Pokemon Go is an Amazing Travel App

Shawn Forno

How the Spread of Augmented Reality Will Open Up the World

Alright. It’s finally happened. Smartphones have officially taken over how we move about the world. We’re all just zombies basking in the blue glow of our screens as we shuffle from place to place, right? The app-ocalypse (see what I did there?) has come and it’s all thanks to two little words.

Pokemon. Go.

I know Pokemon Go is getting a lot of media attention but I’m gonna argue something a little different. I think Pokemon Go is a great thing. Especially for travelers.

The Pokemon Go Craze is Real

If you’ve been hiding under a Geodude for the past couple of weeks, let me bring you up to speed on the international phenomenon that is Pokemon Go—the world’s most popular augmented reality (AR) video game to date.

Pokemon Go is a free mobile game app that uses Augmented Reality software, your GPS signal, and your phone’s camera to place digital monsters at specific locations in the real world. When you physically occupy the same space as these digital critters, they become visible on your phone, and if you’re good enough and speedy enough you can catch them with a Pokeball, train them, and fight other Pokemon at locations across the world.

To date this game is available for download and play in 31 countries (Japan launches tomorrow) and as soon as they iron out the massive server issues, it’ll be a worldwide phenomenon in no time.

To date, Pokemon Go has been downloaded well over 15 million times, making it the #1 Free app in the Apple and Google Play stores. I’ll say that again. Pokemon Go is not the #1 game—it’s the #1 free app. Period. That’s insane.

But it’s not just the sheer number of users that’s exciting. It’s the daily usage.

Pokemon Users Play. A Lot.

The average Pokemon Go player uses the app an average of 43 minutes every.single.day. That’s the average. That’s higher than Whatsapp, Instagram, and even millennial titan Snapchat.

So what? Nerds used to like to play Angry Birds. Your mom loves Candy Crush. Who cares? Apps and games are stupid and they close us off from the weird wide wonderful world around us, right?

Not when the app fundamentally requires you to go outside.

That’s the magic of AR and Pokemon Go. When you play this game you’re going to see a lot more than just the occasional Bulbasaur. You’re going to explore the city that you’re in, and what’s even cooler, you’re going to do it in a way that no one has ever done.

The Global Scavenger Hunt

A lot of travel sites and edgy writers have tried to inspire people to see the world from a fresh angle. Take risks. Go off the beaten path. Not all who wander are lost, and all that jazz. But the thing is, not that many people travel to get out of their comfort zones.

Most people travel to see a few things, meet a few new friends, snap some photos and relax. And that’s kind of (exactly) what Pokemon Go is all about.

What happens when you take millions of people and throw them out into the world with a singular uniting drive? Community. The number one thing driving Pokemon Go players to get out there and “catch ‘em all” isn’t just bragging rights or stats like other MMOs, it’s that there are other real people doing the exact same thing.

This kind of community building and identity usually takes years to forge; yet Pokemon Go has brought people from all ages, backgrounds, and ideologies together in a week. That. Is. Amazing.

The Up Side of Apps

I get it. I’m being an optimist (something I’m rarely accused of, by the way). That’s fine. Call me optimistic, because any app that can get millions of people off their asses and out into the real world gives me hope.

Sure, they’re starting at their phones for a lot of the time, but without AR they’d be inside staring at a different screen all by themselves. What’s more, the gameplay of AR games like Pokemon Go isn’t all that time consuming.

It’s only when you see a Pokemon that you dive into your phone wholeheartedly and spring into action. The rest of the time, you’re just kind of wandering around looking for cool crap and hey guess what, so are a bunch of other cool people.

If I were to ask you to picture a “Traveler” what would it look like? Seriously, give it a go.

Do they have:

  • A camera or smartphone?
  • Do they look a little lost?
  • Are they moving at a slower pace than the locals around them?
  • Are they scrutinizing something you’ve walked past a thousand times?
  • Are they having fun?
  • Are they willing to ask questions and start conversations?
  • Are they smiling?

The Venn Diagram of a Pokemon Go Player and the modern traveler is basically just a blurry circle.

Pokemon Go in NYC

New York City is a sterling example of how this video game can bring people—even cynical-get-out-of-the-way-tourist New Yorkers—together. And not only together, but together outside of a bar. I know. Wow.

