Who's Still Playing Pokémon GO Three Years Later?

pokemon go
NurPhoto / Getty Images
NurPhoto / Getty Images

When Niantic and the Pokémon Company partnered up and brought the revolutionary Pokémon GO mobile phone AR game to the world in the summer of 2016, it was an instant sensation. Everyone mid-thirties or younger -- that is, everyone who had been exposed to Pokémon cards or games or shows since the creatures were introduced in 1994 -- jumped at the chance to play a Pokémon game that was not only free, but also more real and interactive than any game before it. Pokémon GO, with its augmented reality capability, putting Pidgeys and Diglets on city sidewalks, was the closest we could ever get to the dream of catching a Pokémon.

As soon as Pokémon GO hit the app store on July 6, 2016 (at that point only in Australia, New Zealand, and the US), it was downloaded more than 10 million times within the first week in America. "There is no comparison to the amount of people playing the game in the summer of 2016. Those were crazy times," Maxwell Heaps, a Los Angeles-based guide and researcher for grassroots Pokémon GO network The Silph Road, said over email. People were playing it at work, on their lunch breaks, at school, at home. "Near the old Montréal Children’s Hospital on Cabot Square, there was a gym and about eight Pokémon spots in a one-block radius," Justine Smith, a personal Pokéfriend of mine, said. "I'm not exaggerating when I say there were some nights when there were over 100 people there. There was an evangelical church on the square that even had a Pokémon GO sign inside and would give free water to people."

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The game forced people to get out into the fresh air to play, inspiring ideas for exercise regimens to help people get in shape (for example: you have to walk a certain distance while playing the game in order to hatch eggs). But it also brought along safety concerns -- people would go out at night, or walk through unsafe or restricted areas to catch the creatures (full disclosure: I trespassed onto a private golf course to catch a Hitmonlee), and some worried that people would use Pokéstops, the places where players can find items like Pokéballs and berries, to lure unsuspecting players and rob them. (It happened!) The app was blamed for an increase in traffic accidents, prompting Niantic to add a safety message to pay attention to your surroundings that pops up as soon as you open the app. Its ubiquity also hatched the game's very own conspiracy theories, from it being a tool keeping the population distracted and docile to the idea that Michelle Obama was behind it all.

After its first few months, like all instantly popular phenomenons, or maybe because it starts getting cold in many regions during fall, the fad ended. People gradually stopped logging on, stopped updating the app, and the larger world generally moved on. The app has been notorious for battery drainage, a constant user complaint that's never really been solved. It's not the most convenient game in the world -- again, you have to go out and walk around to play it, and going out in brutal winter months can be untenable for someone like Smith, who lives in Canada. The app has to know your location whenever it's open, a fact that can be troublesome in the age of Internet privacy concerns about creepy programs that track your whereabouts every hour of the day.

Since its release, it's gotten increasingly more complex; if someone who stopped playing early on wanted to pick things back up again, the game would be nearly unrecognizable now. Pokémon GO has redesigned its gym battle system, introduced three new generations of monsters, added community-building "raids" where players work together to take down and capture high-powered Pokémon, introduced monthly "Community Days" where specific Pokémon have a higher spawn rate for a set number of hours, and gave players the ability to send and receive items from friends. Pokémon GO player Spencer Whiteman dropped out for a while early on when the game changed its tracking system -- before, it would show little footprints to indicate how close you were to a Pokémon: "When the initial tracker broke, I fell off for a pretty long time."

