Three teenage boys hold up their phones while playing Pokemon Go
Image: @ Yoji Kato / AP/Press Association Images

What Pokémon Go tells us about the benefits of city living

As Pokémon Go takes over the world, some have been saying that it's much better for city dwellers. J.Christopher Proctor looks into why, and how this reflects the differences between urban and rural living

It’s back! After a decade of hibernation, Poké-fever has once again gone swept the world, this time with Pokémon Go.

In the few weeks since its launch, its become the biggest smartphone game in US history, with millions of daily active users. The only problem is that it sucks if you don’t live in a city.

Part of this is a simple design flaw which can (and probably will) be fixed. But the problem also reflects the economic advantages cities now have over the suburbs and the countryside.

Two Pokemon characters in a city
Image by Rachel Proctor

Big benefits for city dwellers

Obviously, cities have more recognizable locations to place Pokécenters and Gyms - but this isn’t the core of the problem. If the creators wanted to, they could allow players to set up Pokéstops anywhere, using, say, rocks and trees as ‘prominent’ landmarks. This would ensure everyone has access to Pokéballs and the other supplies needed to play the game. And because Pokécenters are non-competitive - everyone can use them at the same time – having five Pokécenters to yourself on a farm in Montana wouldn’t give you an advantage over a Berliner with five Pokécenters on her street.

The problem is Gyms, which are competitive. With players constantly fighting to control them, they must be spaced out in rough proportion to population. Cities have more people, so can support more Gyms.

This is a problem for non-urbanites, who end up having to travel to battle their Pokémon. City dwellers can advance in the game much faster than their rural and suburban friends, something that’s been widely criticized since its launch.

Three Pokemon characters in a suburban setting
Image by Rachel Proctor

No drawbacks for urban Pokémasters

Luckily, the Pokémon themselves aren’t competitive – an entire crowd of people can catch the same Vaporeon when it appears. Just imagine – cities would suddenly become Pokémon deserts, as every Pidgey and Weedle would immediately be snatched up by someone nearby. Likewise, with no one to compete with, our Montana farmer would suddenly become a Poké-Queen, with a massive area of Pokémon production to herself.

So what’s the problem? Well, if people in cities advance through the game faster, they can then travel to suburban and rural Gyms and dominate our Montana Poké-Queen with their turbo-charged Gyarados and Charizards. In other words, they become urbanite Poké-party-poopers.

What does Pokémon Go tell us about urbanization

Of course, cities and rural areas don’t only compete for Pokémon Gyms, but also for residents, jobs, wealth and political influence. And over the past century cities have been winning these battles big time - today, over half the world’s population lives in urban areas, a proportion that's expected to increase to 66% by 2050.

There've always been advantages to having lots of people living close together. Much like how a Pokémon Gym only makes sense once you have a few dozen players in the area, things like hospitals, libraries, stadiums, and transit systems only really make sense if there are enough people living close by to use (and pay for) them. Large populations allow cities to spread the costs and benefits of investments over a far greater number of people than is possible in the countryside. These investments in turn make cities more economically competitive and enticing for even more new residents.

Three Pokemon characters in a rural setting
Image by Rachel Proctor

At the same time, technology has dramatically reduced the number of people needed for activities like farming or mining, which traditionally fuelled rural economies. That means less jobs, less opportunity, and less government investment (because everyone’s moving into the city anyway).

Sound familiar? Understanding why Nintendo decided it didn’t make sense to invest in Gyms in the countryside can help clarify the drawbacks of rural living in general. Were Pokémon Go to turn back the clocks a few hundred years, we could imagine players in crowded cities fighting over Caterpies and Rattatas while the rare and exotic Pokémon roamed the countryside. But in 2016, Pokémon Go is decidedly pro-urban, offering Dragonites and Charizards to city dwellers and Zubats and Pidgeys to the rest.

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