In early June, Joe Kim became one of the first people in the world to test out a clever smartphone app that quickly, and somewhat suddenly, inspired him to step up his fitness routine.
Kim, a retail employee at Card Kingdom in Seattle, is no stranger to a good workout. He hits the gym around twice a week, he says, where he does his a lifting routine. And since Seattle is so hilly, he says, his walking habit burns plenty of calories.
But shortly after downloading this app, his cardio routine went through the roof. That app? Pokémon GO, a new augmented reality game that has literally taken the digital world by storm in only a week.
“In the six days that I’ve had it since the public release”—July 5 for beta testers, July 7 for the public —”I’ve walked 36.1km (about 22 miles), according to the game,” he says, which is a step up from the mileage he collected during the test period.
What Is Pokémon GO?
For the uninitiated: Pokémon GO is an app, built by Nintendo and Niantic, Inc., in cooperation with The Pokémon Group. Technically billed as a mobile game, it leverages a few basic smartphone technologies—GPS and camera, mostly—to merge the fictional, digital world of Pikachus and Pokémon Gyms with the physical, wholly real world of sidewalks and parks and cafes and monuments. Called augmented reality, the mobile game overlays a network of the digital monsters (which players can capture as their own) and digital Pokémon gyms (where people can go to train up their squad of Squirtles and Pikachus) on top of a real-world map, right where players are standing, in real time.
As of Tuesday, the app was topping both iTunes and Google Play charts in the U.S. and Australia—and it’s so popular that Niantic has been forced to “pause” its European rollout, simply because its existing servers are already overloaded. Nintendo’s stock closed up 25% on Monday, adding $9 billion to Nintendo’s market value in less than a week. (It launched in the U.S. on Wednesday, shortly after its global premiere in Australia and New Zealand.)
So What Does That Have to Do With Fitness?
Because notable spots in the digital game—rare Pokémon, say, or “gyms” where players compete—are anchored to physical landmarks like fountains or monuments, the game has inspired something like a wholesale migration of gamers off the couch and into the sunshine.
And that, as all those gamers soon discovered, requires walking. Unlike most video games, Pokémon Go literally requires players to walk around to advance their in-game progress.
“You have to walk around to get the full benefits of the game,” says Trent, a 25-year-old engineer from New Jersey. “Eggs won’t hatch unless you walk 2km, 5km, even 10km.”
No running, cycling, or driving, though—an in-app speedometer will simply stop counting distance if the phone is moving faster than about 5–10 mph, Kim notes. (Another option? Paddling, as two women in New Zealand discovered when they clambered aboard a rental kayak to capture a rare Pokémon and battle in-game at a historic fountain in Wellington bay.)
The app even projects a warning to be aware of your surroundings while you’re playing. The New York City Subway system has politely requested that players stay away from the platform edge as they pursue their digital monsters:
— NYCT Subway (@NYCTSubway) July 11, 2016
“From Couch to Five Miles in One Day”
Trent says the app has been a mixed blessing for his fitness routine. He’s walked so much that his feet felt blistered because he was wearing shoes with “crummy arch support,” he says. “Maybe days I would be going to the gym and getting a really vigorous aerobic exercise are now spent wandering a park to find Pokémon. Still exercise, but certainly no [high intensity] cardio.”
But for those players who don’t ordinarily hit the gym, it’s provided a very real impetus to dust off the gym shoes and burn a few calories the old-fashioned way. The app even features a “Jogger” award, which is unlocked once a player walks their first 10k, and tracks a player’s mileage over his or her playing career.
“A lot of my friends who don’t run or do anything at all have gotten sore muscles, charlie horses, etc.,” Kim says. “But that happens when you go from couch to five miles in one day.”
They’re not the only ones:
Those types of gamers have started to congregate on a dedicated subreddit, Pokémon GO Fitness, where they showcase their efforts—often more than 10 miles walked in a single day. (“Bet you can’t tell when Pokemon GO launched,” one redditor wrote next to a screenshot of their Apple Health dashboard showing a huge cardio spike on July 7, when the game debuted.)
We All GO Together
And it’s bringing those people together. Like CrossFit, SoulCycle, or the November Project, Pokémon GO has inspired a very literal social movement toward working out.
“There’s an adventurer’s aspect to the game, which makes for such an immersive experience,” Trent says. “I was wandering this state park the other day and must have come across 20 other people playing it. You have these moments where you pass traveler’s advice onto other players: ‘There were some good Pokestops along the eastside of the river.’ ‘I saw a Clefairy along that path. Follow it down to the boat landing.’ ‘I wonder who controls that [Pokémon] gym up ahead. I’m going to try to take him down.’”
And as these types of games proliferate, social networks—which merge the physical and digital—are keeping an entire population of otherwise reluctant exercisers on their feet.
“I initially thought I was being a huge nerd, but then I realized I wasn’t an outlier in my nerdiness—people were clearly in the park to catch Pokémon,” Trent says. “There’s that sense of realization when you and someone else both have your phones at about chest height, glancing up periodically. That moment when you make eye contact and both realize you’re playing the same game, and you can’t help but laugh at how ridiculous and fun it is at the same time.”