Thursday, July 14, 2016


I am a 34 year old adult and I play Pokemon
It occurred to me Tuesday night as my boyfriend and I -- along with a group of 18 or 19 year old boys on skateboards and bikes--chased a Koffing through the parking lot of an assisted living facility, that this whole Pokemon GO thing was rather odd.  As I threw digital balls at a grinning purple smoke bomb which appeared to hover in front of a stucco wall in a handicapped parking spot, I knew that this was not the way I was typically engaged at 9:30 at night, but that I rather liked it quite a bit.  After we walked back to the park at the end of the street, a major meeting place in the area for other players (about 25-30 people were out that particular evening), I looked around at the faces of my erstwhile compatriots: teens, 20-somethings, a few 30-somethings like me, a handful of children who should
The aforementioned Koffing, seen here
extruding some kind of noxious gas
probably have been in bed, an older couple in their 50s who may have been supervising the children or
just hunting on their own.  Here we all were at 9:30pm standing in a park, chasing after digital phantoms, helping each other, walking our neighborhood, a neighborhood we may have never walked before.  Why were we here?  Why were we all here?  What about this particular game, this time and place, created this moment?  
Is it nostalgia?  Certainly this is a factor.  From Jurassic World, Star Wars, and Ghostbusters in the theaters to the fashions on the rack and a Clinton in the news it definitely appears that the old is new again.  But does this explain the phenomenon entirely?  I was a little old for Pokemon when it came around the first time back in the mid 90s.  A teen at the time, it seemed a thing for children.  My brother on the other hand, 8 years my junior, was the prime age for all things Pokemon.  Because of him I watched the show, the movies, knew the names of the Pokemon far better than any of my peers. But Pokemon was never really my "thing," I never considered myself to be a Pokemon fan. Besides I didn't even know how to play the actual game.   My brother, perhaps uninterested in this facet of play, or perhaps wary of losing any of his precious cards, very rarely played with his friends, and so I never really saw a game in action.  Instead his cards were held in plastic sheets inside a binder which he lovingly flipped through at every opportunity.  For him the joy was in the collecting; not for the supposed monetary value of the cards like my mother--she spent hundreds on what she viewed was a potential investment--but rather the simple pleasure of spotting the glimmer of a “holographic” card beneath a torn blue card wrapper, the excitement of the new.  Gotta catch ‘em all.  Catch them.  The catching was key.  The play?  Well the play was secondary.  He didn’t play the Game Boy games, in fact the only Pokemon
game we owned was Pokemon Snap for N64.  Pokemon Snap was an odd little game.  The entire gameplay consisted of trying to take pictures of various Pokemon, in the silliest poses possible ideally.  It is funny that this was the only Pokemon game with which I had any experience then because the collecting and photographing various Pokemon is what enticed me to play Pokemon GO in the first place.  Here was a game that had very few rules, no complex game mechanics, special moves or abilities to remember.  It was simply about walking around and taking pictures of Pokemon and adding them to your collection.  Who knew that an 18 year old N64 game would be so prescient?

So Pokemon GO is easy.  That may be why so many people play it.  Or if not easy, fairly simple to understand.   There are players that are higher leveled and players that lower leveled, but truly this has more to do with how much time you have to invest in walking around collecting Pokemon and money to spend on items than it does actual skill in gameplay.  Anybody can join a gym, anybody can be a gym leader with a powerful enough Pokemon.  The game is very democratic that way.  So perhaps it was the democracy, the ease, the simplicity of the game that has drawn so many people to it.  And yet, there are many simple iphone games on the app store that could have attracted our attention.  Why this?  Why now?
We have had a rough couple of months, a rough couple of years.  Between the ongoing political conflicts, terror attacks, celebrity deaths, instances of police brutality, sexism, racism, transphobia, that permeate our culture we have become perpetually bombarded by negativity.  This isn’t a bad thing, per se.  Police brutality has always gone on, sexism has always existed in various industries, our social media culture just makes these things more prevalent and knowable. Knowing things is good, knowledge is empowering and necessary for us to grow as a society. But the knowledge, the weight, the fear and anger and pain can be overwhelming.  Perhaps Pokemon GO is so popular because all of us, our entire nation, just needed a collective break.  We just needed something silly and dumb that simultaneously reminded us of our pasts and utilized newer technologies.  We needed a rest.

