For the uninitiated: Pokémon GO is an app, built by Nintendo and Niantic, Inc., in cooperation with The Pokémon Group. Technically billed as a mobile game, it leverages a few basic smartphone technologies—GPS and camera, mostly—to merge the fictional, digital world of Pikachus and Pokémon Gyms with the physical, wholly real world of sidewalks and parks and cafes and monuments. Called augmented reality, the mobile game overlays a network of the digital monsters (which players can capture as their own) and digital Pokémon gyms (where people can go to train up their squad of Squirtles and Pikachus) on top of a real-world map, right where players are standing, in real time.
As of Tuesday, the app was topping both iTunes and Google Play charts in the U.S. and Australia—and it’s so popular that Niantic has been forced to “pause” its European rollout, simply because its existing servers are already overloaded. Nintendo’s stock closed up 25% on Monday, adding $9 billion to Nintendo’s market value in less than a week. (It launched in the U.S. on Wednesday, shortly after its global premiere in Australia and New Zealand.)
SO WHAT DOES THAT HAVE TO DO WITH FITNESS?
Because notable spots in the digital game—rare Pokémon, say, or “gyms” where players compete—are anchored to physical landmarks like fountains or monuments, the game has inspired something like a wholesale migration of gamers off the couch and into the sunshine.
And that, as all those gamers soon discovered, requires walking. Unlike most video games, Pokémon Go literally requires players to walk around to advance their in-game progress.
“You have to walk around to get the full benefits of the game,” says Trent, a 25-year-old engineer from New Jersey. “Eggs won’t hatch unless you walk 2km, 5km, even 10km.”
No running, cycling, or driving, though—an in-app speedometer will simply stop counting distance if the phone is moving faster than about 5–10 mph, Kim notes. (Another option? Paddling, as two women in New Zealand discovered when they clambered aboard a rental kayak to capture a rare Pokémon and battle in-game at a historic fountain in Wellington bay.)
The app even projects a warning to be aware of your surroundings while you’re playing.
But for those players who don’t ordinarily hit the gym, it’s provided a very real impetus to dust off the gym shoes and burn a few calories the old-fashioned way. The app even features a “Jogger” award, which is unlocked once a player walks their first 10k, and tracks a player’s mileage over his or her playing career.
And it’s bringing those people together. Like CrossFit, SoulCycle, or the November Project, Pokémon GO has inspired a very literal social movement toward working out. And as these types of games proliferate, social networks—which merge the physical and digital—are keeping an entire population of otherwise reluctant exercisers on their feet.