Pokémon Go. Just when I thought I had a handle on my kids’ cell phone use—the Instagram accounts, the finstagram accounts, Snapchat, OoVoo, and Musical.ly—now this.
It’s a paradigm shift that I didn’t see coming. My kids were already familiar with Pokémon. There have been dog-eared stacks of cards with illustrations of “pocket-monsters” floating around our mudroom for years. I didn’t know the details but it seemed harmless. Just a game of collecting and trading cards.
Like the cards have come to life
I first heard about the digital version of Pokémon, Pokémon Go, while our family was on a summer trip to Europe. The kids were excited about the great new game that just arrived in the App Store. They wanted it desperately, but it wasn’t yet available in Germany. I was also unwilling to let a new app take over any part of our family vacation, so the conversation about whether or not they could download it was tabled.
In the meantime we were busy sight-seeing. There wasn’t time for me to research the game or figure out whether it was something I could/would/should let my kids play. But the kids themselves must have been tuned into some kind of pre-teen wavelength where news of the game’s appeal was spreading like wildfire. Someone brought it up every day. Since they couldn’t play it right away, they threw their energy into formulating their argument for why they should all be allowed to download the app when we got home. Like the second we got home.
Nearly every parent I knew with a kid between 8 and 15 was fielding requests for the game.
I started seeing Facebook posts from mom-friends who had agreed to let their kids play.
Some parents were making it a family game—a way to get out in the world and encourage family field trips to places they might previously have fought a tidal wave of whining in order to get their kids to visit. Botanical gardens. Historical sites.
In the meantime, we had traveled from Germany to Zurich, Switzerland. The kids were supposed to be focused on exploring a new country, trying new foods, and learning how to properly pronounce weird Swiss German words like Grüezi. But my children were so obsessed with the idea of Pokémon Go that for three straight days the youngest three played an imagery game of it every time we left the hotel.
Homemade Pokémon Go
My 10-year-old origami-master made them each an origami Poké ball (the digital version is what you use in the app to catch all those Pokémon...) My 12-year-old daughter used her phone to look up images of the hundreds of Pokémon creatures that are part of the game.
The three of them spent the better part of our hike into the mountains above Zurich stopping to throw the origami balls at monsters they imagined seeing on the side of the trail. Once one kid spotted a monster, he’d throw the origami ball at it while another kid would flip a coin (a 1 Swiss Franc coin, of course) to determine whether the Pokémon had been caught. Heads meant they’d captured it, tails meant it got away.
Their made-up rules said that if the monsters happened to appear while we were riding on public transportation, you could try multiple times to catch them. The Rattatas and Meowths would be trapped in the tram, they rationalized, and therefore unlikely to escape.
Every night when we returned to our hotel they’d spend an hour before bed drawing the monsters they encountered during the day.
Siblings—playing together nicely, running around outside, using their imaginations, drawing, and making up stories!! I was beyond happy. This was the holy grail of parenting.
Then we got on the plane for home and the pressure to switch from their original made-up Pokémon Go game to the real-live digital version hit me like a Snorlax.
In the end, we settled on a compromise. I’d let them download Pokémon Go, but we would start by playing it on a limited basis and with some conditions. It would count toward their regular allotment of screentime (so they’d have to trade some Minecraft for the privilege) and, if they were playing it outside the house, they’d have to have a parent (or their responsible 14-year-old sister) with them.
I reminded them that while they weren’t allowed unlimited access to the digital version, they were always welcome to play their homemade version of it anytime! (Cue the sound of crickets...)
They all enthusiastically agreed to my conditions and suddenly we were up and running. Literally.
We’ve been Pokémon Go-ing for four days at this point, and here is what I’ve learned (with help from some of my friends whose kids have been playing for an extra week):
I've lost two pounds. What can I say? After three weeks of schnitzel and Toblerone, this is legitimately what tops my list. My children's enthusiasm for Pokémon Go has meant that I've been on, like, seven 30+ minute walks in the last four days. In fact, I’m thinking of trademarking an exercise routine called Pokémon Go for Moms—Lose Pounds as You Gain Pikachus! More importantly, even though it’s been pushing 90 degrees here in our small New England town, the kids have uncomplainingly wandered the neighborhood with me, time and again. There are even more incentives to move built into the game, including eggs you can collect that only hatch after you’ve logged 5 km of walking. I can’t underestimate how great it is that a video game actually encourages kids to move. This is definitely the game's biggest benefit as far as I'm concerned.
Competition between players is limited. This was a worry for me as the parent of four squabbling kids. As we embarked on our first walk I wondered what would happen if each Pokémon appeared on all four devices simultaneously and only one of the kids got to ‘catch’ it each time. One of my goals for this summer (heck, every summer) is a modicum of family harmony; I was not about to encourage a game that had the kids at each other’s throats. It turns out I needn’t have worried—each player gets equal access to the Pokémon that appear. So they’re all working on their own account to collect their own set of Pokémon. There are opportunities for competition (called "battle" in Poké parlance) at certain designated locations called Pokégyms. But you don’t get to compete until you reach at least Level 5. And even then, there seems to be an element of teamwork involved.
No blood. No guns. No half-naked female characters. This is about as family-friendly a game as I’ve seen. It doesn’t have the sheer imaginative benefits of Minecraft, but the monsters are cute and even when they lose a battle they don’t die. Instead, they faint. (Totally serious.) I’m a pacifist so this is a Pro for me.
It inspired them to create an IRL version. Because we've set limits on the amount of digital Go they can play, I'm hopeful the In Real Life version they created will continue to be something they'll play together when they're not allowed online.
Potential for bodily harm. Despite the message that comes up every time you open the game encouraging players to “Remember to be alert at all times. Stay aware of your surroundings,” it’s way too easy to see how kids could get so sucked into their phones that they walk out in front of traffic. For right now, we’re defeating this Con by going along with the kids. But, fitness benefits aside, I can see that getting really old, really fast.
Privacy concerns. There has been some controversy over the access you grant to Niantic Labs—the company that created the game—when you agree to their terms and conditions for use. (Read this for details.) Some parents I know have created a new Gmail account for their kids, to be used solely to log into Pokémon Go without risking exposure of any meaningful data.
In-app purchases. These are allowed and increasingly encouraged by the game as you reach higher levels. It’s one of our key house rules that in-app purchases are forbidden across the board, so I'm already wondering how far into the game we'll get before frustration that they can't pay to play sets in.
It's still a video game. Friendly graphics and harmless mission aside, it involves watching a screen and was created by a company with an agenda that does not revolve around the best interests of my children. This will never cease to be a Con in my book.
For now, the Pros outweigh the Cons for our particular family, at this particular moment. So we’re going to continue to play until that changes. I think this is the best advice I can offer, frankly, to apply to gaming as well as every other bloody complication of being a parent. If it’s working better than the alternative—keep doing it. When that stops being the case, don’t be afraid to change the rules or pull the plug altogether. Being a good parent means being flexible and willing to change your approach whenever necessary.
Part of me hopes this is a fad that will fade as quickly as it appeared. We already have one friend whose kids binged on it for a day and then lost interest—"Like too much candy in one sitting, the boys had their fill and then some, then it no longer tasted as good (and was slightly nauseating...)"
But I’m realistic enough to see that even if this particular game loses its luster, this is the future of gaming—a combination of compelling graphics and real-world interaction. Augmented Reality. As parents, we might as well do our homework and figure out how to integrate this new development into our family lives as sensibly as possible. It's worthwhile looking for the good in all this, because I don’t think it's (Pokémon) Go-ing anywhere.