Campus Life a misti summer

Pokémon and robots

Catching them all in Tokyo

7867 30 clpiece
Pepper, a humanoid robot that can be programmed to mimic someone playing Pokemon Go.
Meredith Benson

After over a month of working at Yoshimoto Robotics in the heart of the great metropolis of Tokyo, my life had fallen into a routine. Every day I became one with the system as I maneuvered my way onto the train like a practiced expert, sliding in next to the salarymen on their way to the office.

My work was far from mundane as I programmed Pepper, a humanoid robot designed to interact with everyday people, to entertain others by playing games and responding to human touch. However, every day was roughly the same: wake up, ride the train, work, ride the train home, repeat. Everything changed when Pokémon Go took Japan by storm.

The morning of the great change began as any other. My alarm rang at 8:30 a.m., and I rolled over to turn off the obnoxious beeping before my five roommates could complain. While unlocking my phone, I was suddenly bombarded with dozens of messages from excited friends: after two long weeks of waiting, finally Pokémon Go had come to the motherland. The augmented reality of the smartphone game brought the Pokémon of my childhood to life as I traveled around the city to catch them all. Each time my phone buzzed, my excitement grew in anticipation of meeting a new Pokémon.

Later, when I ascended from the underground passage that funnels office workers from the train station to various buildings into the skyscraper that housed my small office, everything appeared to be normal. I walked over to the reception desk and received a temporary badge just like every other day of the summer. As soon as I stepped into my office, however, I was hounded by several coworkers with “Did you hear? Pokémon Go came out!”

My long commute to work became a dynamic adventure full of excitement, apprehension, and celebration over caught Pokémon. I enjoyed the game when I could, fully expecting to have to put my phone aside at any moment and pause my journey to becoming a Pokémon Master until the end of the workday.

Overnight my office had also changed from a quiet, peaceful work space to a lively, dynamic playground. It was like a dam had burst and a flood of new social interaction and excitement washed over the office. Coworkers I had only spoken a few greetings to suddenly started to approach me and initiate conversation. I was suddenly in the “in crowd” with my extensive Pokémon knowledge gained from over ten years of experience. Every time a new Pokémon appeared, the whole office came alive as everyone scrambled to find their phones. We would compare differences between the English and Japanese names of Pokémon and discuss the best areas of Tokyo to find rare ones.

In the wake of the takeover, my company jumped on the wave of change that Pokémon Go brought to the world. In the following days, I was introduced to new ways of programming Pepper to move like a human and make its reactions more lifelike. As a training exercise, I carefully adjusted each intermediate movement so that Pepper could act out playing Pokémon Go. Throughout the day I would hear Pepper spout out words in many different languages from around the room. Prior to the big release, I would hear the occasional “howdy” or “konichiwa,” but after the app came out, it was more common to hear “Pokémon Go!”

In the weeks following, the excitement of new Pokémon spiced up my workday. Coworkers would come over to check my level and see what new Pokémon I had caught. I was no longer the wallflower quietly completing my work one task at a time. I was finally part of the team, an active member of a community that could communicate through the challenging language barrier with the universal language for our generation: Pokémon.

The MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI) program is MIT’s flagship international education program. If you can see yourself joining a team of BMW engineers in Munich, teaching technology entrepreneurship in South Africa, testing solar panels in Israel, or tackling a research problem at the Curie Institute in Paris, then you’re ready to join MISTI. Learn more at