Pokemon Go Players Feel the Impact of Coronavirus in Real-Time | IGN

In 2016 it was easy to tell who was playing Pokemon Go. In larger cities, you could see groups of players huddled in a spot looking down at their phones. These days, you might think that the increasing rarity of these groups might imply a decreasing interest in Pokemon Go.

But chances are you’re not seeing large groups a lot these days anyway.

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Pokemon Go is as successful as ever, and by some metrics, even more successful. In 2019, Niantic reported the strongest year ever for the AR mobile game, reporting $894 million in revenue, up over its debut year in 2016. In 2018 Pokemon Go had over 140 million monthly active users meaning there are still millions of players around the world walking around and spinning PokeStops or taking on gyms and raids. The United States remains Pokemon Go’s most successful market, followed by Japan and Germany.

In the past weeks, countries outside of China, like South Korea, and Italy have come to terms with a breakout of COVID-19, better known as the novel coronavirus. The World Health Organization has classified the outbreak as a pandemic and states and cities are beginning to shut down large gatherings and encouraging those who can to self-isolate themselves at home.

[poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=If%20you%20don%E2%80%99t%20have%20that%20form%20you%20can%20get%20a%20206%E2%82%AC%20fine%20or%206%20months%20in%20jail.”]At the moment of writing, cities in the USA were following the lead of many in Europe with mandatory lockdowns. San Francisco and Los Angeles, California both announced lockdowns that include mandatory work-from-home policies, and shutting down bars and other high-risk gathering spaces. The most recent World Health Organization confirmed over 160 thousand cases globally, though that number increases every day.

And while video gaming might increase as more and more cities order lockdowns, Pokemon Go is unique in that it requires players to actively leave their homes and socialize outside. This puts Pokemon Go and its many inspirations in a unique position during a time when governments are requiring citizens to stay indoors for the sake of public safety.

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When I began reaching out to Pokemon Go players last week whether or not the outbreak of COVID-19 has had an impact on their playtimes, the responses were at first indifferent.

“So far there are no confirmed cases in my area (Kansas), but it has not affected my play time. I try to play when I’m commuting to and from college classes or when arranging the occasional raid,” said one Reddit user on Monday.

“None in Michigan yet. But heard Ohio just recently got some… so, I’m guessing it’s a matter of time here,” said another Pokemon Go player I had reached out to on Reddit.

 

No.”

 

No change. Except in a tiny number of countries you are MUCH more likely to die of the flu.”

 

“Nope, I think the fears are overhyped.”

 

At first players, at least those based in the United States seemed unfazed by the news that COVID-19 was beginning to make its way into the country.

[poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=I%E2%80%99m%20in%20the%20scary%20group%20considered%20at%20%E2%80%98high%20risk.%E2%80%99″]On March 8, two days before I began looking into the impact of COVID-19 on Pokemon Go, Italy’s Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte announced that the quarantine zone in the country would expand to cover much of northern Italy, and blanket over 16 million Italian citizens. Not long after, the responses I would receive for this article changed.

“Hello!… I’m from Italy (Padua) and Italy is under “quarantine,” an Italian Pokemon Go player named Mihai emailed. “You can leave the house to go grocery shopping or to work but you need to fill a special form in case the police stops you for a check. If you don’t have that form you can get a 206€ fine (~ USD 230) or 6 months in jail.”

“I don’t have any Poke-stops near my house and all I can rely on are gifts for Pokeballs and random Pokemon spawns,” explained Mihai. “The government event started a #iostoacasa which means ‘I stay at home’ and lots of famous influencers in Italy are sharing it. So I guess the Coronavirus is indeed affecting my Pokemon Go experience!”

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Maria, a Pokemon Go player in southern Germany also reached out about how the developing crisis impacted her gameplay. At the time of her email, Southern Germany confirmed around 25 cases.

“I also happen to have Cystic Fibrosis,” Maria wrote in an email. “As such, I’m in the scary group considered at ‘high risk.’ It hasn’t been pleasant, to say the least, and I’ve been largely isolated at home for the past two-three weeks or so. I only leave the house once per week to see my physical therapist for treatment, that’s it.”

“Pokemon Go is pretty cool insofar that it used to help me get active — something pretty important for [those with Cystic Fibrosis]. Now, the large raids, arenas, and events have become inaccessible for me. I live in a more rural area, so if I want to participate in anything or really play then I have to travel via public transport into the city. With that no longer an option, the way I play the game has… changed a lot, to put it mildly,” Maria says.

[poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=I%20got%20stopped%20by%20the%20carabinieri.%20So%20I%20showed%20them%20my%20authorization%20letter.”]Another player emailed me soon after from Palermo, Italy. They wished to be referred to as Rhavel and they are part of a large group of Pokemon Go players in Italy that organizes through social media and messaging apps like Telegram, which IGN was able to confirm.

