Let's pretend that we are loved beyond belief, that magic conspires on our behalf, and that nothing can ever hurt us without our consent. And if we like this game, we'll play tomorrow as well, and the next day, and the next, and pretty soon, it won't be a game at all, because life, for us, will become those things. Just as it's become what it is today.
Pokémon Go Outside
In what is sure to become one of my most quickly dated entries, I would like to defend Pokémon Go.
I am posting this two months after I joined, after all the initial excitement has died down. Updates (like actually being able to trade with and battle other players or group events to fight legendary Pokémon) may lead to occasional spikes in interest, but the wave has crested and rolled back. I am not invested in the hype reinvigorating.
First, my full disclosure: I cared little about Pokémon prior to downloading the app. The original games had a novel premise for role-playing games, but I never played any. Likewise, I was the wrong age when the cartoon came out and do not think I have ever sat through an episode. Still, the property was a cultural phenomenon and it proved impossible not to know the basics of cock-fights with Japanese monsters kept in tiny balls. I had played Niantic's previous game, Ingress, because it came preloaded on my phone and I read an article praising it. Unlike some players in my town, who defended their portals with the vehemence most reserve for social media come election season, I was not a zealot. At best, Ingress showed me the potential of GPS based games but frustrated me with its flaws. Overall, though I have witnessed some genuinely affecting moments in video games, they require a level of focus and sedentariness I can devote only to books anymore. (I'm not boasting; I wish I could have experienced Bioshock: Infinite from the driver's seat. Being less interested in specific media doesn't enrich one's life.) A GPS game allows me to walk around and ideally listen to something else without seeking out geocaches. So far, Niantic's games have forced me to abandon any plotline or characters beyond managing resources, but my brain doesn't nag me that I am wasting my time. I played Pokémon Go initially because it excited Amber, who showed only passing interest in Ingress, and I am eager for any activity we can do together. I do not think I would play it alone.
The first weeks of the game transformed my town. Each evening, people filled the sidewalks. Packs of teenagers introduced themselves to us to advise us where they saw a Charmander. A man screeched his car to a halt to give us his business card, identifying him as a local government official, in hopes we might band together to claim gyms. The factions were unfailingly friendly to one another, since the real goal remained tracking Pokémon and not conquering gyms. Never before had I felt so a part of my town, no matter how many chocolate or apple festivals the chamber of commerce planned.
Amber and I have always taken walks and hikes together, but Pokémon Go gave these a new direction and purpose. Hand in hand, we would take strolls most sunsets. We always felt safer and fonder for the packs of people on the streets, their faces aglow, wandering around with us and occasionally shouting a nonsense name and running away.
When we went to Maine, Pokémon Go urged us to explore when we might have otherwise vegged out between adventures. The first night in Portland, Amber led us down a near pitch-black street in search of a Pokestop. As we pushed past someone's back porch on a barely trod path, certain we would find a Magikarp or a Starmie ahead, our way lit only by our phones and the stars, I felt a thrill. It felt like the opening scene of a horror movie, sitting on a bridge close to midnight, but I couldn't deny it was more memorable than hiding in a ratty motel.
Portland proper was rife with objectives that guided our exploration. The Pokestops and gyms are derived from Ingress portals - why reinvent the wheel with that database? - most of which were placed at areas of cultural import. As we swiped blue stops purple, the game goaded us to see massive graffiti monkeys on walls or creepy statues down alleys and directed us to every museum and concert venue within walking distance.
In Freeport, we stumbled on a twenty-something playing, who noticed us in relief. My guess is that most of the players are kids and teens, so it is reassuring to encounter similarly occupied adults.
"What team are you?" I asked.
She bit her lip, mumbling, "Instinct."
"We're Valor, but don't worry. We're friendly."
This is perhaps my favorite side effect of the game: it gives people a good opening for conversation that does not come off as an attempt at flirtation. I grant that the connections are rarely long, but one doesn't need much to feel a part of a community in a strange city.
This scene repeated in Rockland when, leaving the Farnsworth Museum, a hipster guy nearly pulled us along with him, though alleys and across streets, because he had a hot tip that there was a Marowak. We didn't have our phones out, so my only guess is that he watched us take down the museum's gym half an hour prior between appreciating Wyeths. Otherwise, he just assumed we must be players or we could not have followed a stranger on this goose chase. The Pokémon was gone by the time we got there but, when we ran into the guy at the Lobsterfest days later, he gave an embarrassed wave. If we were not on our way out, I am certain we could have hung out.
Pokémon hunting urged us up paths to stunning vistas (Pokémon seem to like lighthouses) and gave us a focus when we might have otherwise gone back to our hotel. It certainly led to the burning of tens of thousands of calories that might have otherwise remained, though I can admit that hunting has occasionally brought us into proximity of soft serve frozen yogurt.
I am not proselytizing for the game. I have no Ponyta in this race (sorry, Pokémon puns come with the territory of these think-pieces). If you never want to try it, that is fine and will not affect me either way. However, I find enough value in it to remain playing through the updates that strip away my ability to track the little creatures. Furthermore, I will persist in giving the side-eye to anyone snottily proclaiming how no one should play the game. If given the choice between people getting out of their house to make the world a little weirder and anhedonic scolds decrying kids these days, I am going to throw my lot in with those actually having fun.
Soon in Xenology: Faces.