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Google Maps Put Us in a Pokémon World April 13, 2014

Posted by Maniac in Editorials.
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Since the release of inFAMOUS: Second Son and the great RPG deluge of Spring 2014, there wasn’t much gaming news going on to report on.  It was one day from April 1st, and if previous experience was any indication, most of the news that would be coming out that day would be outright false, and I wouldn’t have much to report on.  Unless I’m doing an April Fools Prank of my own, I don’t like posting up fake news or false information on this site, so I was ready to just put work on the site on hold for the day.  By the time the clock hit 7PM local time, I was just burnt out.  So I was nursing my wounds on Twitter when a Tweet from The Pokémon Company crossed my eye.  Google was looking for a Pokémon Master to join their company.  Don’t believe me?  I’ll let the video explain it for you.

That’s right, Pokémon were in Google Maps and Google, with the blessing of The Pokémon Company, was daring us to catch ’em all.  I fired up my Google Maps app, which, in my opinion, is the best GPS available on a SmartPhone, and tapped the search bar.  Normally I would see a record of all the previous locations I had searched for, but this time was different.  The words “Press Start”, comprised of blue letters, appeared in the search menu.  I tapped the words and the app changed, hurling my present location to the west coast of the United States.  A pixelated building was superimposed on top of the map’s present location, baring a very similar appearance to a Pokémon Center.  A few tiny, pixelated icons resembling Pokémon surrounded the building, and the city the building was in.  I couldn’t believe it, I was mapping the Pokémon World.

In my opinion, the reason why Pokémon has worked so well as an enduring franchise for so long, is that it copies just enough of the real-world to appeal to a wide audience.  In fact, the exotic lands that Pokémon games have taken place in closely resemble real world locations, and the game’s developers have stated on several occasions that this is no coincidence.  The blurring of the line between the real world and fictional events that take place in the real world to promote the latest media release is something that marketing partners have been doing for at least ten years now.  I’m sure that many people remember the I Love Bees alternate-reality game designed to promote the release of Halo 2 in 2004, but it wasn’t the first ARG ever done, and there have been many others since.  For April Fools 2014, Nintendo was stepping into that territory, and for a short time the line between reality and game was going to get even blurrier.

The first thing I noticed was just how detailed the promotion was.  Google did a great job with updating the Maps interface for this event.  They didn’t just have Pokémon icons all over the maps that you could highlight and “capture”, the app’s interface kept track of all the Pokémon you currently possessed, kind of like a rudimentary Pokedex.  Also, just like a Pokedex, you unlocked character bios and statistics for any Pokémon you had captured, and you could go back and review that information as much as you needed to as you continued your search!  The Pokedex informed me that there were only 150 Pokémon to find, a number reminiscent of the first generation Pokémon games.  After combing through all the wild Pokémon surrounding the starting Pokémon Center, I was off searching the world for new Pokémon to capture.

I traveled across the map, searching far and wide.  As I searched, so did the rest of the world.  The internet was abuzz with other Pokémon Trainers swapping notes on where to find difficult Pokémon all over the world.  There was a Pidgey on the top of the CM Tower in Toronto, Canada.  Several Pokémon were hiding throughout Manhattan.  The Galpagos Islands were practically brimming with all kinds of life, and not just the real kind.   Within a few hours I had found what I thought was all one hundred and fifty Pokémon and called it a night.

April 2nd passed, and I was fairly certain that my Pokémon journey had come to an end.  The joke was over and I had what I thought were all 150 Pokémon captured.  Little did I know that there was in fact one more to find.  When the first Pokémon games were released, Nintendo coded in a 151st Pokémon which could not be obtained through normal gameplay.  Their plan was to offer it to players who participated in official Nintendo sanctioned Pokémon events, kind of like the DLC that you get with preordering a game today.  The 151st Pokémon was Mew, and Nintendo built an entire legend around this one, culminating with the story of the first Pokémon motion picture.

It turned out that Mew could also be found in Google Maps as the 151st Pokémon, but he wouldn’t be easy to find.  After doing a little research on him I discovered that Mew could only be found by Pokémon Trainers who had already located all 150 Pokémon, which is why he never showed up on any of my previous sweeps, and he could only be found in one location out of a pretty hefty list of possible locations.  It sounded like he would be difficult to find, but I searched and searched, and eventually I did find him.

I have to remark on one major thing I don’t think has been reported on by the rest of the media, and that is the educational benefits of this promotion.  By choosing to do this event through Google Maps and hiding Pokémon all across the world’s map specifically, anyone who participated could have walked away with a little bit more experience in geography.  I’ve been hearing concerns for many years now that young people have difficulty finding the location of some pretty important countries, or the locations of certain major cities on the world map.  Since the whole point of the Pokémon Challenge involved using the world map for a giant Pokémon safari, anyone who participated in the event could have walked away with a better understanding of geography.  You really had to search the maps closely to find where Google hid all the Pokémon, and even if you simply breezed through location to location, seeing the names of cities, towns and landmarks would make anyone exploring a location in the world they were unfamiliar with more familiar to them.  Even if you specifically gave Google Maps the exact location specific Pokémon could be found, an animation would move the globe from your current displayed position to the location you told it, giving anyone who searched for the location a pretty quick understanding about where in the world the location was relative to where they were searching.  Educators are always trying to make the subjects they’re dealing with relevant to their students, how about doing a Pokémon search in your classroom?

While this was certainly designed for current Pokémon fans and for the nostalgic like me who remember the height of Pokémon fever, I’m really happy that Google and Nintendo were able to do this.  I hope that something like this comes our way again, and if it does, you can be sure I’ll write about it.  Happy April Fools everybody!