Illustration by Angelica Alzona

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

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

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

Pok√©mon Go, in a way, is sort of reverse-escapism. It‚Äôs bringing the escapist fantasy of Pok√©mon-hunting into real life. Because of problems with accessibility, some wheelchair-bound fans‚ÄĒfans who found solace in the Pok√©mon fantasy for decades‚ÄĒsay that Pok√©mon Go is alienating them from their favorite franchise.

Mandy Drago, 21, learned to read from playing Pok√©mon Blue. Ever since, Pok√©mon has been a nourishing mainstay in her life. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs been one of the few obsessions I‚Äôve stuck with,‚ÄĚ 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.


Pok√©mon Go‚Äôs release has been frustrating for Drago. At first she thought she‚Äôd be able to catch creatures without moving around by laying in bed and using the in-game ‚ÄúIncense‚ÄĚ item. She managed to attract Pok√©mon to her bedroom, but was getting a lot of lower-level repeats and couldn‚Äôt re-up her items. It didn‚Äôt feel like she was really playing. When Drago‚Äôs roommates noticed her struggling to catch Pok√©mon, they offered to take her phone with them when they went Pok√©mon-hunting outside, allowing them to fill up the Pok√©dex for her. For Drago, that felt even worse than playing in bed.

‚ÄúThat was a horribly depressing experience,‚ÄĚ Drago said. ‚ÄúThey came back excited to tell me about their stories and I just felt really left out.‚ÄĚ

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.


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Koby Feldman, 32 and from St. Louis Park, has played every version of Pokémon 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 Pokémon 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.

‚ÄúA lot of the Pok√©Stops I‚Äôve seen are tucked away on running trails, or places that aren‚Äôt handicapped-accessible,‚ÄĚ Feldman told me. ‚ÄúBecause of that, I can‚Äôt really go to as many Pok√©Stops. I can‚Äôt go find new Pok√©mon in different places so well. And because of that, none of my Pok√©mon 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 10 km to hatch an seems like a nearly unclimbable mountain.‚ÄĚ


Niantic did not return requests for comment on this story.

On Reddit, mobility-impaired Pok√©mon fans have expressed concern over the game‚Äôs accessibility ever since it was announced. ‚ÄúIf it‚Äôs going to involve traveling around,‚ÄĚ one wheelchair-using commenter wrote six months ago, ‚Äúthat‚Äôs going to be a problem.‚ÄĚ Aside from issues with exploration, even holding a phone and maneuvering 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 Pokémon Go subreddit. Although slow-moving wheelchairs or cars allow players to go to PokéStops and battle outside gyms, physically handicapped players (especially in rural areas) have more difficulty wandering around outside and searching for the rare Pokémon 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 10 km to hatch an Electrobuzz egg for her disabled son went viral.)


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Steven Spohn, the Chief Operations Officer of the AbleGamers Foundation, which advocates for gamers with disabilities, said that Pok√©mon 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 Pok√©mon that have large communities with which to socialize. Pok√©mon Go capitalizes on the franchise‚Äôs social features, but at the expense of accessibility. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs a pretty unfortunate scenario for people with disabilities,‚ÄĚ Spohn told me. ‚ÄúEven 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.‚ÄĚ

‚ÄúIt‚Äôs a shame,‚ÄĚ Spohn added. ‚ÄúThey‚Äôre just left out of another scenario.‚ÄĚ

Pok√©mon Go‚Äôs release has proven to be a special, unique moment in history when millions of strangers‚ÄĒgamers and non-gamers alike‚ÄĒphysically 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 organizations that are helping disabled gamers find the same pleasure in games that able-bodied gamers do. Pokémon 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 Pok√©mon adventure, they eagerly obliged. ‚ÄúWe had to change the way they played of course, which meant no hiking up steps and all that, but it worked out!‚ÄĚ Mandy and her roommates mine Pok√©Stops from their car, mostly stopping at lures to catch Pok√©mon. Glumly, Mandy added that her eggs are taking forever to hatch.