The curious lives of Pokémon Go trainers
Can someone earn a living playing Pokémon Go? Meet the determined New Yorkers who are trying.
On a Friday afternoon, a 21-year-old computer science student named Ashley sits in the back corner of a Starbucks in midtown Manhattan. Ashley has two phones in front of her, both charging, and she is furiously swiping Pokéballs to catch the Pokémon who have shown up on her app. In front of her is a list of Pokémon—which her client, from Germany, has paid her $40 to catch in the next two hours.
Ever since the release of the Pokémon Go app in the United States, the city of New York has been at the forefront of a national craze. At every major park and city square, there's been an increased congestion of foot traffic of people playing the game; the appearance of a rare Pokémon caused a stampede at Central Park. And in true entrepreneurial spirit, the popularity of the game has spawned a group of skilled players who tout themselves as trainers. Ashley is just one name on a growing list of Pokémon Go trainers on Craigslist offering their services for $20 an hour. They'll log into your account, travel around the city, and catch every Pokémon that spawns in the area, collecting enough experience points (XP) to help you level up in the game.
"Too busy to play Pokémon Go? Let me play for you!" states one ad. Ivy St. Ive from Bushwick, one of New York's most famous Pokémon Go trainers, posted a Craigslist that went viral, and she has since been offered a book deal to write a Pokémon Go strategy guide and will be a coach on a gaming website. Elsewhere in Brooklyn, Nick Johnson became the first person to catch all 142 available Pokémon in the United States, and is now traveling the world for free to catch the remaining Pokémon, thanks to a sponsored trip via Marriott Rewards and Expedia. He has since succeeded in catching them all worldwide.
According to Michael Pace, a recent graduate from Babson College who's done some quantitative research onPokémon Go, it gets exponentially more difficult and requires much more time to move from one level to the next as you move to higher levels. So trainers perform the manual labor that you can't devote to the app because you actually have a life to lead. (Pace, for his part, doesn't believe Pokémon Go deserves all the hype. But he adds, "It's a lot of fun for people to get out with their friends and play this game. I've never seen so many nerds out at all hours of the day. It's no secret this game plays to a demographic of people who usually are not super social.")
"Too busy to play Pokémon Go? Let me play for you!" states one ad.
Some trainers who post ads have an entrepreneurial mindset; several who I reached out to responded with a request for compensation in exchange for explaining how a day in their life works. Ashley, however, is just an avid gamer and Pokémon fan looking to make a few extra dollars for the time she's investing into this app. "I would be here playing anyways," she says, "so why not."
A Level 22 player, Ashley has collected 121 out of 142 available Pokémon in the game—but she's at beginner levels when it comes to selling her services on Craigslist. Ashley has only landed a few clients from her Craigslist ad, which includes a screenshot of her Pokédex to establish some legitimacy in her skills. Most days, she'll venture out to the city and play at Central Park, and retreat to a Starbucks to charge her phone when needed (her portable charger is not strong enough). Today, Ashley is more excited that the client from Germany has offered to log into her account to help her catch Mr. Mime, a Pokémon that's not available in the United States.
To succeed at Pokémon Go, you don't actually need to travel anywhere around the city (or be a part of any viral videos of hundreds of people crowding up a location in order to catch a rare Pokémon). Danny, a 29-year-old barber from Long Island and a level 10 player, has been a gamer and Pokémon fan his entire life, and in Danny's Craigslist ad, he offers to walk your dog in addition to providing training services. For half an hour, Danny offers to play on my account; he opens the app on my phone, uses an incense item in the game to lure Pokémon to our location, and we just sit on two patio chairs in the shade for 30 minutes as he bumps me up to a Level 4.
So far, Danny's had no luck getting anyone to bite. But he remains optimistic. "There are a lot of people out there who have a lot of money," he says. "You never know."
Pokémon Go gets repetitive after awhile. Its appeal varies depending on how much you care about a location-based game oriented around one of the most popular media franchises of this generation. But for people like Ashley, who doesn't want to engage in the social aspects of it and is happy to engage with the game in the corner of a Starbucks, it's a perfect, no-strings-attached social activity. As for turning her Pokémon Go training ads into something more than just a way to earn a few extra dollars, Ashley isn't optimistic. Her competitors are offering lower hourly rates and attracting more clients.
Also, playing under someone else's account violates the terms of services set forth by Niantic, the game's developer and publisher, which limits the chances of growing this into a huge venture.