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And yet, even without the initial exhilaration of a new game in a brand-new arena -- people have moved onto the next mobile AR thing -- Pokémon GO has still managed to steadily add new aspects to keep it feeling fresh. There are always new Pokémon out there to catch. Based in England, Josh Slater-Williams (another Pokéfriend, not to brag) fondly recalls "the time I opened the game after completing jury duty and seeing there was a wild Vaporeon outside the courthouse." About a year after the game was released, the second generation of Pokémon was added, and a few months after that, the third. Each generation has at least one or two covetable Pokémon: Gen 2 has Umbreon and the cuddly Togepi, Gen 3 has Gardevoir and Salamence. With the advent of raids, players could venture out to the nearest gym and, with the help of other players nearby (total strangers even!), they could use their arsenal of monsters to capture Legendaries like Moltres or Entei or Mewtwo during a window of time at the drop of a push notification. "Catching a perfect Zapdos was a dream come true," Heaps said. "I also love Raikou. I caught my perfect one in July of 2017. I was down to my second-to-last ball and I almost didn't catch him. There is a photo of me somewhere, lying face-up on the sidewalk after I caught him, sweaty from the heat and panic, but so relieved." 

Some players, like Heaps, have had a relationship with Pokémon since it all started. When he was younger, Heaps would play the Nintendo games with his brother. Smith watched the anime TV show, and would rent the Nintendo 64 Pokémon games from Blockbuster. Some have played since the day the game came out in their country. "There have been maybe one or two days total since where I haven't opened the app and played in some way," Slater-Williams said. 

Because of the game's increasing complexity, the online community is still very active. YouTube is riddled with videos with hundreds of thousands and even millions of views sporting sensational titles like "IT TOOK OVER 1 YEAR TO FIND THIS SHINY POKÉMON" and "Pokémon GO -- LOOK AT THESE INSANE SPAWNS!" The gifts system, in which players can send little presents of Pokéballs and berries and even eggs to other players, no matter how far away they are, changed the game's solitary nature when it was patched into the game in June 2018. The members of the Pokémon GO Trades subreddit organize a monthly "adoption" where city-based members -- therefore have exponentially more access to Pokéstops, gyms, raids, and a wider variety of things to catch -- adopt a rural player, who might live in a small town or out in the middle of nowhere, so that the urban dwellers can send them useful items as gifts to keep playing interesting.

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Pokemon GO Fest 2017 in Chicago. | Daniel Boczarski / Getty Images

"The online community is wonderful," Heaps said. "The Silph Road, specifically, tries to keep all discussions positive and fosters a place where new and veteran trainers can gather to thrive." In its latest iteration, the game is a lot more extroverted. Heaps made friends in his hometown after becoming an admin for his local Pokémon GO Slack group. "I invited them all to my wedding!"

Whiteman said he hasn't necessarily become buddies with anyone he's played with, "but I definitely have met people because of the game that I wouldn’t have met otherwise," thanks to interacting with other players online and gathering local groups for raids. Slater-Williams joined a Facebook group for special raid days and has even begun to recognize some familiar faces during the game's "event" days. "A lot of parents come out for those with their kids, which is sweet." 

It's not just the Pokémon die-hards who are still playing. Smith considers herself a "passive fan" and yet she plays "almost daily." "I legit don’t even know most of the Pokémon released in the last few updates." Chicago-based player Eric Rudkin, for example, just likes having something to look at on routine walks to and from the nearby train station. "Plus, I've found some pretty cool parks that are just a little bit off the beaten path of where I would've gone if I hadn't been trying to get over to a stop." Smith, too, enjoys the active aspect of the game. "I like that I can walk around and have a clear goal," she said. "It’s not too easy and it’s always expanding."

There are plenty of things to keep people playing: Team Rocket goonies posted up at gyms have been rumored to hit the app quite soon, the promise of newer generations (Whiteman wants a Sylveon, the fairy-type Eeveelution), and newer ways to play the game (Slater-Williams, who now has the Pokémon GO Plus accessory, hopes for a Heracross, one of the game's region-exclusive Pokémon only available in Central America) are enough to keep most players logged on. There are plenty of players hoping to catch 'em all, but there are more who just enjoy the sense of community. "The reason I still play is because I have friends that play," Heaps said. "Most everyone I have met through the game is kind and inclusive. Pokémon people are really great people." 

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Emma Stefansky is a staff entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @stefabsky.