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Behind the Pokemon Go craze

Nostalgia alone cannot account for this second-wave Pokemon frenzy. Hype and social media play a big part.
Nostalgia alone cannot account for this second-wave Pokemon frenzy. Hype and social media play a big part. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

Two decades ago, Japanese video game company Nintendo gave the world a game whereby players have to catch, train and battle cute pocket monsters - or Pokemon - on their hand-held game devices.

The game started a global cult following. But many among its legions of fans would not have anticipated the phenomenal revival of Pokemania in the past two weeks, following the release of Nintendo's first Pokemon game on the smartphone, Pokemon Go.

This second coming is fuelled, I think, largely by the nostalgia of those who grew up with Pokemon, coupled with worldwide hype over social media.

Pokemon Go took the franchise to the next level, and into the outside world, by letting fans capture virtual Pokemon that appear in the real world through the lens of a smartphone camera.

It's a novel and creative way of making use of augmented reality (AR) technology for entertainment, but it's hardly the first of AR-enabled games in the market. There has also been a smattering of negative publicity in the news, mainly reports of players being lured to secluded locations and robbed while playing the game, along with players who got knocked down by cars in their haste to catch the virtual Pokemon.

Yet it managed to top download charts within days of the game's release, with the total of daily users now exceeding that of apps like Twitter. It also drove the stock prices of Nintendo up 70 per cent - the biggest jump in 30 years.

As someone who grew up playing Pokemon, I can attest to how powerful nostalgia can be as a driving force for a game like this.

The early adopters of Pokemon Go would have been those like me who spent their formative years catching, training and battling Pokemon, and the allure of doing so in real life through the magic of AR is very strong.

I'm sure the millennials frantically swiping on their phones in pursuit of digital Pokemon would have had nothing but the fondest memories of playing Pokemon.

I was enthralled by the franchise since the day my parents bought me a Game Boy Color along with Pokemon Blue in 1998, when I was in Primary 3.

The Pokemon franchise, in both the video games and the cartoon, also tapped the very real needs of children: the desire for companionship and the joy of raising a pet.

These Pokemon were our virtual pets, and the more we spent training them, the stronger they grew, as with the bond we had with them.

The games also contained moral lessons, emphasising the nature of friendship, loyalty and kindness not just to fellow human beings but to all other living things too.

Nostalgia alone cannot account for this second-wave Pokemon frenzy, which is where hype and social media come into the picture.

Those who did not grow up with Pokemon would nevertheless not want to miss out on yet another global trend. It's also easy to be swept by the big new thing you see popping up on your social media feeds everywhere, with memes and posts galore.

Anyone with a smartphone can try it for free, unlike the Pokemon video games, which require you to own a Nintendo device.

For me, Pokemon is a familiar, comforting franchise that I grew up with, as each new version of the game, which introduced hundreds of new Pokemon, coincided with my life from childhood through my teenage years and finally adulthood.

That is why, like many others here, I am impatiently waiting for the game's release in Singapore.

There is still scant information on a release date here, in part due to how the Pokemon Go servers have struggled to keep up with overwhelming numbers.

Pokemon Go may end up being not that great of a game once the nostalgia wears off, having no real replay value other than the grind to catch 'em all.

Nonetheless, that's not stopping me from strapping on my trainer cap, comfy shorts and running shoes, and go catch them all while playing the 8-bit bike theme on my iPod. I'll be seeing you in the tall grass when it's finally out here.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 20, 2016, with the headline 'Behind the Pokemon Go craze'. Print Edition | Subscribe