and on, and only grows as you continue to play.

Moreover, Geocaching as a game has a host of positive qualities that Pokemon Go attempted to exemplify. It actually requires you to interact with the world around you (as opposed to simply going somewhere and then spending the whole time looking at your phone). You can actually work with other players to solve a puzzle, rather than just play along side them. Best of all, Geocaching is essentially FREE. You can pay to be a premium member, but so far I have found my basic member experience completely sufficient. There are official apps for both iOS and Android, though for Android I use and greatly prefer c:geo (as usual, Apple restricts what can be created for iOS through the App Store, so I am unaware of a free unofficial app for iOS). The only reason I never spent any money on Pokemon Go is that I was never so invested in the game as to actually be willing to pay for more resources, which are sold in the form of micro-transactions.

Geocaching is one of my favorite outdoor activities. Everyone I’ve shown it to has loved it, and has requested to accompany me on future caching trips around the area. It’s challenging, it’s truly outdoors, and making an account couldn’t be easier.

So what are you waiting for? Get up and GO!