Like the Energizer Bunny, Pokémon Go is still going.
Now, you may think, Wasn’t that that thing people were all abuzz about like, three years ago? Close. It was two years ago, actually. And, yes, this pioneering augmented reality mobile game did generate a lot of headlines … for about a month.
Like most apparent fads, Pokémon Go’s visibility has certainly dipped below the radar since its splashy debut. Unlike most fads, however, this mobile game has been a game changer in terms of what it’s accomplished and how many people are still trying to “catch ’em all” two years later (myself and my 11-year-old son included).
During the game’s first month in July 2016, the app boasted a whopping 45 million daily players. These days, it’s a more modest 5 million. But some 65 million players still play at least monthly. And they’re not shy about spending real money to purchase various game-enhancing accoutrements in this “free” app. In May 2018 alone, players plunked down $104 million, according to superdataresearch.com, up 174% compared to the same timeframe last year. Pokémon Go is quietly surging again, whether you’ve noticed or not.
But the real eye-popper in terms of the game’s revenue is its total take since its launch: an estimated $1.8 billion—and with gamemaker Niantic continually releasing new features, that spending doesn’t look like it’ll slow down anytime soon.
To put that number in perspective, let’s imagine Pokémon Go was a movie. It would clock in at No. 5 behind James Cameron’s one-two punch of Avatar and Titanic, and Disney’s one-two punch of Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Avengers: Infinity War. Not bad company at all. Given another year or so, Pikachu and Co. might just top them all. (As an aside, when you tally up everything Pokémon-related—video games, trading cards, toys, etc.—it’s already the biggest media franchise of all time according to Wikipedia, with a total take of $59.1 billion since 1996, handily topping the Star Wars franchise’s estimate of $42.1 billion.)
Niantic CEO John Hanke attributes the mobile game’s staying power to the way it encourages people to play together. He told Wired,
“I think in Pokémon Go, because it’s a real-world game, it’s even more sticky than with League of Legends or something, where you’ve got a team but never see them face to face. … With Pokémon Go, you are meeting those people face to face. You’re forming real friendships with them. Friendships are sticky. That’s probably the secret sauce of the game, right there.”
Indeed, much of my own playing time has been with my son. We’ve walked vast distances together. (As of today, the app says we’ve clocked 1,836.2 kilometers catching digital Pokemon—demonstrating that it’s effective at getting players out and walking.) Because game play isn’t usually constant, but instead comes in small bursts of frenetic activity as you stroll, it’s afforded probably hundreds of hours for us to talk—some of which might not have happened otherwise.
Indeed, lots of folks are still playing, even if it’s not really making the news much anymore.
And that’s the paradox I want to talk about today.
Once upon a time, when something was a “hit”—be it a movie, a band, a TV show, a game, whatever—everybody was in on it. People smarter than me have dubbed this phenomenon the monoculture. It was a time when huge swaths of the culture experienced entertainment hits together.
We still have vestiges of the monoculture today, of course. Perhaps Disney’s chokehold on theaters with its Marvel and Star Wars movies is the closest example.
But those things are the exception, not the rule. Everything is more fragmented now. And that means you can have scores of people who quietly consider themselves a part of some “tribe”—like Pokémon Go players, for instance—that’s functionally invisible to anyone who’s not a part of it.
Slate’s Marissa Martinelli wrote something similar, saying, “Pokémon Go now feels like an elusive little club—where only a select few are privy to this secret world where the local post office is actually a beacon for trainers, and tiny monsters roam the streets.” And honestly, I like that. It’s nice to belong to a club.
But I also can’t help but wonder how all these different opportunities to participate in “elusive little clubs” might inadvertently be reinforcing our growing tribal tendencies that aren’t as charmingly innocuous as catching an imaginary monster like Pikachu. We live in a divisive, polarized and fragmented age, a time when we can easily be tempted to view those outside our given “tribe” with suspicion.
From that perspective, I find myself pondering this subtle downside of being a card-carrying member of a niche subgroup—any such group, in fact.
Is that too deep a takeaway for a blog about Pokémon Go’s quiet ongoing success? Perhaps. I have been accused of overthinking things at times.
Still, as much as I have enjoyed being a part of the Go tribe for the last two years, it’s critical to remember that God has called us to pursue something so much bigger than either our entertainment habits or even our “tribal” connections with others who share our particular affinities, be they fellow gamers or fans of the same team or movie or band.
Instead, he calls us to look up, to reach out and to invite people of all backgrounds to encounter His son, Jesus, who commanded, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20).
And at the end of the age, we will have the privilege of seeing all those diverse people gathered together: “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” (Revelation 7:9).
Turns out the creators of Pokémon weren’t the first ones to hatch the idea of catching ’em all (1 Timothy 2:4).