Pokemon GO Can Be Depressing For Fans With Physical Disabilities

Pokemon GO is getting gamers outside, but not all gamers. Tales of trespassing, fence-jumping and brave jaunts through tough terrain to catch Pokemon have bolstered the hit mobile game's popularity among able-bodied players. Physically handicapped fans of the Pokemon franchise, however, are struggling to love a Pokemon game in which movement is a crucial mechanic. Illustration by Angelica Alzona

Some wheelchair-bound fans of the Pokemon franchise say that important game mechanics like frequenting PokeStops for items and gyms for battles, hatching eggs and even travelling around to catch rare Pokemon are exponentially more difficult for them.

Pokemon GO's success is partly due to the game's capacity for wish fulfilment. As kids, how many of us dreamed of embarking on a real Pokemon adventure, travelling the world with our friends to hunt down monsters? Over a decade ago, when Pokemon was just entering the Western mainstream, millions of children fantasised about catching Pokemon outside the confines of their Game Boys. Pokemon GO necessitates these real-life quests, forcing players to explore their physical surroundings. The goal, to catch all the original Pokemon, requires players to explore diverse locations, since some Pokemon are location-specific.

Pokemon GO, in a way, is sort of reverse-escapism. It's bringing the escapist fantasy of Pokemon-hunting into real life. Because of problems with accessibility, some wheelchair-bound fans -- fans who found solace in the Pokemon fantasy for decades -- say that Pokemon GO is alienating them from their favourite franchise.

Mandy Drago, 21, learned to read from playing Pokemon Blue. Ever since, Pokemon has been a nourishing mainstay in her life. "It's been one of the few obsessions I've stuck with," she told me. Last October, Drago collapsed. She had been suffering from an undiagnosed illness that completely enfeebles her mobility. As a result, she needs to use a wheelchair to get around.

Pokemon GO's release has been frustrating for Drago. At first she thought she'd be able to catch creatures without moving around by laying in bed and using the in-game "Incense" item. She managed to attract Pokemon to her bedroom, but was getting a lot of lower-level repeats and couldn't re-up her items. It didn't feel like she was really playing. When Drago's roommates noticed her struggling to catch Pokemon, they offered to take her phone with them when they went Pokemon-hunting outside, allowing them to fill up the Pokedex for her. For Drago, that felt even worse than playing in bed.

"That was a horribly depressing experience," Drago said. "They came back excited to tell me about their stories and I just felt really left out."

Video games are immensely popular among the physically handicapped population, in part, because they can bolster escapist fantasies. Exploration, something that wheelchair-bound folks often struggle with in real life, is much easier in virtual worlds, where stairs or hills can't impede mobility. In 2008, a PopCap Games survey reported that one in five casual gamers had a developmental, mental or physical disability. Half of those gamers indicated that their primary disability was physical. These gamers play more often and for longer periods of time than their able-bodied counterparts, according to the survey.

REMKO DE WAAL / GettyImages

Koby Feldman, 32 and from St Louis Park, has played every version of Pokemon up to Black and White. He also suffers from spondylolisthesis, so his spine is fractured at several points. Later, he developed fibromyalgia. To get around, Feldman needs a wheelchair or a walker. When Pokemon GO was announced, Feldman immediately knew that he would have problems keeping up with the franchise. He's found a way to play, but not on par with his friends.

"A lot of the PokeStops I've seen are tucked away on running trails, or places that aren't handicapped-accessible," Feldman told me. "Because of that, I can't really go to as many PokeStops. I can't go find new Pokemon in different places so well. And because of that, none of my Pokemon are powerful enough to get any use out of the gyms. Everything is much much harder, but still doable. The hardest part is hatching eggs. For me, walking from my bed to my bathroom can be a challenge on some days. So the idea of walking 10km to hatch an egg... it seems like a nearly unclimbable mountain."

Niantic did not return requests for comment on this story.

On Reddit, mobility-impaired Pokemon fans have expressed concern over the game's accessibility ever since it was announced. "If it's going to involve travelling around," one wheelchair-using commenter wrote six months ago, "that's going to be a problem." Aside from issues with exploration, even holding a phone and manoeuvring a wheelchair requires some dexterous hand-switching.

