Pokémon Sleep helped me catch ’em all — all the z’s, that is

For a long time, the only thing I knew about Pokémon was the shitposter theory that a clown named Mr. Mime was Ash Ketchum’s secret father. I’d never played any of the games or watched the cartoons; it is occasionally hard to explain how I totally missed the Pokémon boat as an elder millennial who had little interest in picking any of it up. But a few months ago, The Pokémon Company finally got me with Pokémon Sleep

As a lifelong insomniac who had recently regressed to upsetting levels of sleep dysfunction, this was a chance to finally dive into what seemed like a cute, low-stakes, low-barrier-to-entry app that could keep me company at four in the morning. The concept is simple: Pokémon Sleep is framed as a “sleep research study,” where, each week, the player feeds and studies a Snorlax, whose “drowsy power” attracts other pokémon when it sleeps. As the Snorlax grows, it attracts more pokémon, which can be caught as indentured research assistants to collect food for the Snorlax. No one sleeps until the player sleeps. As the day goes on, the helpers get tired — their smiles start to fade, and their little eyelids droop while they wait for the sweet release of unconsciousness.

The only way to play is to sleep; if you want to be good, you need to sleep well, but if you want to be great, you need to sleep consistently well.

Today, a Snorlax is the first thing that greets me in the morning and the last thing I see at night. I’ve been in bed by 2AM for the last 67 nights and had at least seven hours of sleep every single time. Out of these past weeks, I’ve had what Pokémon Sleep deems “S-tier” sleep every week except two, which merely earned an “A” rank. Three times a day, I briefly open the app to cook meals for my Snorlax and distribute candy to my tireless little helpers. I can even recognize a bunch of them now and some of their evolution patterns; the other day, I eagerly paid for extra-expensive gas to qualify for a limited-edition Snorlax car dehumidifier, and just today, I bought a Slowpoke-shaped wrist rest. Is this healthy? I don’t know. Is relying on Pokémon to maintain a manageable sleep cycle a good thing? 

Image: The Pokémon Company

To call Pokémon Sleep a game is marketing. It’s essentially a gamified sleep tracker that weaponizes cuteness and the sort of idle, casual pet care psychology that took off when Bandai introduced the Tamagotchi in 1996. It’s free to play, but the microtransactions are there if you want them; if you’re determined to treat your Snorlax like a hardcore gamer’s science experiment, there is all sorts of diehard min-max strategizing going on in the Pokémon Sleep Reddit that flies in the face of the whole chill sleepytime vibe. It also seems to be the most polarizing Pokémon installment — people either love it or hate it, which seems to depend on whether they actually need “help” in the sleep department. 

From 2008 to 2014, I needed a lot of help sleeping via heavy medication and therapy (and unofficially, and very inadvisably, alcohol), which helped me maintain the semblance of a “normal” day / night cycle. After I went off my prescription — a weird and wobbly transition into a world without pharmaceutical training wheels — I slowly gained confidence in my internal body clock. For several years, I enjoyed regular unmedicated sleep at mostly appropriate times, and it was great. Then came the pandemic, which sent me hurtling back in time to my oldest and worst friends: insomnia, polyphasic sleep, and the general sense of feeling like shit.

A Snorlax is the first thing that greets me in the morning and the last thing I see at night

When I told my psychiatrist about Pokémon Sleep, she was visibly intrigued, especially given my sleep history and tendency toward addiction. I asked if she thought the app was unethical for someone like me, and without hesitation, she said, “No.” If we operate on the premise that we’re all glued to our phones as adults, she explained, that there’s no real long-term solution to keep people off their phones, something like Pokémon Sleep might actually be doing something productive for people like me. I brought this same question to Stijn Massar, a neuroscientist and research assistant professor at the Sleep & Cognition Laboratory at the National University of Singapore. “I think I would agree with that,” Massar said. “For most adults, staying off phones is a very difficult thing.” I didn’t anticipate such easy endorsement from health and science professionals, but I eagerly accepted it as a sort of quasi-fatalist validation of my new routine. 

Pokémon Sleep, though, is supposedly an app for users ages four and up, which seems like a perplexingly young age for a sleep tracker. “Of course you do want kids to engage in healthy behaviors, but does it necessarily have to be through a game… or an app, and what are the side effects of that?” asked Massar, who has young children of his own. For several days before our call, he’d tried to use the app himself, but it had refused to log his sleep. I explained that the app doesn’t necessarily need to be open all day — the more you “work” your food-gathering helpers, for instance, the more tired they get.

“It’s not a typical game in terms of it not being maximized for engagement… there’s a limit to it and there’s a very clear objective of getting habits in sync with what’s supposed to be healthy, so that part is good,” he said thoughtfully. “Like as parents we do everything within our normal capacity to get them to do healthy sleep. Adding phone games to the mix, would that pose any other problems? This of course is something that’s very hard to answer.”

“For most adults, staying off phones is a very difficult thing.”

