Appreciating the triangulation of Pokemon Go

A mighty battle took place in uptown Marion a few nights ago.

A local father and his two young sons stood at the edge of City Square Park, iPhones in hand. For this family, the visit was one of purpose and excitement. After playing the augmented reality game Pokemon Go for a couple of weeks, they had finally reached a high enough level to attempt takeover of a virtual gym and place their mark, however digital and temporary, on the local landscape.

Their target was the Marion Heritage Center, controlled at that time by Team Valor, otherwise known as the “red” team. The boys and their father were Team Instinct, or the “yellow” team.

I was walking loops around the park, catching wild pokemon and gathering supplies while trying to maintain my daily personal step goal, and eavesdropped just enough to understand their hostile takeover attempt wasn’t going well.

They’d easily dispatched a lower-level Hypno who served as the gym’s first line of defense, but were having trouble in more difficult subsequent battles against a flame throwing Flareon, a water-based Vaporeon and a ground-shaking Snorlax. The Flareon, in particular, was creating problems, and without his defeat, the family had no hope of lowering the gym’s reputation and facing off against the higher-level characters.

okeburgs, hamburgers in the form of Pokemon characters, are seen at Down N’ Out Burger restaurant in Sydney, Australia, August 26, 2016. The restaurant sells a limited number of Pokeburgs per day, with the names (L-R) Chugmander, Peakachu and Bulboozaur, capitalizing on fans’ appetite for Pokemon Go, the location-based augmented reality game. (Jason Reed/Reuters)
okeburgs, hamburgers in the form of Pokemon characters, are seen at Down N’ Out Burger restaurant in Sydney, Australia, August 26, 2016. The restaurant sells a limited number of Pokeburgs per day, with the names (L-R) Chugmander, Peakachu and Bulboozaur, capitalizing on fans’ appetite for Pokemon Go, the location-based augmented reality game. (Jason Reed/Reuters)

I’m a member of Team Mystic, the “blue” team, and hold no allegiance to either red or yellow players. But I found I couldn’t ignore those two boys and their father.

“How’s it going?” I asked as I passed them.

“This Flareon is tough,” one of the boys told me, explaining that he barely had time to hit it before it doused his pokemon in flames.

“Do you have any water characters?” I asked, calling upon my daughter’s childhood pokemon books to remember what types battled most effectively against others.

“They aren’t a high enough level,” the father explained before letting his boys know that “tonight may not be our night.”

“I have a couple and some grass pokemon that might work,” I said, wanting this family to find the fun and success they’d been seeking. “OK if I try?”

Within a few minutes the Flareon had been removed, and we all launched attacks against the remaining Vaporeon and Snorlax. When victory arrived, it was fists-in-air, jumping-in-place sweet. A Jolteon, Jynx and Pidgeot were quickly installed as defenders of the newly established yellow gym, it’s beacon lighting up the Marion sky.

“What are you going to put in?” the younger boy asked me.

“Nothing. I can’t,” I said, admitting that I was on the blue team. “But it was still fun to fight with some yellow allies.”

High-fives were exchanged before the new champions stowed their phones in their pockets and climbed into a nearby vehicle. There was talk of finding some celebratory ice cream, but I can’t confirm.

After a few more loops around the park, two cars of teenagers, a mix of boys and girls, positioned themselves in the library parking lot across the street from the Heritage Center. By the time I’d met my step goal and turned toward home, a red beacon once again split the sky.

Designers discuss triangulation, or the placement of things that can stimulate links between people in a public space. Prompting strangers to strike up conversations and interact with each other and their environment, it’s a method that goes beyond basic design features to bring people together and inspire a sense of real belonging. Playgrounds, benches, sidewalk intersections and other very real and tangible elements are often what comes to mind when we discuss triangulated connections.

I think its time to add games like Pokemon Go — those that create virtual communities in real, public ways — to the list.

We’ve lived down the street from City Square Park in uptown Marion for more than two decades. Outside of planned events, like local concerts or festivals, the reality is that uptown is rather vacant in the evenings. People come and go from city council or other meetings at City Hall, some visit the library or local restaurants and bars, but there has been no incentive for people to gather in the park, sit on the benches or check out the railroad caboose.

The park had, unfortunately, become a place I didn’t want my kids to visit in the evenings because of the prevalence of young people who gathered there to act inappropriately, like bored and unmonitored teens are prone to do.

Pokemon Go has changed the human landscape, and so far the start of the school year hasn’t hampered it. Every evening walkers circle the park, taking advantage of the gyms, pokestop supply stations and wild pokemon. Those with lures, virtual devices attached to supply stops to attract more wild pokemon, have been generous, placing them around the park and allowing all nearby players to reap their benefits.

In addition to the Marion Heritage Center, three more gyms are located within walking distance, all in high demand.

People of all ages and nearly all backgrounds now come to the park. Moms push toddlers and infants in strollers. Young children perch on parents’ shoulders, cheering when an especially elusive pokemon is caught. Last night I counted four adults, two families with younger children, a mom and a teenage daughter, a group of about seven preteens and several teens in various small groups.

Last week a man in his early 20s exited Zoey’s Pizzeria with an older couple I presumed to be his grandparents. They walked into the park where the young man pulled out his phone and began teaching the older man about the wonders of pokemon and augmented reality. It wasn’t too long before the phone was in the older man’s hands and he was flipping a pokeball to capture a wild Weedle. Sadly, it ran away before he could nab it, but the belly laugh emitted by the two men was a solid consolation prize.

And, remarkably, these scenes aren’t limited to uptown Marion. Take in the view out of our second-story window at The Gazette and what you’ll see are people of nearly all ages and walks of life in renovated Greene Square, gathering supplies and catching wild pokemon. Take a walk through the NewBo District in Cedar Rapids or Iowa City’s Ped Mall and you’ll see the same thing.

Even while visiting tiny Clear Lake, I was part of about two dozen people who had gathered in the local city square, phones at the ready.

Of course there are no guarantees this game will stand the test of time. But its success is a good bet that others will follow suit, further thinning the line between our virtual and real worlds, and making all of us more aware of how we interact with each other and with public spaces.

It’s tempting and all too easy to stand on the sidelines, lamenting how machines have eclipsed personal interaction or shooting warning flares of an impending moral collapse. The harder conversation is how communities adapt to, own and capitalize on a new reality of strangers, embarking on a virtual quest contained within a public space, who’d like to be able to walk to an ice cream shop afterward.

This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on August 28, 2016. Photo credit: Jason Reed/Reuters