There's an increasingly-outdated stereotype that video games are an unhealthy pastime — that enjoying regular electronic entertainment while living a physically and mentally stimulating lifestyle are somehow mutually exclusive. Even old-school titles like EarthBound had in-game messages that recommended you took a break every now and then, as though playing devil’s (or parent's) advocate. Such views are dying-out as video games become a more recognised and appreciated part of popular culture, from the Game Baftas to the expanding world of esports. And gaming has also become more integrated in our daily lives with today's technological mobility: almost everyone has a smartphone.
The Pokémon franchise, however, has long stood outside of this slowly-changing mainstream and actively promoted a healthy lifestyle. As is well-known, creator Satoshi Tajiri's energetic formative years were the inspiration for the series. His bucolic adventures inspired the backdrop against which you'd catch 'em all; from the wide plains of Kanto, through the bug-infested Viridian Forest, across the ocean to Seafoam Islands, the game worlds are an imaginative reflection of his childhood play areas. That youthful nostalgia permeates through the series and, even when Tajiri is not involved with development, the games reflect this, most recently with Pokémon Go.
The augmented reality (AR) app took the world by storm upon launch last year and, while its popularity has dropped off, it continues to have a large playerbase and offer incentives for getting out and about with the recent addition of Gold and Silver's monster cast. It makes you more active even in minor ways — I took a ten-minute detour on my way home last week because a Houndour had appeared outside a nearby abandoned church, as though luring me into a goddamn scene from The Omen. But Pokémon’s history as a fitness tool stems from a much earlier era.
The creatively named Pokémon Pikachu — the marketing team must have clocked off early that day — appeared in 1998 as an inevitable consequence of Pokémon’s initial popularity and the-then craze for Tamagotchi digital pets. The little device acted as a pedometer, and your steps were converted to watts, which could in turn be used to make your Pikachu pal happy. An updated later version (dubbed the Color in Europe and the 2 GS elsewhere) would allow you to send gifts to the Game Boy’s Gold, Silver and Crystal versions.
I got reacquainted with the little guy over the last few days for this article, clipping Pikachu to my belt before work and consciously keeping my shirt pulled down to cover him in front of my work colleagues. He's a petulant little bastard, though; bribe him with all the watts you like, he still just turns away as the on-screen message brands me a “meanie.” Well screw you too mate. There honestly isn’t a great deal of fun to be had with this incarnation of the electric mouse, but Pokémon Pikachu is at least a nifty piece of ephemera that encapsulating two 90s trends, and using them to introduce a physical fitness element.
Its spiritual successor, the incredibly-desirable Pokéwalker , followed almost ten years later alongside the release of DS remakes HeartGold and SoulSilver. This little Poké Ball-themed gadget allowed you to transfer a Pokémon from the game to carry around with you. This time, steps would grant your buddy experience points, and you could actually find wild creatures and items to transfer to the main games depending on far you walked. 10,000 steps, for instance, might nab you a Spiritomb. Might.
Two Walkers could also connect via infrared in order to unlock items and have the other player’s character appear for a battle back in your cartridge. A particularly notable aspect of the Pokéwalker is that professors at Iowa State University found it to be more accurate than other pedometers on the market. Understandably it went on to influence the Wii Fit Meter, a step-tracker used with Wii Fit U. And it's worth pausing here to emphasise that Pokémon’s desire to inspire physical activity is one shared by its parent company, Nintendo — walking around with your 3DS earns you Play Coins, while a huge part of Wii's appeal was movement and titles like Wii Fit or Just Dance. The Switch obviously ties into this, too, probably the first home console ever that wants to be taken outside.
Neither the Pokémon Pikachu or the Pokéwalker can hold a candle to Pokémon Go, though, at least in terms of audience. Sure, Go was buggy as hell to begin with, with some unpleasant stories born of its popularity, but it still had an undeniable impact on people’s well-being, with numerous reports of people losing weight and getting fitter through playing. There are, of course, those who do little to help dispel the stereotype of the basement-dwelling gamer, such as one brash Facebook commenter who took pride in the fact he had Go running on his PC and was able to send his avatar anywhere in the world. Yes he might have had a full Pokédex, but talk about missing the point.
The app got young kids, adults, nostalgists and long-time fans exercising and socialising, and while its number of average users might have dropped considerably — in the UK, users went from 1.7 million at launch to 53,000 at the end of the year — for a brief and bright time, Pokémon Go brought the phenomenon back into the mainstream. As a fan since the beginning it was heartening to see there were so many of us, as well as many people still discovering the series. As well as the obvious health benefits, Pokémon Go also turned out as a minor force for social good: a welcoming priest managed to quote both Mewtwo and Mother Teresa on the same poster, businesses used it to attract customers, and couples met while out monster hunting.
One example is Rhonda, a 47-year-old fan from Swindon who was initially drawn in by Go’s sense of nostalgia after enjoying Red and Blue with her kids back in the day. She’s found the mobile game completely transformative. Switching unappealing real gyms for Pokémon Gyms, she’s not only managed to drop from a size 16/18 to a 12/14, but has also found that catching critters has worked wonders for her mental health.
“In January, I had a big meltdown, which was like a grand finale to my depression, triggered by the death of my father-in-law and various stresses like prolonged restructure at work,” Rhonda tells me. “I stopped doing the things I had enjoyed previously. Pokémon Go got me out of the house again and, with the social aspect, meeting and chatting to new people when all I wanted to do was lie in bed. I just escape from reality for a bit and bad thoughts disappear.
“With the weight loss and feeling a lot better mentally, I decided to try dating again, which I hadn’t done for a year or two.
“I’d got into a terrible funk and, really, playing this game helped me feel better physically and led to me kickstarting things to change stuff in my life.”
If the wealth of online feel-good stories are to be believed, Rhonda isn’t alone in her appreciation of the sense of wellbeing granted by Pokémon Go. With the app seeing ongoing updates and events, as well as the Switch offering a new breed of portable gaming, Pokémon and Nintendo have the potential to inspire personal and social betterment — and perhaps even change lives — for many years to come.