All the Pokémon Sleep-ing parents I know are unanimously against the idea of their kids using it; sleep trackers are primarily an adult-focused technology, which isn’t entirely surprising given that our ability to sleep often declines with age. Edmond Tran, editor at GamesHub Australia, is the only other games journalist I know who has faithfully stuck with Pokémon Sleep since launch. Before that, he had subpar sleep patterns and often used his kid-free hours at night for “me time” that, more often than not, involved video games. “I actually went to bed at earlier hours for the first week or so because I was excited to try [Pokémon Sleep], which went a long way in building a good routine,” he said, though his discipline has since faltered. “There is still a routine there — in bed by midnight most nights, and I haven’t missed a night since.”

Before trying Pokémon Sleep, Rachel Tan, a full-time corporate performance manager and mother of twin babies, had occasional bouts of insomnia and struggled to sleep a few times a week. “I realized I unconsciously tried to meet the preset sleep time and that in turn made me put my phone down earlier than I usually would have,” she said, though her interest started to wane about a month in because her sleep style (she hardly gets any “slumbering” sleep, the deepest zone of sleep in the app) has remained largely the same. “It’s pretty much a Tamagotchi and sleep app slapped into one… I think if you’re a pretty consistent sleeper, there’s very little value in Pokémon Sleep.”

There is a lot of value, though, for enterprising companies to create a sense of need for sleep trackers, especially when the global sleep economy — an ecosystem of sleep-related products and services and apps often framed as health-adjacent tools for self-empowerment — is supposed to be worth $585 billion next year. Pokémon Sleep occupies an awkward but fascinating spot between game and app; most people hear “Pokémon” and immediately think of a game, when the reality is that this is just a very cleverly designed sleep tracker with world-famous characters driving all of its features. “I talk to very few people about Pokémon Sleep because most of the people I socialize with have little interest in games, and the one time I did bring it up they looked at me like I was crazy,” says Tran. “But I talked about it as a gamified sleep tracker more than a game or app, because really the primary hook for me is the behavioral encouragement and data collecting aspect of it.” 

Image: The Pokémon Company

There is one contingent of parents that seems to find value in Pokémon Sleep: parents of adolescent kids who refuse to give up their smartphones at night. After my psychiatrist told me she’d tried playing Pokémon Sleep (she found it annoying), she explained that the app had become a successful tool for parents who routinely got into fights with their 12-year-olds over phone use. “We’ve closed the book on whether kids need phones,” she said, matter of factly explaining that most if not all Singaporean schools use social media and messaging apps like WhatsApp to distribute important information to students. Not having a smartphone isn’t about FOMO but, rather, about gaining information about tests and homework and class announcements; daily smartphone use among children is so common in Singapore that there’s even a government campaign called My First Device that frames smartphones as a vital life milestone.

In my shrink’s experience, this new norm has meant a dramatic uptick in family screaming matches over smartphones after dark and even cases of children silently belly-crawling into their parents’ room at night to retrieve their confiscated phones. Pokémon Sleep has become a sort of weird compromise where bedtimes are transparent and kids are disincentivized from playing Fortnite all night in case it impacts their potential pokémon catches.

I’m undeniably here for the behavioral encouragement, not least because it involves adorable little creatures and the perennial make-believe joy of feeding and caring for a pet. My friend Ruby, a recent Pokémon Sleep convert, is admittedly only playing it for the cute factor. “I don’t really need it to sleep, though I do like that it keeps me from staying up too late,” she said, admitting that she’ll probably drop off when her boyfriend comes to visit. Still, she’s developed a conscious bedtime routine and admits she was much less disciplined before the app. “My bedtime is set to 12:05AM and my phone is firmly put away by 12:20AM every night unless I’ve been out,” she said. “I was just telling my brother that I’ll probably never play another Pokémon console game because I cannot dedicate that kind of time to leveling pokémon… [in Pokemon Sleep] they level up while I’m sleeping.”

Here lies the core of Pokémon Sleep’s warm, cozy allure: it’s not quite a conventional idle game, which is the sort of game that chugs along with or without player interaction. There are thousands of absolutely brain-dead idle games out there that are the equivalent of “put something on TV in the background while you’re busy,” and the only one I really liked was Neko Atsume, a cat-collecting idler that only really “worked” if you actually let time pass. Pokémon Sleep is a game whose famous “gotta catch ’em all” feature only kicks in when you’re literally asleep. Considering that many early idle games were reportedly made as parodies of MMORPG rewards and hyper-capitalistic progress systems, Pokémon Sleep represents a new breed in this line of experimentation in an age of unprecedented technological invasiveness.

Sleep — the thing that many of us consider a sacred sanctuary of rest and regeneration, is also an economic concern in a capitalist framework

Sleep, the final frontier of personal space in an ever-shrinking world of constant surveillance and endless metrics, no longer belongs only to me — it also belongs to my pokémon. In the eyes of The Pokémon Company, I am now a dedicated, productive sleeper, which might feel like an incredibly cynical dig, but it is worth noting that the Sleep & Cognition Laboratory’s website, while listing the impact of sleep deprivation on our cognition and health, is also explicitly clear that poor sleep “imposes a 2-4% drag on the GDP of developed nations.” Yes, sleep — the thing that many of us consider a sacred sanctuary of rest and regeneration, is also an economic concern in a capitalist framework.