[Ed note: Rhavel’s quotes have been edited for grammatical clarity]

“I’m from Italy and I’m from Asian descent,” Rhavel wrote. “Italy was very welcoming and I made a lot of friends and met new people each season. Summer was my favorite cause I played with tourists and a lot of new people,” said Rhavel.

“The coronavirus hit us legit players, hard. Now we cannot meet out or have events. All events are canceled here in Italy. Today I went out because I just wanted to raid solo as I have three, level 40 accounts and three phones. I wore my n95+mask and gloves and headed out. As soon as I got to the city plaza (Piazza Politeama) I got stopped by the carabinieri. So I showed them my authorization letter [a form that states the purpose of leaving one’s home during the quarantine].”

Rhavel explained that they put down ‘work’ as their reason for being out, as putting any other explanation would have sent them back home. They were able to complete two four-star raids before heading back.

“While I was heading home I heard insults and glares as if I was the one who started the pandemic. No, I am not Chinese and I grew up here in Italy. I am also an Italian citizen. Every time I go out I hear two to three insults… The Palermo I’ve known since birth changed in an instant.”

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As European countries began responding to the outbreak, the responses I received also began to change. A day later, there were more and more people who revealed that the growing concern over COVID-19 had indeed changed the way they play Pokemon Go.

“It has impacted things a bit,” said one Reddit user a little after I began my outreach. “I am a teen living in Washington State (near Seattle). My dad is immuno-compromised so he may not take me downtown for Community Day and he will not do raid hour. It’s kinda sad but understandable.”

“No real impact at this point. I will say that I’ve been more careful about where I lay my phone while I’m out and about and have been wiping my phone down with alcohol wipes every now and then. I would probably be doing that regardless of Pokemon though,” responded another.

“Yes, my walks are fewer, and I am trying to stop touching my phone on the metro. My daily raid group on the National Mall has disappeared, and I started losing raids I did try with 3-4 people,” said one DC-based Reddit user. “I play with my one-year-old a lot and I’m nervous about our upcoming Safari zone date in Philadelphia getting canceled. It sucks because it’s finally nice out. I think less people are showing up at work. I play with a bunch of 40+ and even a few elderly. Can’t blame them for staying home.”

“NYC player. Situation is deteriorating here. Since community spread started, my playtime plummeted from 2-3 hours per day to just doing a raid,” revealed another Reddit user in the days following the U.S.’s escalating fight against COVID-19. “[I’m] swearing off crowded areas such as midtown Manhattan, only playing near home these days where it’s easier to practice social distancing.”

[poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=But%E2%80%A6%20as%20weird%20as%20it%20may%20seem%2C%20my%20world%20has%20shrunk%20down%20to%20my%20apartment%20and%20that%20Pokestop%20across%20the%20street.”]As the situation around COVID-19 escalates in the United States and around the world, more players reported to IGN how their Pokemon Go habits have changed. Some reported playing in cars, while others are at home more and seeing a decrease in playtime.

Players in more urban areas seem to be decreasing playtimes significantly, whereas more rural players, or areas not yet affected by COVID-19, are seeing less impact. Others report that even if it’s not them who are changing their habits, their cities or workplace are cracking down on walking about.

In Maria’s original email she wrote about how she has a Pokestop right outside her apartment that she makes an effort to swipe every day to keep her seven-day streak going, but she says it’s getting more difficult for her.

“It may sound dramatic, but being inside every day, watching the situation escalate, has been f**king scary. Some experts think this situation will last until summer and they’ve suggested that high-risk groups isolate until then. It’s easier said than done in my opinion, and again, I’m privileged. But… as weird as it may seem, my world has shrunk down to my apartment and that Pokestop across the street. No raids, no community days, no hunting cool Pokemon across the city. Just that one-stop, day in and day out. Maybe I’ll stop playing eventually but it’s been nice to retain that small bit of control when everything else seems to disappear frighteningly fast.”

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Over the course of researching for this article, Italy’s government has put virtually all of the country under lockdown. The United States has barred people entering the country from Europe, extending the ban to include travelers from the United Kingdom and Ireland. And Canada has closed its borders to outside travelers except for people from the United States.

IGN has reached out to Niantic for the developer’s perspective on the ongoing situation. But despite declining our repeated requests for comment, Niantic has responded to the COVID-19 outbreak by canceling community days and expanding features to improve the Pokemon Go experience at home.

This includes increasing monster spawns closer to people’s homes, and putting Incense packs on discount for a single PokeCoin and increasing their efficacy to a full hour. This will allow players to attract Pokemon closer to their location. Meanwhile, PokeStops will give more gifts regularly, reducing the need to travel to multiple stops.

And while Pokemon Go is just a small daily activity compared to the rest of the global COVID-19 pandemic, it’s an important one for dedicated players. The evolving response from players to COVID-19’s impact on the popular social mobile game is a real-time glimpse into how the pandemic can unsettle normal days in extraordinary times.

Check out IGN’s safety guide for COVID-19 here.

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Matt Kim is a reporter for IGN. You can reach him on Twitter.
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