Right now, Central Park is a awash with would-be trainers crawling over every rock, wandering across fields, and bumping into hundreds of rivals (a.k.a. other people) in the search to catch ‘em all. There’s definitely a downside to the game (bumping into stuff), but how cool is it that thousands of people are exploring Central Park? The answer is: Very.

But the beauty of the Pokemon Go is that it forces you to pursue novelty.

Same ol’ Pokemon: AR Gaming & the Search for Novelty

Of course, I downloaded Pokemon Go when my younger buddy told me about it, and gave it a whirl, and within 30 minutes I had an impressive suite of Pokemon in my Pokedex. I fed ‘em candies to evolve them, and made some of them stronger to fight at the local gym. What’s funny is that all of my initial game play occurred from the comfort of my yellow corduroy rocking chair.

However, after an hour or so (of game time), I noticed that I was catching the same handful of Pokemon— Idgeo, Doduo, Rattata, with the occasional Pinser or Boufallant wandering in. It got kind of boring catching the same old Pokemon.

And it’s supposed to.

If you want to catch new Pokemon, you can’t just grind in your living room, you have to go where the Pokemon are. If you want a Psyduck you gotta go to the East River. If you want a Ghastly, head to Woodbridge Cemetery. There are dozens of unique Pokemon types and they’re only found in their corresponding environments (usually).

The National Park Service has even jumped on the band wagon encouraging Pokemon Go players to catch all the wonderful critters—both digital and analog—at their closest national park.

But my favorite is a twitter account called “Pokemon Archeology” that tracks Pokemon sightings at famous or historic locations.

Luckily, New York City is full of interesting locations to catch the rarest Pokemon out there. Which leads me to the final point in how AR gaming is changing travel—you’re not the only one trying to catch ‘em all; and someone might beat you to it.


AR Gaming & Immediacy

The ephemeral nature of the Pokemon is a driving force for the high user interface times within the app. Players feel a driving urge to play a little longer, walk a little farther, catch one more. During the first few days after launching players all over the US were complaining of “sore legs.”

That’s awesome!

Not only will the Pokemon not hang around all day for you to come collect them, odds are someone is gonna get there first. And that immediacy creates action—something missing in some gamer communities, and something I find fundamental to the traveler’s mindset. Get out there now. That bucket list isn’t going to finish itself!

AR Growth & the Travel Sphere

The most exciting part about all of this is the friction and adoption of AR into real-world locations. The Westboro Baptist Church for instance isn’t a huge fan of their location being used as a gym (they were famously against the game in the 90s for it’s “Satanic Message”), but other places and destinations are reveling in the attention, and getting a new bump of visitors.

A minor league baseball stadium in Durham, NC has opened its doors to trainers looking to catch a few Pokemon on the field (for a $5 entry fee), and if you need a flying type Pokemon, just visit the Wright Museum of Flight where every single Pokemon is a flying type!

The Future of AR & Travel

We already use our phones to look up Google Maps, book AirBnB on the go, buy plane tickets on Kayak, get Ubers, connect with friends on Facebook, and oh yeah…call people. AR is simply piggybacking on how we already use our phones in our daily lives to nudge us into enjoying our recreation out in the real world.

I’m all for the merger of AR and IRL, even if it’s at the hands of Pikachu and his ilk. Pokemon Go might be a fad, over in a few months or it might endure as the flagship AR game for years—who knows. The point is that it’s making an impact in the travel sphere by waking people up to the habit-breaking and community building power of Augmented Reality. Just imagine where this technology can go from its humble game beginnings and you’ll start to get as excited as I am about experiencing multiple layers of information, connection, and storytelling as we relearn how to travel in this brave new digital age.

I can’t wait to read about the first Pokemon Road Trip, because I know it’s gonna happen soon…

Until then, I’ll just pack my bags and go looking for a Jigglypuff, because you never know what you’re gonna find until you get out there and look.

Hopefully I’ll see you out there!


On a backpacking trip in 2009, we discovered how ill-suited most luggage is to urban travel. We started Tortuga to solve this problem and to empower people to live on their terms.

Read our stories about how we live and work at Tortuga, on our terms.

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