It’s comically dystopian, but once megacorps figure out how to make us materially productive in sleep, we’ll experience a planetwide seismic tremor from every classic science fiction writer rolling over in their graves. But if there were any brand that could accomplish the tricky task of making the concept of sleep-to-play a viable, desirable product — one that’s still so novel and silly that it can’t possibly be anything but a benign, niche bit of fun in its current incarnation — it’s going to be one of the most identifiable brands in the world, responsible for putting multiple generations of kids on collectibles. 

Pokémon Sleep, for all the structure and behavioral modification it has brought to an otherwise difficult process for me, is a wildly imperfect tool. Like all sleep trackers, its appeal boils down to two questions: do sleep trackers help, and do sleep trackers work? The gold standard of sleep tracking, according to Massar, involves polysomnography — imagine a science fiction film scene where someone is plastered with little nodes and sensors amid a tangle of monitors and recording equipment. Sleep tracking apps aren’t as accurate, but their widespread accessibility means that anyone with a smartphone can have a general idea of what happens after dark.

Image: The Pokémon Company

There is no objectively perfect amount of sleep, and the pervasiveness of smartphones and smartwatches has also created a phenomenon of people who tend to fixate on their own body metrics. “Some people take it more seriously than others, some people respond more negatively than others,” said Massar, who believes people should simply see sleep trackers as a measurement instrument, like a weighing scale. “Sleep trackers… won’t necessarily provide a way to improve your sleep, but if you have other ways to improve sleep habits, using sleep trackers to track where you are and help you gain some insights… it’s not necessary to obsess over 30 minutes more of a deep sleep period or 30 minutes more of an REM sleep period.”

Massar also believes sleep simply isn’t as easily gamifiable as other behaviors, pointing to Singapore’s public fitness campaigns like the National Steps Challenge. The excitement of catching pokémon through gameplay adds a new dimension to the act of sleep that can help reframe a person’s experience around sleep. Personally, when it’s time to feed my Snorlax or go to bed, it almost feels like I’m on autopilot now, which is probably for the best because if I really stopped to think about the role of Pokémon Sleep in my ability to keep a sane and productive schedule, my neurosis would keep me up at night.

If this is how I regain control of my circadian cycle, through Psyducks and Chikoritas and an inexplicable number of Rattatas, then so be it

After all, this is my first time collecting and evolving all of these occasionally horrifying little abominations, learning that Moomoo Milk actually comes from Miltank and that the “slowpoke tail” cooking ingredient isn’t a descriptive name for an herb or plant. I have, for better or worse, hitched my sleep health wagon to a frighteningly appealing brand rich in both novelty and nostalgia, which is extremely vexing for someone who hates normalizing technology that listens to your breathing in bed.

But if this is how I regain control of my circadian cycle, through Psyducks and Chikoritas and an inexplicable number of Rattatas, then so be it. My sleep is now indirectly powered by The Pokémon Company, and one day, because the arc of startup-era time bends toward monetization, perhaps this will turn into a wildly problematic springboard for sponsorships. Massar seemed genuinely interested in the fact that I could overcome such an entrenched history of insomnia with, well, pokémon. I could use a generic sleep tracker, but let’s be real — there’s no cutesy appeal there.

Even my 72-year-old mother tried Pokémon Sleep and marveled at the funny little animals for a few days before completely giving up. At least there’s an element of pleasure in caring for these dopey little characters, even if it’s a painfully self-aware pleasure that Pokémon has now become a crutch for my insomnia. And I’m not alone. Ed Tran is still keeping with it, as is Ruby, because it asks for such a low amount of engagement in exchange for a modest feeling of mundane grown-up accomplishment. “I’ll definitely continue to play it regularly,” Tran said. “I don’t even really care about collecting more Pokémon Sleep styles, I just like checking in on my little crew and growing a new Snorlax every week by feeding him terrible meals.”

Like me, Tran, who maintains a casual “transient friendship” with his Snorlax, is more emotionally invested in the “slow and gradual growth” of his pokémon helpers. And like me, he seems to have made peace with the fact that he’s one of a handful of people who actually gets something out of the app.  And while it feels like we’re oddball anomalies in our respective social circles — most people I know don’t need a sleep tracker and would rather use a respectable Fitbit because any sense of childlike wonder got sucked out of them a long time ago — Pokémon Sleep recently celebrated 10 million downloads. It isn’t quite near Pokémon Go’s 160 million download count in its first month, but given Sleep’s very niche appeal, it’s like comparing apples to oranges when, at the end of the day, The Pokémon Company has the last laugh for cornering both the apple and orange market. But Tran simply can’t see Pokémon Sleep as something that his family needs to do, too.

“My kids don’t need much encouragement to get to sleep, so I wouldn’t let them use it if I could help it,” he said. “That said, my children’s exposure to video games is very, very low compared to some of their peers. I don’t want this life for them.”

Source: The Verge

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

DON’T MISS OUT!
Subscribe To Newsletter
Be the first to get latest updates and exclusive content straight to your email inbox.
Stay Updated
Give it a try, you can unsubscribe anytime.
close-link