I’ve never played a Pokémon game. I don’t say this with any sort of value judgment or as an elitist point, I’m just trying to give you a baseline for what I’m about to talk about. I never played the card game, I’ve never owned any handheld unit like a Game Boy or any of its many successors, and I haven’t had a console since the Sega Genesis. I’ve watched a few episodes of one of the cartoons (the first one, I think, from the 90s, which was on before or after something I wanted to watch and I was too lazy to change the channel), and I saw the first movie in the theater because a buddy of mine wanted to see it and paid for a bunch of us to go with him so he didn’t have to go alone. I don’t remember much about the film, but I remember being glad I hadn’t paid for it.
I say all this so that you understand, I didn’t have any real interest when they released Pokémon Go a few days ago. I thought the furor was mildly amusing, cracked a few jokes about it, I figured it would die down. But people kept talking, and some of the things I was hearing were intriguing. And then — and this was my downfall — my wife and brother both started playing the game, and there’s no way I was going to let either of them show me up.
I assume by now most of you reading this, like 95 percent of the civilized world, have played the game and don’t need me to explain what it is. But let me explain why, in just a few days, I think it’s become so damned addictive. I know it’s not a groundbreaking concept — the Augmented Reality Game has been around in one form or another for quite some time, and I’m told that Pokémon Go itself is built on the framework of an earlier game called Ingress. The popularity of the preexisting franchise, however, gave this one a major boost and put it in the hands not only of those who already loved the previous Pokémon games, but also people like myself, who have never really dealt with them before.
Much has been said about the fact that the game forces people to go out into the real world and hunt for Pokémon — in essence, this is a mobile phone game that is tricking people into exercising. Let’s face it, guys, exercising sucks. I totally respect anyone who has the willpower to go out there and do it every day, but I look at them a little sideways when they talk about how great it feels. I exercise–
(Hold on a second, there’s a Bulbasaur in here.)
As I was saying, I don’t exercise nearly as much as I should, but when I do it, I do it because I know I have to, not because it feels good to go outside in 95-degree heat, walk a mile or two, and then walk home for no apparent reason. This game, this ridiculous game, is giving people a reason to do it. Granted, one would think that improved health would be motivation enough, but clearly it isn’t, not for a hell of a lot of us.
There’s also a social aspect. Since there are people trying to capture the same Pokémon as everyone else, you’re going out and interacting with people. Naturally, there’s a degree of stranger danger to be wary of, there have already been a few news reports about people using the game to lure people and rob them, and for God’s sake, did you hear about that poor girl who was hunting water Pokémon down by the creek and found a dead body? But if you don’t go chasing your Pokémon down any dark alleys, you’ll probably be okay. I’ve seen people playing this game at the mall, walking down the sidewalk… two nights ago Erin and I were at a bar for dinner and to watch the Pirates game, and I heard a girl at a table behind us shout, “He’s just a little bat! He’s just flying there! Don’t pick on him!” (The bar was infested with Zubats, I should have mentioned that.)
And oddly enough — here’s one I haven’t heard too many people discuss — there’s a bizarre community aspect to the game as well. I have no idea how the developers of this game decided on the spots for the Pokéstations and Gyms, but they all correspond to real-world landmarks: buildings, churches, police stations, monuments, works of art. In the Monroeville Mall outside of Pittsburgh, there are at least four separate Pokéstations corresponding to murals or sculptures, some of which I’ve never noticed before even though I’ve been to that mall a dozen times since I met my Monroeville-native wife. We’re in Pittsburgh right now visiting family, but I’m actually really anxious to get back home to the New Orleans area to see what spots were chosen down there. This game is making people learn about their community as well.
I’m not claiming I’ll ever be a master at this game. I still don’t know exactly what the hell I’m supposed to be doing, other than catching the Pokémon and getting more balls to enable myself to catch still more Pokémon. When I reached Level Five I wound up on the Red Team, and I have no idea what that means except that my friend Kenny joined the Yellow Team, so I presumably have to beat him with a sack full of rusty doorknobs the next time I see him.
(Wait, there’s one on my laptop…)
But somehow, this game landed at exactly the right time. Turning on the news for the past few weeks has been nothing but misery: violence and hatred and the Zika virus and for some reason Fox is still trying to make a Gambit movie… everything horrible about the world has been shoved into our faces. And that’s just globally. Personally, we’ve had family issues we’ve been trying to get resolved (no, I won’t be more specific, but good thoughts and prayers are appreciated) that have put my wife under serious stress over the last few days. This preposterous and unlikely game has been a rare bright spot, something fun and silly that you can use to take your mind off things for a moment no matter where you are.
It’s not perfect, I know. The first time I see some jerk trying to catch Pokémon in a movie theater I’ll want to shove a Jigglypuff up his ass, and I already am preparing a script for what I’m going to say when school starts again and I have students trying to chase around a Squirtle in my classroom. But for now, when it really matters quite a bit…
…it’s a nice, necessary diversion.
I know a few people — friends, even — who have a sincere hatred for the whole Pokémon concept and will likely mock me for even downloading it. I don’t care. I’m into plenty enough nerdy things that I have no right to pick on someone for this game even if I wasn’t playing it. But as a player, I’m enjoying myself, and in a better way than so many other games.
Also, Team Valor for life.