News Article

MIT Students Gotta Catch 'Em All

A Pokemon GO screenshot.

August 10, 2016

A visitor to MIT’s Killian Court will see plenty of students enjoying the outdoor space—some study, some play games, some take in the view of the Charles River. And now, some students even chase Pokémon. Nintendo’s blockbuster game has taken over the country since its July 6 release, and MIT’s campus is no exception.

A Pokemon GO screenshot.
  A gameplay screenshot from MIT Pokemon League President Lucy Yang '17.

Players (or “trainers”) explore their real-life surroundings to “capture” Pokémon—so-called “pocket monsters” with special fighting abilities—in an enhanced-reality environment depicted on their smartphones. They can also find pokéstops (predetermined landmarks where trainers can collect supplies), and Pokémon gyms (locations where two trainers pit their Pokémon against each other in battle, with the winner taking over the gym). This makes MIT’s campus a prime location for student Pokémon trainers—most notably, the MIT Pokémon League. Founded in 2014 by Lucy Yang ’17, the league had previously met only to play the Pokémon trading card game and the franchise’s video games. Pokémon GO has given members a fresh outlet of gameplay—and offered a spark in club interest from non-members. Yang, who is also the club’s president, explained that while the franchise had been popular among the millennial generation years ago, interest had dwindled for many by the time they reached college. “All of a sudden, all of them are back for Pokémon GO,” she smiled. “So that’s pretty cool.”

It helps that the game offers only Generation 1 Pokémon—the same Pokémon featured in the original television series and the company’s first games, 1998’s Pokémon Red and Blue, and their 2004 remakes, Pokémon FireRed and LeafGreen. These are the games millennials grew up playing, so it’s no surprise that Pokémon GO has resonated so deeply with college students across the United States. Still, the app gained momentum faster than many imagined. In the thirteen hours following its release, Pokémon Go claimed the Top Grossing and Top Free spots in Apple’s App Store; by July 15, it had more than twenty-one million users over all platforms. Yang and her fellow league members were amazed by the sudden hype the game had created. “In terms of the MIT community [outside the league], most people were hit by surprise when the app was released,” she said. “We didn’t think it would be this big.”

Pokémon GO is so big, in fact, that a number of events and groups for budding Pokémon trainers in the area have sprung up on Facebook. Among them are the Boston Poke-walk (with over 14,000 interested people) and the groups Pokémon GO Boston and Pokémon GO New England. And while the MIT Pokémon League planned a Pokémon GO meetup on Facebook, Yang thinks the group might avoid social media-organized events in the future. “People tend to form communities with their friends rather than seeking out other communities for [Pokémon] GO,” Yang observed. That said, she plans to schedule more Pokémon GO-centric events for the league—which is open to the public—come fall semester. The app proved a good addition to the league’s weekly Thursday night meetings when, in their first meeting since the game’s release, a number of members embarked on a mile-long walk to Hastings Square in search of Pokémon, finding pokéstops in the park as well as about forty non-league Pokémon GO players. Other members travel around campus, capturing Pokémon and competing at the handful of gyms dotting the map around Kendall Square and along the Charles River.

With such a massive audience starting to use the app in such a short amount of time, Pokémon GO has received negative attention centered on players’ safety concerns. Amidst nationwide reports of car accidents caused by both drivers and pedestrians while playing, MIT Police issued a friendly cautionary tweet:

Please be aware of your surroundings if you are playing #PokemonGO around #MIT, have fun, and #CatchEmAll safely!

— MIT Police (@MITPolice) July 12, 2016

But for players like Yang and the rest of the MIT Pokémon League, the fun of Pokémon GO far outweighs any negative perceptions. The game encourages, and in fact requires, players to walk and explore, enhancing their physical and mental health. And it promotes community and collaboration: in the days following the app’s release, MIT Pokémon League members created an interactive spreadsheet showing where and when to catch specific Pokemon at MIT and across Greater Boston. The database grows by the day, updating members of the MIT community on all new Pokémon sightings and giving both returning and incoming students a better chance of catching them all this fall.

Video by Stephanie Tran, words by Isabella Dionne.

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