The Surprising Urban Geography of Pokemon Go

You see them chasing digital dreams,  shadows of their childhood. Young people ambling slowly with faces pressed to their phones, clumps plotting on benches. It’s Pokemon Go,  the new game! Half digital, half material, and a sign of things to come. I don’t have to explain it to you, because a hundred hot takes have done this already.

But I can tell you about the world of PoGo, how and why the Pokemon are where they are. The Pokestops are not spread evenly through the city. Instead they center in certain places, hang out in neighborhoods. There’s no grand conspiracy, but there are some logics at work that can help make sense of the world of Pokemon Go.

But first, an admission. I have only played Pokemon Go for a hot minute, but I spent six months or so playing its predecessor, Ingress. Partly this was in preparation for an article I was working on about the connection between walking and mobile technology, and partly this was because the game is fun and addictive. But the map of “Pokestops” and Pokemon gyms” is based almost completely on the Ingress map of “portals.” So for the purposes of this analysis, I’ll be using the Ingress “intel” map which shows offers a global view of all the Pokestops on Earth.

First, some quick glances at the Twin Cities and Minneapolis, showing only the “high level” portals:

ingress-map-metro-area

Zooming into Minneapolis, you can see a few clusters of activity.

ingress-map-DT-mpls-and-south

Note: this map only shows high level portals, so the gaps are not accurate and does not translate precisely to Pokemon Go.

As with Ingress portals, Pokestops are not evenly distributed. Here are some patterns that emerge.

1. Pokestops are walkable

The first rule of thumb forPokestops is that they require walkability. There are far more Pokestops in areas with sidewalks and a street grid than in the curving suburban culs-de-sac.

That means that downtowns, college campuses, and main streets have tons of Pokestops. For example, Lake Street or Hennepin Avenue are Pokemon hot beds, as is the entire downtown Minneapolis area. The University of Minnesota is chock full of Pokestops, offering one of the densest clusters in the entire metro.

lake-street

The Uptown area: Lake, Hennepin, and Lyndale are Pokestop hotbeds.

2. Pokestops depend on placemaking

Ingress portals (aka Pokestops) were originally intended to be based on public art or public buildings. For example, just about every piece of art in the Walker sculpture garden is a Pokestop. (Sorry PoGo players, it’s been bulldozed!) Eventually, as players added portals into the database, they expanded to include things like local businesses, interesting architecture, and parks. in fact, Pokestops can be found at just about anything that is NOT a plain residential building. (This is why the State Fairgrounds, where everything is a “landmark” offers the densest collections of Pokestops in the metro area.)

In this way, Pokestops reflect placemaking. Utility boxes with art on them. Decorative benches. Any kind of plaque. Little Free Libraries are a great example, as they quickly became one of the easiest ways to geographically spread Ingress portals (aka Pokestops) into more residential neighborhoods. If you have something interesting to offer the public realm, you might have a Pokestop.

ingress-map-west-side

The Pokestops around my apartment.

Take my neighborhood, where the closest Pokestops to my house are, in this order:

  • a church a block away
  • a little free library, two blocks away
  • the empty yoga studio, two blocks away
  • a little free library, two blocks away
  • the empty coffee shop, four blocks away
  • the catholic church, five blocks away PLUS the catholic church school PLUS the catholic church rectory (for a total of three Pokestops on the same block)
  • a park, five blocks away PLUS a sculpture in the park
  • a library, six blocks away
  • another little free library, six blocks away

Eventually you get down to Harriet Island, full of Pokestops, or the businesses along Cesar Chavez Street, a bunch of other parks, etc.

The equation: place equals Pokemon, which is another reason why homogenous neighborhoods in the suburbs are largely Pokemon deserts.

3. Pokestops reflect the tastes of educated white men

The final rule-of-thumb is that Ingress appealed to tech nerds and gamers, who are overwhelmingly whiter, younger, wealthier, and better-educated than the population as a whole. These people tend to live and work in certain areas, and so the Ingress portals (aka Pokestops) are going to reflect their tastes and movement patterns.

4-cities

Four cities at the same scale. Clockwise from top left: Compton, CA; Los Alamos, NM, Saint Paul, MN (my neighborhood); Nimrod, MN.

Thus the focus on downtowns, tech areas, universities, brewery-proximate neighborhoods, etc. And there’s surely a reverse tendency of areas with less frequent tech yuppie types, such as neighborhoods with a lot of poverty, to be neglected.

That said, if you actually look at the geographic map and spread of Ingress portals (aka Pokestops), they cover the globe and there are Pokestops just about everywhere, from the Aleutian Islands to Nimrod, Minnesota (Population 69).

Still, I think the urban Pokemon geography might surprise most people. There was a recent article that criticized the geography of Pokemon Go, claiming that the Pokestops avoid neighborhoods of color. The article used a map of Detroit to show how Pokestops were clustered on the North side of Eight Mile Road.

I don’t know Detroit very well, but I do know Minneapolis, and I’d say that, if anything, Pokemon tend to avoid boring white suburban sprawl. Pokemon favor walkability and placemaking so much that it outweighs any wealthy white male bias. What’s more, thanks to years of Ingress players scouring most city neighborhoods, the coverage of portals is fairly thorough.

