Pokémon still going: Taiwan’s love affair with the game the world forgot

We can’t show you Tsai’s face. The 52-year-old is busily swiping away at six phones in a custom-built usher-style tray. Charging cords snake off into a backpack full of powerbanks. The elaborate setup is designed to maximise his Pokémon Go experience, ensuring he’s always in hunt-mode.

Tsai started in 2016 with just one phone, but says six is the perfect number to avoid waiting for his device to process all the “boring” bells and whistles each time he catches one of the virtual creatures.

He’s excited to talk to us, Tsai says without looking up, and ordinarily he’d be happy to pose. But he came to Taipei from Kaohsiung 350km away and his wife thinks he’s on a work trip.

Marital risks aside, Tsai believes Pokémon Go has had a positive impact on his life. “It’s good for exercise,” he says.

Pokémon Go is an augmented reality mobile game that allows users to hunt “pocket monsters” – like Pikachu, Bulbasaur, Charizard and Squirtle – in public. When it was released in 2016, 500m downloads were recorded in its first six months. The news was filled with stories of people blindly chasing the characters across cities, into lakes and deserts, even trespassing into biker-gang clubhouses. While it remains one of the world’s most popular phone games, global user numbers have plummeted in recent years. By June, monthly users had dropped to about 80 million worldwide, with just 10% of them logging in daily.

In Taiwan, however, it remains hugely popular across all age groups. Young adults grew up on the cartoons and Nintendo games and embraced the mobile version, sharing it with their parents and grandparents. It also taps into a Taiwanese love of Japanese culture and cute things generally.

Around Taipei, which has some of the world’s most densely populated neighbourhoods, dozens of people can often be found loitering in parks and outside banks or post offices, waiting for a “raid”. At a death metal concert in Wanhua, a young woman dressed all in black crowdsurfed while clutching a Pikachu plush toy. In September, the national airline unveiled a Pokémon-liveried aircraft. In 2021, a Pokémon-themed 7-Eleven opened in Taipei.

Niantic, Pokémon Go’s parent company, holds its data incredibly tight. It won’t give country-specific user statistics, or attendance figures for the sold-out Taipei event. But Niantic’s Asia Pacific events manager, Go Nagano, says that per capita, Taiwan is one of the company’s top markets, and Taipei hosts the world’s most visited “gym”, a virtual battleground for teams. In 2021, Taiwan recorded the second highest average number of kilometres walked by Pokémon Go users, and consumer data showed that Taiwanese people spent almost three times as long playing the game as Japanese users.

‘The aunties and uncles spend all day playing’

One of the first post-Covid international events in Taiwan is a three-day Pokémon Go Safari in Taipei’s Da’an Forest Park, arranged with local tourism departments to promote the city. Mobile carrier trucks are on site to temporarily boost 4G and 5G signals for the hundreds of people walking around slowly and staring at their phones.

Some are in homemade costumes or themed outfits, and there are a variety of bespoke charging solutions. Multiple phones are common. A young man wears a laminated sign advertising potential Pokémon trades and is quickly surrounded. A woman in her 50s wearing a hot-pink rain jacket boisterously bargains with him. Surnamed Huang, she proudly says she has a rare Pokémon from Greece, which she traded from a mysterious visitor. Asked for details, Huang grows suspicious. Are we spies? We honestly don’t know how to answer.

Keiko Maeda, an 85-year-old Japanese retiree says she was bored at home, wanting to exercise and kill time during the pandemic. So she hired a private tutor, first to teach her how to use a mobile phone and then to teach her how to play the game. A year later, she has flown in from Tokyo, alone, just for this event.

“I didn’t know if I’d be able to come to Taiwan again because of Covid, so I’m happy to be here,” she says through a translator.

Maeda is the oldest player the Guardian meets, but isn’t an outlier. The game is hugely popular among elderly people in Taiwan, which like much of east Asia has a rapidly ageing population. Taipei’s most famous player, who has recently retired after suffering a stroke, is a 74-year-old grandfather named Chen Sun-yuan, who would ride around on his bicycle with 64 phones attached to the handlebars.

Young people joke the game is a form of aged care – getting their elderly relatives outside for exercise and socialising. “It’s a positive game for retired people, it gives them a goal, there are group events, they meet people,” says one younger player.

At Da’an park the amount of time spent playing each day is split pretty cleanly along generational lines. Younger people, like 35-year-old Jason, “don’t have time to be addicted”, and claim they limit themselves to between 30 minutes and two hours a day. Most in this age group cite nostalgia when asked why they like the game. They grew up watching the cartoons and now play the phone game with friends and siblings. Some have brought their – often visibly disinterested – young children with them.

“But the aunties and uncles spend all day playing it,” he says.

Back at the pagoda, something on the screen catches Tsai’s eye and he attaches a neck strap to the tray to go for a wander around the park. He is firmly in the enthusiast camp, but says he has his limits. “In Kaohsiung I saw people walking into the sea to catch Pokémon. I’m not that crazy.”

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