What the Hell Is ‘Pokemon GO’? A Short Explainer

The first Pokemon game for smartphones is already a global sensation less than a week since it launched

There’s a new Big Thing going on right now. You’ve probably seen people talking about it obsessively on social media, and depending on where you live you may have seen people playing it in real life.

I’m talking about “Pokemon GO,” obviously. But if you’re not familiar with Pokemon, then this might all seem very confusing. But fear not! Probably a majority of the people playing it right now aren’t into Pokemon either. I know I’m not, and I’ve been all over it. You don’t become a worldwide phenomenon in a handful of days (“Pokemon GO” began rolling out in region-specific versions of app stores on July 4) by only pulling in the core fanbase.

Now, what follows is a detailed discussion of the game itself and why people like to play it. If you want a broader explanation of “Pokemon GO” as a pop culture event, you might also want to check out our meme-based explainer of the game as a pop culture phenomenon by clicking the link below

First off, what in the world is “Pokemon GO”?

“Pokemon GO” is a free “augmented reality” game for iOS and Android smart devices in which players must physically move around the real world in order to capture Pokemon (short for pocket monsters), which are fantastical creatures from the ever-popular video game/collectible card game/anime franchise of the same name.

After you open the app and create an account, you’re greeted by your avatar standing in the middle of a map of wherever you are. The app tracks your location via GPS as you walk around looking for Pokemon and visiting Pokestops.

When you’re in the vicinity of a Pokemon, your phone will vibrate and the Pokemon you’ve encountered will appear on the map. You touch it, and then the app will switch to its camera mode, where it shows the Pokemon standing wherever you happen to be. Like this Meowth acting like a tourist next to Danny DeVito‘s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame:

pokemon go meowth danny devito

If you hit the camera button on this screen, the app will remove the interface so you can get an unfettered shot. For a sampling of some of the other Pokemon pictures I took this weekend, click this link.

To catch a Pokemon, you need Pokeballs, which you can obtain by checking in at Pokestops. Pokestops tend to be attached to local landmarks or curiosities: churches, fountains, parks and the like. You get within range of these spots and select them on the app map and it spits out an assortment of items, including those Pokeballs. We’ll talk about the other items in a moment.

In Los Angeles, where I live, the density of Pokemon and Pokestops is of course extremely high. When I walk to the 7-Eleven a block from my apartment I’m likely to catch one or two, and I pass by three Pokestops. If I walk to the subway station ten minutes away, it ends up turning into a much-longer journey if I’m playing the game.

So there’s, like, millions of people playing this, right? What’s that about?

I’d gander there are two main reasons why so many people have jumped on the “Pokemon GO” bandwagon: the social aspect, and the funny pictures.

“Pokemon GO” is a sort of universal icebreaker because of the whole scavenger hunt angle. It’s an excuse to talk to people and make new acquaintances, even if it’s just for a few moments.

If you went out in L.A. on Friday or Saturday night and didn’t know what was going on, you probably wouldn’t have noticed anything out of the ordinary.

It looked like L.A. on the weekend. Bars and restaurants were full, with folks standing outside their entrances smoking cigarettes. Groups of friends wandered the streets going wherever they were going. It was the typical bustle.

But players can tell pretty easily who other players are. The way they hold their phones while they’re walking around, for one thing — it looks like they’re getting directions from a GPS app. And then suddenly they stop and hold up their phones like they’re trying to take a picture. Except they’re pointing their phones in different directions and cursing a lot because they’re flinging Pokeballs at a Pokemon and missing.

Right after downloading the app a few days ago I took a walk around my block, and someone driving by stopped and asked if I was playing Pokemon GO. Another time, a guy across the street randomly yelled at my friends and I to ask if we were looking for the Onyx Pokemon — we were, in fact, doing just that.

We also ventured up to Barnsdall Park in Los Feliz, and found the area covered in players — the park had a bunch of Pokestop and a gym where you can make your Pokemon fight other Pokemon, so it was kind of a social hub. People hanging out in the park, doing Pokemon.

So you wander around with your friends finding Pokemon, and you meet random strangers and it’s usually all good fun. On the other hand, a teenager in Wyoming stumbled upon a dead body while she was looking for Pokemon, so your results may vary.

Beyond the social stuff, you get a lot of funny pictures out of it — like goofy Snapchat filters, but with Pokemon. Here’s one of me with a Growlithe in my lap that I’ll treasure forever:

pokemon go growlithe and me

You get these good pictures and then you toss ‘em on Instagram and Twitter and everybody has a good time. We also have lots of memes to share and enjoy, as a bonus.

There’s gotta be more to this, right? Like, what’s the point?

Yep, there’s more. The purpose of catching all those Pokemon is so you can make them fight.

To fight, you have to go to a gym, which you’ll see on the map as a tall tower with a Pokemon sitting on top. That one sitting there is the current champion of that gym, and the color of the tower indicates which of the three Pokemon trainer teams it belongs to.

When you reach level 5, you’ll be prompted to join one of three teams: Mystic, Valor or Instinct. You’ll represent that team when you make your Pokemon fight at the gym. It’s a fight for territory in your city.

You’ll collect more powerful Pokemon as you level up by walking around and collecting them and checking in at Pokestops. You can also make the one you have better by using items you earn by collecting a bunch of Pokemon of a certain type, and you can also evolve the Pokemon into new forms. So if the ones at the gym seem hopelessly overwhelming, don’t worry about it just yet. It’s just a matter of sticking with it.

While “Pokemon GO” is a free game, you can spend money on coins which can in turn be used to buy items: Pokeballs, egg incubators, extra storage space for Pokemon or items and anything else aside from the Pokemon themselves. The purchasable items are really just time savers, though, as you don’t need them to do anything.

There are several different items you’ll be given for free at Pokestops, including Pokeballs, items to heal or revive Pokemon in battle, and eggs.

These eggs are, of course, Pokemon eggs. You hatch them by placing them in an incubator and then walking whatever distance the eggs calls for. The distance you need to walk gives you an idea of how powerful the Pokemon inside will be: 2 kilometers is not going to be a great one, but 10 kilometers probably will give you something awesome.

Another key item is incense, which when used it will lure Pokemon to you for 30 minutes. You won’t find incense at a Pokestop, though you will get a free one sometimes when you level up. For the most part, though, if you want incense you’ll have to spend real money on it.

You can also buy a lure module that can be placed on Pokestops that will draw Pokemon to the vicinity for everyone. Since everybody can see when you’re luring Pokemon to a spot, it also will draw other players who may or may not be your new best friends.

Why should I get involved in this?

I’m just the messenger. You gotta make your own decisions. I’ve been having a good time, though I’m not sure I’ll keep up with it for too long unless I just want to use it as a reason to go outside more often. If you’re leaning toward giving it a try, now is the time — as with anything that burns this hot, there’s a good chance it will burn itself out relatively quickly.

But if you’re still undecided, you should check out this gallery of a bunch of pictures I took of Pokemon in Los Angeles. And then check out the gallery of “Pokemon GO” memes that can give you some cultural context below. That’s all I’ve got.