Here are a bunch of examples from the Twin Cities, all at the same scale:

ingress-map-arden-hills ingress-map-eden-prairie ingress-map-jordan ingress-map-linden-hills ingress-map-north-oaks ingress-map-phillips
ingress-map-victory-memorial

ingress-map-state-fair

The result? If anything, Pokemon Go has a reverse income and race disparity. It turns out that Pokemon are urban creatures who love diversity, sidewalks, and mixed-use neighborhoods. They don’t really shy away from poor “inner city” areas. Instead, they thrive on placemaking, and they flee from white suburban sprawl. You’ll never catch a Pokemon in a gated community.11

Don’t hate on Pokemon Go, but PLEASE GOD Don’t PoGo and Drive!

pokemon-flierHere’s the takeaway. Like pedal pubs and segways, Pokemon Go can be a convenient scapegoat for cultural criticism. The millennial phone zombies walking around Victory Memorial Drive on Minneapolis’ Northern border are easy fodder for anyone who doesn’t know what a Porygon is, or thinks kids today bury their faces in their screens like so many ostriches.

While many of those critiques are perfectly valid, it’s also safe to say that more people have spent time on the wide weird empty “green space” boulevards of Victory Memorial Drive in the past two weeks than in the previous year put together. The game legitimately encourages people to walk around and explore urban spaces.

Some ground rules:

pokemon lake mplsYou can play while walking. Pay attention to busy streets, but wherever Pokestops are clustered, being on foot is the key.

You can play from a bike. This is probably the best way of covering a lot of Pokemon ground in a short time.

You can play from a train. The Green Line stops are just long enough to grab a Pokemon, if there is one. Buses too.

You can play on a skateboard. I’m just guessing here.  Unicycles seem ideal.

If you played PoGo on a pogo stick, that would be pretty cool.

My Death Star fantasy? I’d love to see Pokemon Go pedal pubs. (Bwahahaha!) They go slowly enough, people could focus on their phones, and you could still be mobile, hopping from gym to gym waging war.

There’s only one problem: Driving. The game can be addictive, and can lead to dangerous situations. There were plenty of times playing Ingress where I felt tempted to “hack” a portal while stopped at a red light. (In fact, I did it regularly, I’ll admit. And it’s not OK.)

The problem is that, particularly anyone driving with a smart phone within reach, the temptation of grabbing a Pokemon while behind the wheel is going to be acute and deadly.

(Note: There is a speed limit, and apparently it’s pretty slow. Like 10 miles per hour slow.)

pokemon while driving

Double plus un-good.

Other than that, welcome to your new future, America.

Or not. After about six months, I got bored with Ingress. Once you reach a certain level, there wasn’t much point in collecting experience points, and with only two teams, it presented the definition of an endless zero-sum game. Any victories were temporary, and there was no way to really win. I felt like the computer playing tic-tac-toe in War Games, where the only winning move is to quit.

And since then, I’ve been spending a lot more time actually looking at and enjoying the world around me. (And, who am I kidding, staring at Twitter too much.)


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10 Responses to The Surprising Urban Geography of Pokemon Go

  1. Eric Anondson
    Eric Anondson July 20, 2016 at 11:57 am #

    I just want to get in the map and add points of interest to be Pokestops. I’m building a mental list.

  2. Dana DeMaster
    DanaD July 20, 2016 at 1:30 pm #

    I guess the lobby of my work is a PokeStop. Ha. This is causing a lot of consternation with the sheriff’s deputies because there are a lot more people wandering around than usual and we already have a lot of people wandering around! I’ve been called on to explain what it is as the local Pokémon sage – never something I thought I would be.

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke July 20, 2016 at 2:03 pm #

      I think that’s becoming a highly marketable skill now!

  3. Cameron Conway
    Cameron Conway July 20, 2016 at 3:48 pm #

    I’m attempting to come up with a technique for biking and playing that doesn’t make me a menace to society, but I’m not entirely sure I’ve come up with it. Not sure it exists. That being said, if you see me, I am that guy doing 3mph in the greenway’s walking lane, nervously looking up every few seconds.

    Not sure how you’d isolate the effect, but it’d be very interesting if 2016 sees an unexpected uptick in walk to work modeshare. Equally hard to measure, but I’d also be interested in seeing park usage stats, whether pokestop-holding businesses end up with a noticeable boost in business, anything that might demonstrate a reliable effect on behavior. Hell, MAYBE this is the walkability revolution we never saw coming! Maybe…

    • Thomas Mercier July 20, 2016 at 4:34 pm #

      The Met Council and Univ. of MN are both doing park user intercept surveys in the regional park system and beyond this summer. It’ll be interesting to see to what extent Pokémon pops up in the findings.

  4. Alex July 21, 2016 at 6:10 pm #

    I feel like I’ve noticed a lot more people biking and skating around with their noses in their phones, but it’s not like that was uncommon before, so it’s hard to say how much Poke Man exacerbated the problem.

  5. squidbot July 24, 2016 at 4:12 pm #

    My suburb has commissioned statues, public fountains, and city parks that are not placemarky enough to be pokestops.

    That is urban bias.

    Your apologism–in the very style of cultural criticism you say is invalid when leveled against the game–is to stereotype suburbs as uniformly sprawling and boring so they deserve to be starved of game resources. Sucks to be them, haha.

    That is urban conceit.

    The two attitudes compliment each other in a nice feedback loop. Congratulations.

    • Eric Anondson
      Eric Anondson July 24, 2016 at 4:49 pm #

      ?

      That is sour grapes complainypants.

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke July 28, 2016 at 12:33 pm #

      I’m curious what suburb it might be. Two years plus of Ingress players could crowd-source stops and add them. It was pretty democratic. Maybe nobody in your suburb plays AR games for some reason?

  6. Darryn Kozak July 31, 2016 at 10:46 am #

    Good, fun article. I don’t play PoGo, but my wife and kids do. Complaints about distribution of Pokestops is a first world problem worthy of many future PhD theses (more interesting than that biggest of first world problems: banks and NFL fighting over advertising on buildings).