I’ve spent my past few days staring at a screen, scouting the nearby terrain for imaginary creatures known as Pokémon.
I could have written that same sentence 18 years ago, when I was eight years old and addicted to playing Pokémon Blue on my Game Boy Color. But here I am as a 26-year-old in 2016, just as enchanted by these little critters as I was back in 1998. In the Pokémon universe, each fictional creature has its own special powers that correspond to its “type.” An aquatic Pokémon like the turtle-themed Squirtle, for example, attacks its enemies with blasts of water. A grass Pokémon such as Bulbasaur whips its enemies with vines. Each game encourages players to catch as many different varieties as possible and pit them in battles against one another to advance.
I’m far from the only adult hooked on Pokémon Go, the first official game in the Pokémon franchise made specifically for smartphones. The evidence is easily seen — unlike other Pokémon games, Go requires players to explore the real world around them in order to collect Pokémon. I could barely walk around for 10 minutes this weekend without hearing a fellow player excitedly yelp about a nearby Pikachu or Bulbasaur. Less than a week after it was launched in the U.S., Go sits atop the iPhone and Android app store popularity charts.
What’s creating all this excitement? In part, the fans that embraced Pokémon during their childhood in the 1990s are once again indulging in their old obsession. Nostalgia, experts say, can be a powerful force luring users to a new but familiar experience.
“If nostalgia is in play, and it evokes this positive emotion . . . our brain can substitute the question, ‘Does this make me happy’ for ‘Is this a good game?'” says Dr. Jamie Madigan, author of the book Getting Gamers: The Psychology of Video Games and Their Impact on People Who Play Them.
Indeed, nostalgia commands a powerful influence throughout pop culture, as evidenced by the sequels and reboots that seem unavoidable at movie theaters this summer. That’s because it is often associated with positive feelings and can help people feel more connected to others. At root, nostalgia is a kind of acute homesickness. The word comes from the Greek nostos, a return home, and algos, or pain.
“Nostalgia is just as much about the future as it is the past,” says Dr. Clay Routledge, a professor of psychology at North Dakota State University who has been studying the psychological effects of nostalgia for 10 years. “It wouldn’t surprise me at all if this Pokémon Go phenomenon was making people make new friends because they have these shared memories.” (A recent story in The Wall Street Journal suggests that is indeed the case.)
To be sure, nostalgia is not the sole cause of Pokémon Go’s overnight success. Pokémon fans have long clamored for a way to enjoy the franchise on smartphones. This represents their first chance to do so without using unofficial emulation software. “Putting [Pokémon] on the accessibility of a smartphone means the total available markets are monster numbers,” says P.J. McNealy, chief executive of consumer research firm Digital World Research. Also driving downloads is the game’s clever use of smartphone components like its GPS chip and camera, which together provide the illusion that wild Pokémon are out there in the real world, waiting to be caught.
That said, Pokémon Go’s clever game mechanics alone can’t explain why the game has become such a runaway hit. Go developer Niantic has a similar but non-Pokémon game, Ingress, that has a dedicated but comparatively small number of players. That’s evidence that Pokémon nostalgia, not gameplay alone, is the driving force behind what looks to be the breakout hit of the summer. Pokémon Go, says Routledge, is “this perfect marriage of nostalgia, bringing something old that people have these memories of from their childhood. And coupling that with technology that allows people to connect and share these experiences in ways they could not in the past.”