Growing up as a kid with autism, the Pokémon games were a gateway to a world of easier socialisation. Interactions were predictable, with characters always saying the same thing if spoken to over and over. Creatures always learned moves at set levels, evolved at set levels, and featured set non-variable statistics interactions. It was a game of numbers and predictable outcomes, something I could understand and memorise.
When the Pokémon craze first started to blow up, being the kid at school with an obsessive knowledge of the game (and the memory for statistics) became a benefit to socialising rather than a hindrance. My knowledge of facts and figures was now invaluable, and helped me to connect with new people. They liked me for my knowledge of Pokémon, and I knew if conversation began to falter I could fall back on my safety topic.
My area of specialist knowledge was something I could talk about without annoying people. I could obsessively fixate on completing a collection over and over, and it made me cool rather than weird.
The Pokémon craze faded over time, at least within my peer group, but the things I loved about the games remained the same. I could still obsess over stats, fill in sets of data, and experience predictable social interactions. The games weren’t helpful in making IRL friends anymore, but I loved them as much as ever.
Pokémon Go, at launch, was a fairly solo experience for me. Sure, if a rare Pokémon popped up lots of people would end up in the same spot hoping to catch it, and sure you could go to areas with a high density of PokéStops and see other players, with knowing nods aplenty. You could fight for control of Gyms others had taken for themselves, but you never really had to socialise in person to complete your collection if you didn’t want to.
As the game has evolved, this has changed. And now Pokémon Go’s endgame has done what no game since Pokémon’s first generation has succeeded in doing; it brought in-person socialising back to my Pokémon hunting experience.
Pokémon Go’s endgame, for the past four months, has for me evolved into a series of monthly social gatherings among strangers. At predictable intervals, a new legendary Pokémon is released into the wild for a limited time. Each legendary raid requires multiple people to tackle it at once, in person, in a short window of time before it disappears. This setup requires players to seek each other out, arrange social gatherings, work together on a task and discuss their results in order to understand the hidden statistics of each creature.
Since the cycle of legendary raids began, I’ve made new friends every time I go out to raid by virtue of being one of a circle of trainers just as interested in obsessive numerical analysis and collection for collection’s sake as each other. We analyse capture rates, we discuss how our captures compare to the hypothetical perfect capture, we discuss where and when we can next try to capture that elusive creature, and — once the Poké-chat’s exhausted — we talk about each other’s day.
I have an excuse to meet new people, and if the conversation falters I can fall back on my safety topic.
On top of that, the current Pokémon Go endgame for maxed out level players heavily focuses on preparing for what is to come in future updates. Knowledge of the Pokémon series helps me anticipate which current creatures may become important as future generations are released and new evolutions open up, helps me know which gender of Ditto I need to stockpile, and what movesets to ditch for a competitive team.
I know to catch every Magnemite I see, so I have candies ready for my eventual Magnezone evolution. I know Lickitung and Rhyhorn candy will pay off when Generation 4 rolls out. I know Mime Jr is could potentially be an additional European exclusive due to its ties to Mr Mime, and that it’ll be an important Pokémon to breed early when that feature goes live.
I know that a game set in the real world, played by real people living near me, is going to allow me to go on an adventure where I can plan and anticipate and have knowledge that’s seen as interesting and valuable.
And I share that knowledge. The slow rollout of later generation Pokémon and game features encourages early planning. I get to recommend Pokémon to prepare for the future, how best to prepare them, what we should be stockpiling and why. I’m one of the cool kids again.
At release Pokémon Go was obviously a big success, but was also seen by some as shallow. And at that early stage, looking back now, that may have had a grain of truth. But as Pokémon Go has improved, it has added not just more Pokémon but more ways of playing. The original Game Boy release famously used the link cable to transfer Pokémon between trainers, and encouraged the interaction by giving every traded Pokémon an XP boost. It’s always been a game about playing together. How lovely, then, that Pokémon Go’s success has created another new way to do so.