Pokémon Go(lf)


Stick and ball games have been around for about as long as humans have had free time. Knocking a rock with a stick has become about as natural and innate as running from a predator. Betting on the results of these contests came shortly after and celebrating a victory with a beverage didn’t take long to figure out either. These games have developed into many varieties over the years, including baseball, cricket, croquet, polo and the hugely popular golf.

The Origin and Evolution of Golf

The origins of golf are somewhat hazy as it, too, is an evolved form of hitting a rock with a stick, but there are some documents that show it existed in some form or another at least seven centuries ago. These accounts put golf’s origins as Dutch. The early games were simply bets as to who could hit a leather ball with a stick at a target hundreds of yards away with the fewest strokes.

The word golf seems to stem from the archaic Dutch word ‘colf’ or ‘Kolf’ which meant club. The Scottish word gawf appears to be a derivative of colf and over time, influenced by dialects and interpretations, it became what is universally spoken and written as golf.

Modern golf is mostly credited to the Scottish due to the influence of St. Andrews Links. At St. Andrews in the 15th century, play became popular walking an undulating trench that originally had eleven holes. In the 18th century two of the holes were considered too short and the course was reduced to nine, which became eighteen when played to the end and back. This became the standard for a round of golf.

The game became more popular with the invention of and proliferation of the train. Once people could easily travel to distant locations, golf was exported by early enthusiasts and people started traveling to noted courses to play. With the increased popularity came more universally accepted rules and standards. This included parameters on the golf balls and clubs.

When the USGA came into existence in the early twentieth century it standardized not only rules of play, but restrictions on golf ball materials. A rule that still exists dictates that a golf ball, once struck, cannot leave the tee faster than 250 feet per second. This has kept golf balls from being made from super materials which could threaten the historical integrity of the game. The balls can evolve to include softer material for feel or harder for distance, but must adhere to the speed restrictions.

The clubs have evolved too. They were originally merely crafted wooden sticks. But clubs became more sophisticated as people became more competitive. Eventually combinations of metal and wood replaced the simple wooden clubs, which surrendered to all metal ‘woods’ and eventually materials like graphite and titanium became the standard.

When we look at the evolution of the game, we can easily see that modern developments have influenced the game from the train, to ball material technology, to club materials. The game’s popularity has also evolved, with greater access to courses, lessons, scholarships and television viewing. It has grown to have a high profile and all stemming from hitting a rock with a stick.

Enter Pokémon Go(lf)

With all of the innovation and development of the game, the question becomes what’s next?

 Like email is a modern, digital letter, Pokémon Go is a modern, digital game of golf. Although Pokémon Go is not a direct result of golf, like perhaps croquet, it is the butterfly equivalent to the caterpillar. Pokémon Go is a game where players walk around, socialize and then brag about their accomplishments along their stroll. These are the essential components of the game of golf. Much more important than the equipment or course is the idea of a sporting walk outside.

I came to this conclusion thinking about how much vitriol there is on social media about the game. It seems some people are comfortable suggesting they are superior because they don’t play the game. But when we see it through the lense of a natural evolution of human culture and sport, the game becomes more relatable.

This modern, digital game has become important and not just because it is the most popular app on the Internet now, surpassing social media for online engagement. It’s important, because like golf, the game requires movement. Until Pokémon Go, most video games were played sedentarily, at home, during a commute, or on a couch. Their seduction has been so strong that those who grew up in the digital world often eschewed sports and outdoor activities for the thrills of catching digital monsters. But this game is an augmented reality, meaning that players must trade in their monitors and television screens for landscapes.

Once their game controllers are swapped for an app on their mobile phones, gamers go out into the world to catch digital monsters. The increased activity levels have already shown that Pokémon Go has helped players with depression, because with Pokémon Go the same kids who grew up playing video games have begun to embrace the outdoors. So much so that the National Parks Service issued a video encouraging players to enjoy the national parks, but look up once in a while and enjoy the scenery. And it is widely accepted that fresh air and outdoor activities and physical health improve mental health.

The game is new, and so far there have been some issues. For example, because of the connected and interactive nature of the game, we are putting a lot of data into the world about our activities. And data security and cyber breaches are growing concerns, especially with your location being part of the data available through the game. Although data security and our privacy are important concerns in today’s digital world, the security issues with Pokémon Go are new. Players have been lured, using in-game purchased lures, to areas where they were mugged. There have been many reports of accidents and conflicts as a result of playing the game. But this is the same as with anything. New activities require a learning curve to develop the wisdom to not engage foolishly.

There are a lot of critics on social media dismissing Pokémon Go as silly. But there are real benefits for people playing the game. It’s active. It gets people outside. It’s social. It’s fun.  And when we can see it as an extension of one of the world’s most popular sports, golf, it becomes more relatable.

After all, when early players went chasing a ball around the countryside with a stick, they probably looked pretty foolish too.


This guest post was written by Jerry Mooney.