I have a new part-time job. The pay is terrible. I am the unpaid secretary and bookkeeper for my son’s game of Pokémon Go. I’m apparently a tutor for others, too.
A month ago I wrote about my struggles learning to play Pokémon Go with my five-year-old son Toby. Despite over twenty years of working as a games critic, I found it to be one of the most confusing, opaque and terribly explained games I’d ever encountered. But gosh we were having fun together playing it. It’s a month later, I don’t think we’ve missed a single day, and the game has spread around my son’s class rapidly.
“Rachel is asking if you can meet up this weekend to explain Pokémon to her,” my wife informed me a week back, referring to the mother of one of the boy’s in Toby’s class.. “Oh, and Helena might come along too,”, she added, mum to another. “But…” I attempted to protest, wanting to explain that I’d only just written about how utterly confusing and impenetrable I’d found the game myself. “Well, it’s your fault they’re having to play.”
I’m not entirely sure it is. My son is, apparently, a trendsetter, albeit setting a four-year-old trend his class is encountering for the first time. For the last four weeks the only answer we’ve had to, “What did you do at school today?” has been, “Played Pokémon.” By which he means, he and his ever-rotating gaggle of friends have been LARPing Pokémon in the playground/classroom/lunch line…
We’ve set off for the twenty minute route to school together an extra half hour early so we can catch a couple of gyms on the way, before bumping into his friends en route where they gather around my poor phone to see what Toby’s catching. As the days have gone by, more of those kids have been clutching their own parents’ phones, catching their own. We’ve discovered that another dad-son combo in the school has been playing quietly for years, and have top tier 4000+ CP dream Pokémon like Mewtwo and Unown in their ‘Dex. The poor man has been plagued by me for advice as we walk along together, gently pushing both our kids in the back to make them keep walking while they stare at our phones like a parody of teenagers.
But heck, if it’s going to take over my entire life, then others should go down with me.
What I call “Pokémon Paperwork” began with organising his Pokémon collection. If you’ve played Go with a small child, you’ll know that while catching a new or rare beast is best, catching absolutely bloody anything at all will do in a pinch. So it is that I find he’s got no room for anything else because of the dozen flipping 12CP Weedles lolling around the bottom of the pile. So there it began, each day, putting the list in alphabetical order and sending off the duplicates to Professor Oak’s gruesome Pokémon torture farm, or whatever it is. And then our item bag started filling up.
So that was next, throwing away the 47 bottom tier potions that are now no use to our favoured gang of 2500+ brutes, discovering that we somehow have over 90 pinap berries, getting all that nonsense in order. Oh, and then checking what’s close to evolving, marking those one with ‘favourite’ stars, and letting him know to look out for those. And then came friends. Which is your fault, reader.
In the previous article I lamented the nickel-and-diming of the game, and the scarcity of Pokéballs. Some people in the comments brilliantly suggested I put our friend code out in public, and start sharing gifts back and forth with whomever appeared. So I put it out on my Twitter, and have drawn the line at 67 friends. I’d say, for those interested in not spending money on this game, that 67 is the sweet spot. Every day we’re able to open 20 incoming gifts, and send out as many as have already opened the last one, and I have reached the mythical position of genuinely having to delete the damned balls to be able to keep spinning Poké Stops. Which is great, except for oh my goodness gift opening and sending is so slow.
I swear to you, the first thing I do on waking in the morning is open the 20 gifts through its glacial muddle of menus, then sending as many back as I’ve got, so we’re set up for the day. What has become of me?
There’s something genuinely splendid about the process of opening gifts, however. We have the most wonderfully international collective of stranger-friends, and every gift comes accompanied by the small blurry image of from whichever Poké Stop it was claimed. Sometimes these are truly magnificent — extraordinary Fillipino temples, staggering Saudi Arabian mosques, beautiful Australian statues. But more often, and this is what I love so much, they’re outstandingly bland. I have been screenshotting a collection of my favourite worldwide banalities, the empty parking lots of Earth, fuzzy park benches from multiple nations, the most generic store fronts in Tokyo, Chicago and San Paulo. It’s like the opposite of a tourist brochure, the most gloriously equalizing demonstration of global humanity.
Meanwhile, we repeatedly send the poor sods the same mailbox and distorted photo of a nearby Catholic church.
As cynical about it as I try so hard to be, the distance my son’s walked without complaint is unprecedented. We have racked up something like 50km in a month, which is a heck of a way when you’re three-and-a-half foot, and we’ve discovered regions of our neighbourhood we’ve never found before. And I cannot deny that his love for it is enormously infectious. A few days ago we’d got back from a walk and he was catching any damned thing he could find before he had to give the phone back, when he exclaimed, “Daddy! What’s happening?!” I squatted down to see the phone all blue and sparkly, whooshing with swishy lights, and when this fuss settled there, at long, long last, stood our first Ditto. “DADDY!!!” he shouted in mad delight, and we threw our arms around each other in a giant hug.
Catching his first Charizard, Blastoise and Snorlax were met with similar joy. The day we were finally able to evolve his Rhydon into a Rhyperior was another highlight. That I even know these names is still strange to me. That he has retained the names of literally hundreds of them, on first sight, is completely bewildering.
And then came the requests for help. I feel so utterly unqualified, not least because I’m still discovering the most basic elements of the game myself. It was only a week ago that I found out about Battling, despite that being an option right in the main menu. I’d just never clicked. Now I’m doing that in my own time, when the boy’s at school or in bed, because it’s a good way to top up his Stardust and farm for those oh-so precious Sinnoh Stones. Because that’s my life now. And on the way here, I have had to figure out so many things the game can’t be bothered to explain. How to fight and occupy a gym, why you’d do that, what the different fruits actually do, what candies are for, and most of all, what the difference is between a Nice, Great and Excellent throw. We were like superstitious pigeons with this for so long, forming credulous rituals for why it would sometimes award them and other times not, before I finally found a guide that understood it properly.
So for the last two weekends in a row, I’ve met up with classmate’s mums in the park near the school (obeying the UK’s Rule Of Six to the letter, mind), to go through the basics and get them up to speed. My primary goals being to teach them how not to need to spend any money, and then the pleasantly altruistic act of transferring some of our 1500-ish unneeded Pokémon for some of their 10CP trash, to give them a head-start on battling gyms. We then send off those throwaway creatures to Prof. Oak’s Unethical Pokémon Experimentation Laboratory for the candies, and everybody’s happy. (Don’t listen to the distant cries from those caged Zigzagoons, just keep going.)
We’re pretty much in this for the long haul now. Toby’s two main ambitions for the game are to evolve a Wailmer (we’re 150 candies into the 400 needed, thanks to a recent plague of the things around us), and to catch a Mewtwo. Having watched Detective Pikachu during the weekend, Toby is now mostly being Mewtwo, something his mother had to explain to his poor teacher at the school gate this morning, when he was acting so damned weird at drop-off. He sleeps clutching his Pikachu plushie, under his Pokémon duvet cover. Next month’s 6th birthday is inevitably going to bring in a tidal wave of pocket monster-themed tat to our house. But the good news, thanks to the magical mimesis of the classroom, at least we’re not alone. We’re taking everyone else down with us. Even if I have to teach them how on the way.