Twenty years ago, Nintendo launched Pokémon for the original Game Boy and became the franchise of choice for kids. The Japanese-animated creatures are experiencing a come-back surge with Pokémon Go, a downloadable app that pushes people out into the real world.
You may have seen people walking around your community zombie-like in search of Pokémon. Heads down, intent on the game, you can find them walking into street signs and tripping off curbs. At first glance it may seem that the game does not foster social engagement despite being in the real world. Yet, there are heartening stories from around the country of people teaming up to go Pokémon hunting and of strangers helping each other find elusive Pokémon.
Dozens of Missouri churches have discovered that their church buildings have been designated as Pokéstops or “gyms” where players can practice their skills. Some of those churches have discovered being embedded within a popular app offers a chance to serve the community: making sure the location is actually safe for young players, providing refreshments for players who have been in the heat and sun all day, and offering genuine hospitality for strangers who wander onto church grounds while playing.
One church planter took advantage of the designation as a Pokéstop and offered free pizza to players.
“I looked at it as pretty low-risk and super current,” said Rev. Adam Mustoe, Platte County Campus Pastor at Good Shepherd.
Over the course of the lunch hour on a Tuesday, Good Shepherd’s campus saw 20 Pokémon players, none of whom had a relationship with the church. The guests included four families, a young couple and a single, 25-year old man. The families with kids were very interested in VBS starting the following week. One family asked a lot questions about worship times. One woman, Natasha, brought six boys with her, seeing the augmented reality game as a great group activity.
“It actually does bring people together and I guarantee that none of these people would have ever stepped foot in my church,” Mustoe said. “I think it shows people that the Church doesn’t take itself too seriously.”
Grace in Lee’s Summit discovered it was both Pokéstop and a gym. Gyms can become “owned” by skilled players in the game. Gyms are also where the greatest potential for social interaction can happen as players train and even compete as teams against one another.
“I cannot wait for the youth to get back home from camp,” said Rev. Jeremy Vickers, senior pastor. “They are going to be so excited to try to take back their ‘gym.’”
The game has its critics. There are some safety concerns (see sidebar on page 26) and others have suggested that playing along with the game is taking the search for relevance too far. Vickers disagrees.
“Something that is bringing the next generation in droves to our church properties cannot be a bad thing,” Vickers said. “And, we should celebrate that an entity beyond us has recognized that churches are a safe place to interact and play. What are we going to do about it?”
Mustoe thinks churches interested in connecting with new people have to strike while the iron’s hot. “Eugene Peterson talks about the ministry of small-talk. Today, right now, it includes Pokémon.”
Pokémon Go BasicsPokémon Go is a “real world adventure” that uses GPS and augmented reality to allow you to hunt and train Pokémon as you are out and about in your real world neighborhood. The game uses your smartphone’s camera to display animated Pokémon as though they are actually in front of you.
PokéstopsPokéstops are like lucky spots for aspiring Pokémon trainers. Attached to places of interest – churches, memorial plaques, statues – you can pick up loot like Pokéballs, snacks for Pokémon and medicines for battle-worn Pokémon. Download the Pokémon Go app on your smartphone to see if your church is a Pokéstop or a gym.
Pokémon GymsPlayers improve their game stats by training in designated “gyms” often assigned to public locations, like the front steps of a church, on athletic fields and in parks. You can practice your skills or meet up with other virtual team members and “battle” at the gyms.
Lure ModulesLures can be placed on a Pokéstop to attract Pokémon to the location which in turn attracts players looking for Pokémon. Lures last 30 minutes and cost $1.
Safety Considerations for Parents and Youth Workers
- Be aware that Pokéstops and gyms show up in all sorts of places, and not all of them are the sort of places you want to just show up in unannounced. Be respectful of businesses and places of interest.
- Be aware of your surroundings. Players have been known to walk into streets (or buildings or other people). It goes without saying that playing while driving is not acceptable. Don’t do it.
- Lure modules have been used by business owners to bring people to their stores. Additionally, in a few cases, lures have been used to perpetrate crimes.
- One way to combat safety risks is to play as a family or in groups. There is safety in numbers and creative parents, youth workers and church leaders can discover ways of engaging with youth and young adults that not only leads to captured Pokémon but builds increased fellowship and team building.
Use a Pokéstop to Make Connections
- Create An Event: Create a Facebook event offering food, water or snacks while playing. Boost the post with a target audience (e.g., profiles with Pokémon as an interest within a X mile radius).
- Lure Modules: Utilize a Lure Module ($1 for 30 minutes) in the application to attract players.
- Welcome Players: Update your outdoor signage to welcome Pokémon Go players.
- Offer Accommodations: Offer a cool place out of the heat and access to restrooms (Good Shepherd played a Pokémon show on their screens, too). If you don’t want to offer access inside the building, consider setting up a tent with a self-serve cooler filled with water bottles for players who stop by.
- Connect Players with the Church: Think of ways to invite players to connect with the church. Plan the event in conjunction with a hand-off event (VBS, back-to-school bash, concert, etc.). Use that first email follow up as a “Thanks for coming, it was great to meet you. If our church can ever be helpful, check us out...” message. Don’t automatically dump them into your database to receive the newsletter eternally unless they ask for that.