Maybe you thought it would be easy to write/laugh this one off as a dumb gimmick, but for real: Pokémon Smile is one of the most important video games to have entered my household in years.
I have two kids, one 9, the other 7, and while both are beautiful, wonderful little people, both of them are incredibly stubborn when it comes to brushing their teeth. Ask them if they’d like to create art or do incredible physical shit or even clean their rooms and make their beds and they’re all over it. Ask them to perform a single two-minute piece of important daily hygiene and it’s like I am killing them.
My wife and I have tried everything over the years to try and get around this. Licensed electric toothbrushes, a teeth-brushing timer on their Fitbits, (delicious) Minion toothpaste, rewards, punishments, you name it. Somehow though, this game is the one thing that has managed to break their resistance, and has them not only brushing their teeth without a fight, but racing to do it, twice a day, every day.
In case you let the news of this game wash over—and I don’t blame you, this is barely a game at all—Pokémon Smile is an app for iOS and Android designed specifically to do what I’ve just described, which is get kids brushing their teeth with more gusto than usual. It uses a front-facing camera to turn brushing into a game, visualising the bacteria that’s inside a kid’s mouth and asking them to brush real hard to get rid of it.
There’s also at least one Pokémon in your mouth at all times. Don’t ask why.
Here’s a trailer so you can see it in action, and also know that I’m not making any of that up:
There are a few basic hooks to the game. There’s the primary “gameplay”, which involves brushing your teeth and having the camera detect the speed at which you’re doing it. There are achievements that are handed out for continuous use of the app. And crucially, at least from the feedback I’ve got from my kids, is that you get all kinds of stuff every time you play, from getting the chance to “catch’ the Pokémon that you’ve rescued with your brushing to stickers to hats.
I know this may sound incredibly trivial to anyone not a member of an achievements forum or Steam card-trading group, but that’s because you’re an adult who asks for a little bit more from their Pokémon entertainment.
My kids are far less discerning, and they are very into this shit.
While each of those hooks sounds pretty thin on its own, as a complete rewards package for doing something they usually hate, it’s more than enough. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen kids play with something like Facebook Messenger before, but the ability to mess with their faces in real-time on a screen can keep them busy for hours.
Pokémon Smile taps into this in multiple ways. The best is maybe the way you can unlock stupid Pokémon hats that you can wear during gameplay, but there’s also this cool feature where the game takes four random photos during a brushing session then, at the end, lets kids choose one and cover it in unlockable stickers, then save and share the image.
While I’m impressed that both kids are sticking rigorously to the prescribed two-minute timer (though this can be adjusted for younger kids), I’m just as happy that both are spending 5-10 minutes each night just fucking around with all of this customisation stuff, because it’s making sure they’re keen to be involved in everything the game offers, not just the brushing.
It’s the brushing itself though that, as a parent, I’m obviously most impressed with. The secret to its magic is that it elegantly fudges the line between what it’s actually doing and what the kids think it’s doing.
We worked out pretty quickly, after a few failed attempts at catching Pokémon, that the game was tracking how fast/hard the kids were brushing. So long as they kept up a good pace, the screen would show a random Pokémon trapped in bacteria have its bonds slowly chipped away, while other bacteria on the kid’s teeth was being zapped off at the same time.
This “action” was displayed in real-time in the centre of the screen, while off in the bottom right there’s a display that tells kids to move the brush to various parts of the mouth, so that they brush all sides of every tooth, top to bottom, inside and out.
The game is tracking hardly any of that. It’s just a front-facing phone camera, it has no way of telling whether my kids are brushing the top or inside of their molars! It’s got a rough idea of how fast their arms are moving, and that’s about it.
But my kids don’t know that, and I sure as hell aren’t going to tell them. They’ve been raised on stuff like the Wii U and Switch, with their relatively precise gyroscopic controls, and so in their minds a Pokémon app on my phone is doing the same thing, and they’re sticking to those guidelines like glue.
We’ve been using the app since launch, which is about two weeks, and their teeth are spotless. More importantly, we’ve gone from a house where teeth-brushing-time has been transformed from a battleground to a pastime, and every morning and night they’re yelling at my wife and I to borrow our phones so they can see who (and what) they can unlock that night.
I know this won’t last forever, but it doesn’t have to. The whole point of the app is to establish patterns and break down resistance to something that’s really quick and easy, and it’s definitely doing that, so if it’s taking some Pokémon stickers to get that through to them, then whatever, that’s awesome.