Over the last few months, these Redditors have regularly posed the question of how to play to the Pokemon GO subreddit. Although slow-moving wheelchairs or cars allow players to go to PokeStops and battle outside gyms, physically handicapped players (especially in rural areas) have more difficulty wandering around outside and searching for the rare Pokemon needed to defeat gym leaders. Additionally, these gamers report that eggs are immeasurably more difficult to hatch on wheels. (On Reddit, a story about a mother walking 10km to hatch an Electrobuzz egg for her disabled son went viral.)

Robert Cianflone / GettyImages

Steven Spohn, the Chief Operations Officer of the AbleGamers Foundation, which advocates for gamers with disabilities, said that Pokemon GO has left many handicapped gamers feeling more left out than ever. Wheelchair-bound fans of the franchise, or gamers more generally, enjoy games like Pokemon that have large communities with which to socialise. Pokemon GO capitalises on the franchise's social features, but at the expense of accessibility. "It's a pretty unfortunate scenario for people with disabilities," Spohn told me. "Even if Nintendo could implement every accessibility option I could dream of for handicapped gamers, they would still miss out on the social aspect of it."

"It's a shame," Spohn added. "They're just left out of another scenario."

Pokemon GO's release has proven to be a special, unique moment in history when millions of strangers -- gamers and non-gamers alike -- physically come together to enjoy a video game. For physically disabled folks, missing out on this moment exacerbates already-present feelings of alienation from society, according to sources interviewed.

In the last few years, numerous foundations have cropped up addressing the issue of accessibility in gaming. AbleGamers, Game Accessibility and Includification are just some of the organisations that are helping disabled gamers find the same pleasure in games that able-bodied gamers do. Pokemon GO presents a unique challenge to the disabled gamers' movement. It is one of the most popular video games of all time and, simultaneously, one of the least accessible to gamers with impaired mobility.

When Mandy asked her roommates whether she could be included in their next Pokemon adventure, they eagerly obliged. "We had to change the way they played of course, which meant no hiking up steps and all that, but it worked out!" Mandy and her roommates mine PokeStops from their car, mostly stopping at lures to catch Pokemon. Glumly, Mandy added that her eggs are taking forever to hatch.


Comments

    I'm sorry to hear it, and I certainly sympathize, but there's no easy solution. The game's based on moving around.

    If you can't do that then it might just be best to pull out and replay one of the handheld games. I'm not meaning to sound cold, I just don't see an answer to finding a way to make it "disability inclusive"

      That's the catch. To design Pokémon GO to be accessible to those who have difficulties moving around, you need to redesign the physical world which, unless you are a deity of some sort, isn't going to be possible. You can always redesign where and how Pokémon appear in the world and where the stops are but that's just going to make it a lot simpler for enabled people to quickly catch everything.

      It will be interesting to see if VR can end up being a solution to this problem.

    I have to admit, the pedometer part of it is frustrating me a quite a bit. I walked 10km the other night (my regular route), which is actually 10.8. I put Pokemon GO on, put it in the background, collected a few things here and there on my walk for my kid and I and when I got back, it had logged only 4km of my 10.8km route? They really *really* need to fix this, it's annoying as hell, so I can only imagine how frustrating it is for those with a disability who put in an effort in excess of this to get this sort of thing done. It's only in a trial stage sure, but the gps could surely be put to more effective use?

    Last edited 14/07/16 11:22 am

      you cant have it in the background it has to be in the foreground and running for it to accurately log anything atm. thats what the power saving feature is for. it just turns the screen dark when you turn the phone upside down like you're putting it in your pocket lol.
      its pretty bad but for max egg hatching thats my advice

        Dagnabbit! Ah well I'll do that tonight on my walk! Thanks for the advice!

          If you're wondering why it does this - Pokemon Go also references your speed. If you go over 20 km/hr it doesn't record progress against hatching eggs so people can't cheese it by driving. In order to determine your speed it needs to be open and tracking GPS data.

            I swear to god my fat ass does not move past 20kph! LOL

              When you're walking/running no doubt. Just need the app open or in battery saving mode to prove it =P

              Also, a word of warning. When the servers are struggling the battery saver mode can crash your client. So make sure you check it's still working periodically and turn off battery saving mode if needed.

