Sparkle On, Pokémon!

In the unlikeliest of unlikelies, I became a level 40 PokémonGo Trainer when I was 41 years old.

My Pokémon were feared on top of the gyms. Wanna go? You better have at least six friends with you, and a backpack full of Pokéballs. You on Team Valor? Jump on underneath me, I’ll protect you. And when we get knocked down, I’ll return for justice.

I’m walking down the street with my kids. I’m holding my power-pack battery and my phone. A pack of 13 year olds are calling me: “Valzers! HELP! We need you!”


I loved PokémonGo for thousands of reasons. I love being swept up in crazes, and when our Theater’s mosaic became a PokéStop, a Prospect helped me download the game and I became “Valzers”. Overlayed on Google Maps, and using historical monuments, significant architecture, and tourist attractions collected from the crowd-sourced game Ingress, trainers use augmented reality (AR) to track and catch Pokémon. The game incentivizes walking to reach milestones, earn badges, and find new Pokémon.

PokémonGo made me go, and go, and go and go. I would walk 500 miles, then I would walk 500 more…Must catch ‘em all… My 2 Pokésummers I traveled to cities I wouldn’t have visited, and on the way I had conversations with people who were also playing the game. I would strategize with strangers, comparing sightings and hit points. We were collectors sharing and helping each other.  

How the PokémonGo phenomenon came to be is a fascinating story of two men who had the right sparkle, in the right time, and the right place.

Time travel with me and PikaPika to 1975.

You live in Japan, right outside Tokyo. You collect bugs. You are so obsessed with bugs the kids make fun of you, call you “Dr. Bug”. You pay no attention. You don’t have time. Tokyo is rapidly expanding, and the bugs are disappearing. You march on: denkimushi (poison feels like an electric shock), giant centipede (15” long), giant hornet (sprays face melting poison in your eyes)...bugs...must collect them all…

But, sadly, with Tokyo’s urbanization, the habitats for bug collecting were disappearing. They are being replaced by something that has caught your eye: ARCADE GAMES. Space Invaders. Put another quarter in the video game, baby - you play all day. Your parents think you are a total degenerate. You skip school and play arcade games all day long, learning how the machines work.

Congratulations, you graduated high school... just barely! As you were playing your arcade games you never stopped thinking about how much you loved collecting your insects, and you wished there was a way kids could share the joy of collecting with each other. You look up from your game and see two boys playing GameBoys connected by a cable and DING DING DING! A brilliant idea is born - Pokemon.  

Your name is Satoshi Tajiri. You transformed your special interest, or sparkle, into one of the most successful franchises of all time: POKÉMON. “Turn a passion into a profession” - a favorite saying of the Prospector Theater - played out in real life.

But Satoshi Taijiri couldn’t unleash the global force of PokémonGo alone, here’s where John Hanke comes in to the game.

Hanke was the CEO of Niantic, at the time a subsidiary of Google. Mr. Hanke didn’t want kids playing games behind a computer all day; “I don't like the feeling you get after you’ve sat around gaming for a few hours”. He wanted people to be outside, playing and exploring their world. Mr. Henke also LOVES maps. He grew up reading National Geographic and pulling the maps out. He loved travel, and the idea of virtual travel. Using software like Google Earth, Google Maps, and GPS, he was able to program a game that blurred the lines between virtual and reality.

The world Mr. Tajiri and Mr. Hanke envisioned - people outside collecting, collaborating, communicating, playing together - was the very world they created for my play as Valzers.

With the right passion, and the ability to pivot from insects to “pocket monsters”, Taijiri was able to adapt his special interest into the sparkle that became Pokémon. With creativity, Mr. Henke was able to overlay his love of maps, gaming, and the outdoors. Together, their sparkle intensified, leading to over 1,000,000,000 PokémonGo downloads.

I don’t play PokémonGo anymore, though I’ve been begged to return. Valzers retired her pokehat. Every now and then I still see people playing - standing still, tap, tap, tap. Sometimes I stop to talk or ask about their battle. Collectors love to talk about their collections, and sometimes we have trouble talking about anything else. Striking up small conversations with players can brighten their day, and I think bright days are things we all like to collect.  

On Mother’s Day my kids took me to see Detective Pikachu at the Prospector Theater. So many of my favorite things at one time! It was adorable and funny. I sat next to my sister Hope and she let me hold her hand! Hope loved it, because it reminded her of her childhood favorite, Gremlins.

I’m excited for the future of virtual and augmented reality video games - for who we can “become” and where we will go. Keep your passions alive, and your sparkle will shape the world you want to be and play in. Sparkle on, Pokémon!

Watch Val’s PokémonGo “one-second-a-day” vlog!