‘Pokémon Go’ Anniversary: One year later, it’s still a city dweller’s game

ByLeif Johnson

I spotted the armadillo long before I saw a Pokémon.

It was Monday, about a year after the release of Pokémon Go. The scene: a lonely stretch of treeless South Texas highway smack in the middle of the 500,000-acre O’Connor Ranch, where the only other human I ever saw sped by in a flatbed pickup fitted with an acetylene welding rig and stickers proclaiming “Secede” and “Trump/Pence” on the bumper. This is my home. You don’t get much more rural than this.

The last time I’d attempted playing Pokémon Go out here was a few days after the game’s massive launch in July 2016. It was a disaster — I had no chance of finding “real” Pokémon on my phone.

The word from developer Niantic is that Pokémon spawns in rural areas are up 10% to 15% since the Pokémon Go craze first ignited. In March, Pokémon senior product manager Tatsuo Nomura told Polygon, “We updated our data set so that hiking trails that are more often found in local areas have more Pokémon.”

So, right before Pokémon Go’s one-year anniversary, I came out to subject these claims to a trial by fire.

Leif Johnson/Mic

I walked for at least two miles across one of the largest expanses of unmolested prairie along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, expecting grander discoveries than what I found when I first attempted to play Pokémon Go here.

Instead, I found an armadillo. This time, I figured, I’d at least get a funny photo out of my failures. I reached into my pocket, pulled out a red-and-white fishing bobber that looked as close to a PokéBall as I could find and tossed it at the critter like I’d toss a ball in the game. It bounced a little in the rough grass. The little fellow sniffed it, then bounded into the prickly pear like a punted leather football. I never even had a chance to get the camera ready.

I saw nothing else besides a couple of Pidgeys that popped up as I walked the first mile out, and circumstances only improved when I dropped a buck on a Pokémon-attracting incense for the long road back. Even with the boost, though, I still fought only five other Pokémon on the way back to my car.

After two days of Pokémon hunting, I gave up. Exactly a year later, Pokémon Go largely remains a city dweller’s game.

Leif Johnson/Mic

That’s not to say Pokémon Go’s rural experience hasn’t improved, although reaching this conclusion requires softening the definition of “rural.” Since the wilderness was a bust, my new choice of setting became the local two-mile nature trail, which winds through the state park on the outskirts of town and past numerous historical markers that serve as PokéStops and gyms.

Here, much as Nomura claimed, I found stunning variety of Pokémon, at least compared to my experience a year earlier.

The app buzzed and I found myself facing off against a beetle-like Heracross on the boardwalk along the San Antonio River. I plodded on a few more feet and find Teddiursas, adorable Furrets and Sentrets, or an Exeggcute, which bizarrely looks not so much like a proper creature but half a dozen cracking chicken eggs.

That’s a vast improvement from a year ago, when playing Pokémon Go here mainly meant battling an endless parade of Rattatas that barely yielded experience points after the first capture — provided you could even find the damn things. The spawn rates are still dismal, but the variety means exploration offers greater joys than before.

Exactly a year later, ‘Pokémon Go’ largely remains a city dweller’s game.

Yet those joys are still limited by comparison, and not merely on account of low spawn rates. We rural dwellers miss out on some of the excitement of playing in cities like New York or Chicago, where reaching the location of Pokémon entails the exploratory delight of zigzagging through the grid of multiple city blocks.

Mind you, I’m lucky enough to live on a fairly large ranch where I can romp around in nature in any direction at my leisure. But for many citizens, much of that open space is an illusion in a practical sense, especially for folks who live in tiny burgs like sneeze-and-you-miss-it Weesatche (population 240). For the foot-bound rural Pokémon seeker, the arena for discovery is paradoxically much smaller than what citizens of big cities know.

Leif Johnson/Mic

The empire ranches of Texas legend may surround us, but the fact is that all that primeval wilderness stays locked behind barbed wire fences adorned with menacing “no trespassing” signs, leaving the claustrophobic strips of land along the roads as the only venues for exploration. Several times, I saw indications of Pokémon rustling out of the pastures of a neighboring ranch and there was no way to get to it.

Sometimes, admittedly, rural Pokémon Go sucks for reasons that Niantic is likely powerless to fix.

Once, on the nature trail, I found myself facing off against a turtle-like Shuckle, which I’d never seen before. Five times I caught it; five times it broke out. I thought I finally had it on the sixth try, but then the screen locked up on what should have been the ball’s final tick. It turns out I’d lost the cellular signal there in the leafy passages along the San Antonio River. I’d hoped everything would turn out fine when I walked up a few steps and regained my connection, but no, I had to force it to shut down. When it restarted, naturally, no Shuckle graced my Pokédex.

But it’s true: I was seeing slightly more Pokémon than I was in 2016. “Rural,” from what I can tell, is thus probably best understood as “small towns” rather than farms or sprawling ranches. Maybe my background makes me a bit of a snob in this regard, but they’re not really the same thing. I especially find that a shame since the Pokémon games so often send its trainers into grassy pastures and fluffy forests, but in the real world, this is a game of asphalt and concrete.

Leif Johnson/Mic

At any rate, I’d say any opportunity for a new gold rush centered in rural players has passed. A year ago, even in my empty county with a mere 7,000 total people, I could usually count on bumping into other people playing Pokémon Go at the few Pokéstops and gyms. There’s none of that now. I hung around the birthplace of General Ignacio Zaragoza, hero of the battle that Cinco de Mayo commemorates, expecting at least one other person to show up and join me in one of the new “end-game” raids for up to 20 players. No one showed. Granted, I waited only 15 minutes. After all, the Electabuzz I was up against was proving a puny foe compared to the July heat and humidity.

In ‘Pokémon Go,’ “rural” is probably best understood as “small towns” rather than farms or sprawling ranches.

It makes me a little sad. I always found the opportunity to meet local people with vaguely similar interests one of the big draws of Pokémon Go, especially considering that I spend my lonely weeks here seeing far more chickens, hawks and deer than people. I’m charmed by accounts of city folks who report that Pokémon Go made them aware of nature around them, but me? I breathe nature like someone stuck in L.A. commuter traffic breathes exhaust fumes. I’m kind of in it for the people. And they’re just not there anymore. Fat chance, then, of meeting other players in person unless I’m on a business trip to somewhere like New York or Seattle — where I’ve picked up some of the more impressive entries in my Pokédex.

In some ways, playing Pokémon Go seems kind of pointless out here. You don’t need a game to see constant wonders. My 30-minute Pokémon pheromones wore off on the last stretch of the nature trail, and for over a mile I just enjoyed the silence. It became a hike like any other. A quarter-mile from the car, I chanced upon a small family of deer, with two does and two fawns under the generous shade of an old pecan. I couldn’t have been more than 20 feet from them.

My phone hissed through my headphones. The deer flicked their soft ears. I looked down. I’d forgotten Pokémon Go was still running. A wild Ekans had appeared on the screen — a Pokémon I didn’t have.

But I shut down the game. It seemed silly in context. I treasure moments like this out here more than digital games that punish me for my location, and I gotta catch ’em all.

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