              Last edited 14/07/16 12:30 pm

                Thanks for the insanely awesome advice. Seriously invaluable for my boy and I.

                Battery saver makes the screen unresponsive on my phone (LG G4, Android 6.0) after it turns off the screen a few times.

    Where there is a will there is a way.
    With the rise of these big community walks happening its the perfect opportunity for mates to come together.
    My friend cant physically walk but thats not stopping us strapping his chair to my bike and hitting up the bike tracks in the area,

    POKEGO THIS - fair

    POKEGO THAT - reasonable

    POKEGO ARTICLE ABOUT SOMEONE NOT WHITE OR NOT MALE WHO DARES SPEAK - how on earth did this person not have the life I've had I must comment and reply thirty times argh

      What on earth does this comment achieve asides flamebaiting? Noone added anything negative except you and even then, you added something that has absolutely nothing to do with the article in the first place?

        No, I appreciate you calling it out. More of that should happen on this site, as a matter of fact.

        I agree with the sentiments already expressed in the other comments, I hope that goes without saying. While it is distressing to read the story here, if those of us who can enjoy the game think about this then that's all there is to it. I'd imagine I'd not know what to say or do in the slightest if I met someone tomorrow who expressed the feelings that were shared by the subjects above.

        But it's enough to give me pause and consider having empathy for someone. Which is more than what some other commenters could say in recent articles about this game or others.

          Your comment was angry, racist and sexist. Stupid hypocrite.

            Again, I'll completely wear that. It was exactly like the countless amount of 'a guest user' and indeed active logged-in commenters on this site blowing a gasket every time somebody marginalised in society talks about themselves.

            What I won't do is shift any flak I cop or say it was a poor attempt at humour, I'll just repeat what I said in the last one - comments 'like that' don't get howled down enough on here.

            There's nothing clever about what I said, which is exactly my point. Narcissistic. Check. Inflammatory. Check. Mean-spirited. Check.

            How you might feel reading that (and this too, no doubt) is how I feel reading such things like 'oh cry me a river what about how hard I have it etc etc' in the comments of articles on a games site about how hard a time some gamers have. A games site that can and does talk about the people playing the games just as much as the games themselves. That's a good thing.

            Like I said, empathy is something that's a foreign concept to people.

    It's a case of if you can't move around then sorry, this game just isn't for you. The entire premise of the game is that you get out and go find pokemon, hence the name. If you're unable to get out and about then you can't play.

    It's a great game and it's sad that some people have to miss out but there's no way to include them without completely changing the game.

      This also seems like something that will only be an issue for a few months at most, as far as i'm aware there is no end game in Pokemon Go so I cant really see why people would continue to play once they have had their fill of the game.

        Yeah, the popularity will die down for sure. Will be interesting to see how much it surges back when new content or systems are introduced.

        Personally I couldn't care too much about trading. It's fine to trade for what you haven't caught but I'd still rather catch it myself. Gives you a feeling of accomplishment tracking down that last one you haven't been able to get.

    Simple solution, get someone to drive you around while you play.

    Is there any point to visiting unique PokeStops? What's stopping you from rolling around your local shopping mall and just farming the few there? They all give the same damn things anyway

      Just saw an article that Maccas and a few other places names have been found in the games coding leading to it being known that sponsored stops and Gyms are coming. Can anyone say: "You can only get this pokemon at McDonalds with a purchase!"?

    They need to live with it!

    Nintendo, Sony or Microsoft aren't companies that tailor their games to a certain majority, they make games to make money, that's all.

    Not trying to be rude or anything, but that's life and you have to live with it.

    And I want to compete as a paralympian but I'm not eligible because I don't have a disability. How unfair is that.

    This is such a problem in our friend group. My best friend and I love to geek out with stuff, but he walks with a cane and even that causes him a lot of pain. Since he's not in a wheelchair it's not as simple as the rest of us just rolling him around and long car trips cause him a lot of pain as well. It sucks, and I wish there was some way around it, it makes us all feel awful that we're going on big adventures and talking about our progress all the time and we can't include him.

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