A Pocketful of Power — How Pokémon Encourages Social Gameplay
Pokémon has a unique way of captivating players and bringing them together through a number of simple strategies in order to build gaming communities.
One of the latest trailers for the upcoming twin-releases Pokémon: Let’s Go, Pikachu! and Pokémon: Let’s Go, Eevee! struck something of a chord with me. If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s a relatively short video that depicts a group of friends meeting up in an urban setting to play the games together. On their own individual journeys into town, each player is enjoying the game in their own captivating way before engaging in a spot of lighthearted multiplayer.
It’s a simple trailer, but also a heartwarming one that shows the power of adding a social aspect to video games; a medium that often sees outdated stereotypes of lonely players huddled up next to their consoles while hiding away from the rest of the world. Pokémon, however, has never adhered to this trope.
The Pokémon franchise has always pushed the idea of gaming as a community through the concept of trainers getting together for battles and trades. The very fact that each generation of Pokémon games is split into two parts encourages people to engage with their friends or other players in order to complete their all-important in-game Pokédex. Whether it was playing Pokemon: Red or Blue on the schoolyard as a kid or gathering in a coffee shop to play Pokemon X or Y with your friends from college decades later, Pokémon’s uncanny ability to connect people through their love for video games is truly awe-inspiring.
The reasons that Pokémon stands head and shoulders above the competition in this regard are simple, yet genius. Firstly, the games are compact. Whether you’re playing on 3DS or still breaking out that dusty old Game Boy and Link Cable combo, Pokémon titles are designed to fit comfortably into your pocket. This makes them easy to carry on your person and, ultimately, less of a hassle than trying to get friends together to play many other games.
This degree of portability also means that they can be played anywhere. It doesn’t matter if you’re on a crowded train, in a busy bar, or hiding down the back of the classroom; you can easily play your favorite Pokémon games in virtually any public place. Compare this to the energy and preparation needed if you wanted to play a few rounds of Street Fighter V: Arcade Edition while out and about, for example. Firstly, you’d need an area with a designated power supply. Then you’d need a PlayStation 4 or PC to run the game, a monitor to display the action, a table to stack them on, and a pair of controllers before you could actually start a fight. With Pokémon, all of this is completely unnecessary. If each trainer is armed with their own personal handheld console along with their copy of the game, then the stage is already set for battle.
Pokémon can be used as a simple and fun tool to build long-lasting bonds, meet new friends, and share new experiences. The simple act of trading a Pokémon from one cartridge to the next breaks the ice and both players can immediately recognize that they have a common ground. From there, conversations usually flow quite freely: “Have you caught this Pokémon?” “Did you know this one has a hidden ability?” “Do you have the item to make this species evolve?” “I’ve got an Alalon variation of that Pokémon, would you like it?”
With over 800 different species currently available (as of last year’s Ultra Sun & Ultra Moon), there’s no shortage of things for trainers to chat about. Suddenly, that humble trade potentially makes way for friendships with people you may never have met otherwise. Considering the first installments of the franchise were released back in the late 1990s and new generations are still being added today, this also means that there are people of all ages interested in the games. The nostalgia factor that Pokémon carries with it is a powerful and captivating element. People who spent their childhoods playing Red and Blue have since grown up and still retain fond memories of the first generation. This was most evident when Pokémon GO launched back in the summer of 2016 on mobile and exploded in popularity.
Pokémon GO was nothing short of a phenomenon when it was first released: players all over the globe dove into this interesting game that combined catching cuddly creatures with exploring real-life locations. Of course, the initial wave of pocket monsters consisted of the franchise’s first generation. This touch of nostalgia seemed to be one of the mobile app’s driving forces: trainers didn’t have to know the difference between a Beartic and a Drifloon; instead, their age-old knowledge of the ’90s pop culture icon would be more than enough to allow them to join in the fun and begin catching classic critters like Squirtle and Jigglypuff.
With these simple elements in place, Pokémon GO took off in a way that I’d never seen before. People spent their hot summer days flocking to key locations in order to catch Pokémon and engage in gym battle. Gathering together at these meeting points, Pokémon GO became an almost surreal social experience. Unlike other video games, there was no real way to play this one while within the comfort of your own home. Instead, its use of the GPS system within smartphones encouraged people to get outdoors and explore their local areas in order to get involved.
