Exploration has always been at the heart of the Pokémon series. A young person strikes out on a monster-collecting adventure, learning about the world around them along the way. My brief time with Pokémon Go felt like that, albeit on a slightly smaller scale.
I may not be a young person anymore, but I still have plenty to learn about not only the world around me, but the town I’ve called home for the past decade.
Upon starting up Niantic’s GPS-powered, augmented reality, real world adventure and choosing my starter Pokémon from the original triad of Bulbasaur, Squirtle and Charmander, my generic boy avatar popped up on a map of the area surrounding my home. The beta testing terms prevent me from sharing my own screens of the game, but the official screens provided by Nintendo get the basic idea across.
See the floating blue cubes dotting the map? Those are PokeStops, landmarks that trainers can access to randomly gain items like PokeBalls, medicine and eggs. Tap on them and the name of the landmark appears. Get close and spin them with a swipe and items fall out.
I figured I lived in an area remote enough that the in-game map around my home would be relatively sparse. To my surprise, I was surrounded by places significant enough for Pokémon Go’s GPS data to tag them as PokeStops.
If I’d grown up in this area I’d probably know each and every one of those spots. I’d have explored the woods surrounding my home, swam in the Chattahoochee River on a regular basis, followed every trail and noted every historical marker. That’s the curiosity and bravery of children that the Pokémon series has tapped into so expertly over the past 20 years.
But I moved to this area in my early 30s, and by that point I was sticking to the roads. I’ve crossed over the Chattahoochee in my car thousands of times since I came here, but I’ve only been in it once or twice. I’ve taken my kids to the various parks along the river, but I’d been too focused on making sure they don’t break expensive parts of themselves to notice a rock with a plaque bolted onto it. I suppose I just wasn’t much for adventure anymore, at least non-snack-related adventure.
I planned to get a basic feel for Pokémon Go by using it around the house or while driving about town. I caught a Caterpie on my back porch, cleared up a Rattata problem at the local McDonald’s drive-thru and even managed to snag an Evee while sitting at a stoplight during rush hour (I’ve since instituted a ban of the game while in vehicle mode, as it is incredibly distracting and dangerous.)
I could have sat in my safe places, using the incense items I purchased with the in-game currency provided beta testers to make the Pokémon come to me, but damn if those floating blue cubes weren’t intriguing. Where were these plaques? Why hadn’t I seen them before, and what sort of Pokémon were hanging out there?
And so I struck out on a monster collecting adventure, learning about the town around me along the way.
My first stop was a spot I was actually quite familiar with.
This is the Roswell River Landing building, also known as the place the bus picked up and dropped off my children every day during the last school year. Pokémon Go calls it the Roswell River Landing Event Gym.
Gyms in Pokémon Go are basically territory markers. Players are assigned teams when they start playing, and capturing gyms is a team’s primary goal. This is done by assigning a Pokémon to guard it, like so.
If a gym is occupied by an ally, players can bolster its defenses with their own Pokemon. Ally-owned gyms are also a good place to train Pokemon, battling them against each other for rewards that will help them grow stronger.
I claimed the Roswell River Landing Event Gym for the blue team with a recently-caught Paras. Then I left the safety and comfort of my vehicle to wander the banks of the Chattahoochee in the sweltering summer heat, like some sort of crazy person.
A quarter mile down the road I came across my first PokeStop. The game called it “The Creek and the Cherokee.” So did the sign that marked it.
Despite it being located tripping distance from a playground my children frequent, I’d never noticed this sign. It talks about the Creek and Cherokee, Native American tribes formed after European explorers arrived and decimated a thriving society with fresh disease.
That I learned this by reading a sign I’d overlooked until a Pokémon video game on my cell phone brought it to my attention is pretty embarrassing. That a video game could urge me to learn more about a completely unrelated and infinitely more important subject than Pocket Monsters is inspiring.
Further down the road I encountered the first of many gyms occupied by a blue team compatriot, a player named Mcguff. Mcguff had claimed the Azalea Park Playground Gym for our side with his Oddish.
I skirmished with his Oddish a bit, but none of my Pokémon were powerful enough to take him down. Perhaps I shouldn’t have led with Squirtle against a grass/poison type. Lesson learned. I assigned one of my other Pocket Monsters to watch his back and continued down the street.
As I walked, my Pokémon collection grew at a rapid rate. When I set off on my adventure my lineup consisted of Squirtle, a Caterpie, a Rattata and three Zubats. After several hours of exploring, thanks in no small part to a massive allotment of PokeBalls, my roster grew to about two dozen, none of which appear in the officially-sanctioned screenshots below.
My collection now contains Evee, Fearow, Poliwag, Psyduck, Horsea, both male and female Nidoran, good old Magikarp and more. Lots of water and grass, which feels appropriate for my location.
Continuing to follow the river, I came across a pair of close-cropped PokeStops. Spinning them granted me Great Balls and Ultra Balls, handy for capturing powerful Pokémon , as well as potions and revives to keep them fighting. The stone-mounted plaques the PokeStops represented granted further insight into the horrors inflicted upon Native Americans at the hands of my ancestors.
After seeing these I sat in the park for a while, catching up on history.
The final leg of my mini-adventure took me north, into a winding web of side streets spawning off of the main road not 50 yards from the entrance to my subdivision. These are streets I pass almost every day, but never had reason to enter. Now I was on the hunt for one particular PokeStop that had popped up on my map, labeled “BUNNY GUARDIAN: Statue of a Rabbit.” How had I never seen such a thing so close to home?
Wandering those back roads brought me close to Historic Old Roswell, an area with an overabundance of floating blue cubes. The gyms I detected in the area were all held by an enemy player going by the handle AlTheKiller. Considering the relative strength of the Pokémon he had guarding his gyms I didn’t risk a battle. If I had, it would have gone something like this:
Besides, I wasn’t looking for a fight. I was looking for the Bunny Guardian. I followed the map to where the PokeStop was supposed to be, a dead end road in a tiny apartment community. There was no rabbit statue to be seen. People enjoying the subdivision’s community pool shot curious glances at me as I walked up and down the street, iPhone held like a tricorder from Star Trek.
Was the GPS data mistaken? Had the statue been removed? After minutes of wandering about like an idiot, I spied this little fellow at the foot of a bush.
So it’s a little smaller than I expected. Chances are I never would have met this Bunny Guardian without playing a game like Pokémon Go. Now he’ll always be with me. In spirit. I did not steal the bunny statue.
That statue, the legacy those plaques and signs represent, these are treasures hidden in plain sight, stuff I never noticed just driving by. It’s a shame it took hunting virtual Pokemon to get me to step outside and take a look around, but better late than never.
I only had a few days in the Pokemon Go beta test, and I spent much of that time timidly skirting around the tall grass. Now I’m raring to explore, and I’ve got a lovely patch of wilderness picked out for when the game goes live next month.