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Niantic CEO John Hanke has a reputation for being purposeful with his work in games like Pokémon Go, like getting people to go outside to visit monuments. And so it’s no surprise that, during the pandemic, he wants people to take a walk.

In a blog post, Hanke said that while we’re debating much about the proper response to the pandemic, no one is disputing that walks are good for us. “But the walk, the solo walk, or the stroll with our quarantine partners, that is a pleasure we should indulge,” Hanke said. “Social distancing observed, mask worn if needed, definitely.”

Hanke noted that social scientist Jean-Jacques Rousseau once said, “Never have I thought so much, never have I realized my own existence so much, been so much alive, been so much myself … as in those journeys which I have made alone and afoot. …” Rousseau said that, for him, walking is a means to an elevated existence. It is a mechanism he turned to throughout his life for physical and intellectual escape and inspiration. As spring returns, Hanke said that walking has never been so alluring, though the world isn’t yet ready for our full return to the things that we used to do before.

Of course, Hanke’s company makes games like Pokémon Go and Harry Potter: Wizards Unite that benefit from people walking outside with their smartphones. And those games need people to walk to get used. But Niantic recently did an update that enables people to do better social distancing and stay at home while playing as well. So we could accuse Hanke of a nefarious plot to make a lot more money with his games, but it’s also plausible that he wants to get us off our butts and get some exercise.


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Above: Pokémon Go gets Battle League

Image Credit: Niantic

“My neighborhood is full of walkers,” Hanke wrote. “Young and old, couples, solo urban explorers, families strolling together, involuntary college boomerangs, bored teens, all have rediscovered the joy of a simple walk. They go up to the hills, down to the flats, with a smile and perhaps a friendly shout out to a neighbor or fellow stroller, and always with a wide berth.”

He added, “I am tempted to wax nostalgic about simpler times and wholesome pursuits, before reminding myself of the tens of thousands dead and the threat of many more that has brought this strange calm upon us. This is no time to celebrate. Spring blooms or not, this is a fight. But it’s a strange one, often about self-denial and a shaky calculus about what is going to help and what isn’t. Decisions about socializing are easy —  IRL is out, Zoom is in. Restaurant meals, movie theaters, baseball games, or summer festivals are still a distant dream. Our hardwired craving for fellowship and the frisson of human contact will be dulled but not satiated by hours of strained talking to screens for weeks to come.”

Suggestions about walking haven’t been free of controversy. Even as journalists, medical professionals, and politicians alike have endorsed the concept of a daily dose of outdoor exercise even under quarantine, a moral specter looms and the wrong tweet is likely to lead to an eruption of angst — is that walk truly essential?  Wouldn’t we all be better off if we just stayed inside and maybe binged another show on Netflix?

“I want to offer an emphatic no!” Hanke wrote.

He said that Rosseau walked to stimulate his mind.

“Most of us are inundated with contemporary medical thinking on the benefits of the walk to our physical health, but less well known is the burgeoning body of evidence that the benefit to our mental health may be equally significant,” Hanke wrote. “Put simply, our bodies and minds have evolved over millions of years to put us in motion and to reward that behavior with a chemical cocktail that lets us know we did the right thing. We got the food, collected the firewood, mapped our territory. Done. Good job. Now you get a good night’s sleep.”

He added, “As we shake off the aches of too many weeks with too little motion, and the sun starts to shine, and cities from New York to Milan to Vilnius talk of blocking off streets to make room for people on foot and on bikes, let’s make this our summer of the humble, free, and better-than-ever walk. Rosseau told us ‘to live is not to breathe, but to act.’ For those of us fortunate enough to be able, it’s time to move. We’ve got a long road ahead and a lot of work to do to beat the virus and rebuild lives and economies around the world.”

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