As if out of nowhere, everyone seemed to instantly become a Pokémon trainer. Videos went viral of gangs of people charging across New York’s iconic location of Central Park in an attempt to catch a Vaporeon while embarking on their Pokémon GO outings. This concept became a staple of the game, which led to creators Niantic Inc organizing enormous officially sanctioned events, which regularly see thousands of players gathering together to play the game while millions more participate from around the globe online.
Unlike many popular titles, the Pokémon franchise has a gargantuan appeal due to its ability to simultaneously entertain players for a number of different reasons. Trainers can come from all manners of different backgrounds, and Pokémon has somehow found a way to tap into every one of them.
Firstly, there are the casual RPG fans who want to beat through game’s story campaign and meet all the wild and wonderful characters its region holds along the way. Whether they’re taking on Team Skull or battling to catch a legendary Pokémon, the story continuously focuses on how people bond with both their adorable pint-sized sidekicks and also with the other characters within the game. Although these NPCs may not be real, it still perpetuates the concept of social engagement and togetherness.
Then there are those who simply want to fill up their Pokédex. Collecting more than 800 creatures throughout an array of different environments is no easy feat, especially when the game in question somewhat pulls away from the concept of being simply a single player game. Put quite simply, unless you own more than one copy of any given generation, chances are you’ll never complete your Pokédex alone, as there are creatures that can only be caught within certain variations of the game. Furthermore some Pokémon, such as Phantump and Kingdra, will only evolve when traded with another trainer. Again this encourages further interaction with other Pokémon players.
Finally, there are the competitive trainers. From the outside looking in, it’s easy to see Pokémon as little more than child’s play; catching a number of bizarre elementally-charged animals and battling it out for fun. However, beneath the colorful and easily accessible surface lies a meta-game that goes deeper than most players realize. Choosing a team from the game’s insanely robust roster and diving headlong into its competitive world opens up the fact that the series is absolutely brimming with hidden secrets such as Egg Moves, IVs, and so much more. Customizing that team to suit your combat needs and individual playstyle allows for your personality to shine through when on the battlefield.
However, there’s no point in having a meticulously trained team of battle-hardened Pokémon if you’re not going to take on other players. The mind games involved here begin before the battle even starts: choosing your opening roster of combat-ready rascals can put you at an instant advantage or alternatively leave you lagging behind. Battling at this level within a Pokémon community calls for players to consistently improve their individual game in order to stay one step ahead of their opponents. This drive creates a healthy rivalry between players, but once again opens up the stage for friendships to bloom through their collective love for the franchise. Beating other trainers is exhilarating, but in my experience, the fun usually spills over into trading high-end pocket monsters with one another while discussing in-depth battle strategies and potential set-ups with opponents.
Every inch of Pokémon is cleverly designed to be enjoyed together, and this looks set to continue as Pokémon: Let’s Go, Pikachu! and Let’s Go, Eevee! burst onto Nintendo Switch later this week. These titles are set to bring many of the aforementioned elements together.
Not only will trainers be able to battle and trade anywhere they please, but now trainers can also join forces to catch a single Pokémon together thanks to the game’s new co-op options. Those who dove headlong into Pokémon GO and followed it through to its recent inclusion of the fourth generation will be happy to know that many of the monsters caught within the app can be traded to and from the Switch titles. Ultimately, this integrates Pokémon GO into the game by opening up even more ways for people to play together. Of course, the Switch’s portability sees it take over the sacred role for the Pokemon series originally played by the Game Boy and proudly passed through a number of handheld Nintendo devices until it rested within the 3DS’ capable hands, with the release of Pokemon X & Y in 2013.
To top it all off, Pokémon: Let’s Go, Pikachu! and Let’s Go, Eevee! tap into players’ nostalgia for Pokemon once again. This game is something of a retelling of the original generation from Red & Blue and the adventures that transpired in the now iconic region of Kanto. Those who fondly remember catching a Ponyta more than 20 years ago, or even those who simply recall Ash’s antics from the beloved animated TV show, will be instantly familiar with the locations and roster of available Pokémon.
With a wealth of different ways to interact with other players through the love of these charming little creatures, I hope that Pokémon: Let’s Go, Pikachu! and Let’s Go, Eevee! will bring even more people together.
Pokémon: Let’s Go, Pikachu! and Let’s Go, Eevee! are booked for release on November 16, 2018. You can pre-order the titles from Amazon now. While waiting for their release, you can begin your Pokémon journey by downloading Pokémon GO for free on Android and iOS.
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