What we also needed was community.  According to some reports somewhere in the neighborhood of 21 million people in the US play Pokemon GO.  That’s more than people who watched the premiere of Game of Thrones, more than people who watched the finale of Dancing with the Stars.  Pokemon GO has more daily users than Twitter, a site that has been around for years.  It has become a phenomenon.  What it has also done is build a community.  Pokemon Go requires you to go outside, it forces you to engage in the real world, it forces you to walk if you want to hatch those eggs, it forces you to go to different places to acquire different kinds of Pokemon.  It is, by its very nature and game play, a more social game than, say, CandyCrush, a game it toppled in downloads.  On top of this, is the added benefit that while you can play Pokemon GO on your own, and many people do, you can also play together.  There are spots where each night lures are dropped by some friendly player and spontaneous crowds are drawn.  There are people who walk the same paths every day, or venture out in their communities searching for new and different places to find things and are joined by others.  Even if you go out on a walk by yourself you are guaranteed to spot at least a handful of other people playing the game you might give a friendly smile or nod to or point in the direction of something new.

In Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone he examines the changing social landscape in America, revealing a nation that is more disconnected from each other than ever, disconnected from community. Things have changed in our society since the book was written over 15 years ago, but there is a degree to which disconnect, social isolation, and lack of community is still prevalent.   Ask an average apartment dweller who their neighbors are and very few will be able to tell you.  There are STILL fewer people active in social groups and clubs than in the 1950s and 60s, as Putnam touched upon in his book.  This is not to say that Pokemon solves these issues, nor am I suggesting that Pokemon is the means by which our society learns to engage with its community, though I will say that putting pokestops at frequent polling places (libraries, churches, community centers, city halls) has most certainly made the public AWARE of these places, though whether this awareness will extend to November’s election remains to be seen.  Whether PokemonGO lasts another year or even another week as a phenomenon, what I do believe is that the fact that it has caught on so virally says a great deal about both our desire to feel a part of something greater and a have means of connection.

Getting outside is also good for us, something I have been told for years but don’t always listen to. There have been stories of people with depression who have found that the fact that PokemonGO forces them to go outside every day has been extremely beneficial to their mood.  I told my boyfriend the other day that there was something about the combination of Pokemon and the 4th of July holiday and my birthday last Saturday that made me feel, for the first time in a very long time, like it was summer vacation.  I felt like a kid.  When was the last time I did something silly like run around a park without having my daughter in tow?   I couldn’t remember.  The last time I remember having this kind of fun was when I was in college and a group of us from the LGBT club went to the St. Louis City Museum, a vast network of climbing structures and slides that is open for all ages.  I have read about other playgrounds for adults in the past, places where grown ups can go on swings and slides, and marveled that there weren’t more places like that near by.  Perhaps Pokemon GO is that for us then, a way for us to play, to have fun that doesn’t feel like exercise or work, that isn’t a chore.  Pokemon has gamified exercise.  Most assuredly I would not have walked the 5K I did last Tuesday evening had I not been so desperate to hatch that newly acquired egg.  Is that all it takes to get me to work out?  Virtual eggs?  No wonder children will do chores for stickers.  A sticker!  Is that all it takes?! All it takes for me to exercise is a digital sticker in the form of a hatched Pokemon?  It seems incomprehensible and yet… and yet.  

Pokemon Go seems to have come out at the perfect time: it is summer, people are restless, angry, bored, sad, out of shape, lacking community, miserable looking at the news.  We long for a past we have left behind, and we crave acknowledgement and recognition, validation of self and a feeling of accomplishment.  It is not simply one thing but all of them together that has sparked such a zeitgeist.  When it goes away, and the “moment” will most assuredly go away before long, we are so very fickle with what is new and popular, I hope people remember that the things that Pokemon has done: brought them outside, introduced them to new people and areas in their community, encouraged them to be more adventurous, given them a sense of relaxation and connectedness, are things that can exist outside the game if we allow them to.  Maybe this is just the first step.  I am reminded every time I go out looking for Pokemon of the episode of the Simpsons “Itchy & Scratchy & Marge.”  In it, Marge decides to clean up the Itchy and Scratchy Show and the children of Springfield, in rejection of the bastardization of their beloved television show, rub their bleary eyes, step out of their homes, and actually start playing.  Sure we Pokemon Go players are still on our phones, still glued to screens even as we enjoy the fresh air, but it is something isn't it. It certainly is something.