In a world where innocents are mowed down while dancing, and black fathers and sons are senselessly murdered by peace officers, and peace officers are senselessly murdered by military veterans, and voters roiling with toxic resentments threaten to put a hollow shell of a human in charge of the most powerful nation on Earth — well, in that world, sometimes the only thing that makes sense is to wander the streets for hours in search of imaginary cartoon animals.
At least, that’s why I began playing Pokémon Go with my son Dash last week: to escape the oppressive burden of reality by diving into the sanctuary of my cell-phone screen and hunting harmless pixel beasties. Plus, Dash told me one of the goals of Pokémon is to help your characters “evolve” — which sounds so civilized and promising.
The summer’s hit smartphone game was downloaded more times in its first week than any other app in history and already has more users than Twitter. The game essentially deposits Pokémon characters throughout the real world. When you get near them, the creatures show up on your phone and you “capture” them by swiping your finger across the screen to fire balls at them.
That’s. Pretty much. It. And yet, the world is obsessed with this game.
“I collected the cards and watched the TV shows as a kid,” says Hannah Scott, 26. “Fast-forward 15 years, and my dream world has come true. They’re all around us! You never know which one will appear. Venture into another neighborhood, and it’s all new types! It’s like a citywide Easter-egg hunt.”
My friend Jesse Alexander, 49, likes the augmented-reality factor — how Pokémon show up in the real world at mundane locations like the alley, Starbucks, and beside his dogs. “It’s crazy how everywhere I go, I’m talking to strangers who are playing the game,” he says. “And we’re all connecting on something we have in common: instant social currency.”
Other friends love that their kids are out exploring their neighborhoods; one discovered a historic building, while another met a neighbor, and they’re now fast friends.
“It’s a win-win-win for me,” Dash, 10, tells me as he pries my iPhone out of my hand for another go at Go. “I walk the dog, I get my exercise, and I get to play a fun game. It’s an exhilarating thrill when I find a Pokémon.”
So we go downtown to try it out together. Dash helps me customize my avatar while his brother, Stone, 17, assigns me a nickname: Biiig Poopy. Dash’s is Exploding Balls. Welcome to my world.
I confess to being more enchanted by the window-shopping than the constellations of pulsing Pokémon critters lighting up my phone screen as we stroll. Not so for the surprisingly frequent clusters of teens and twenty-somethings shuffling past us, eyes glued to their screens, fingers swiping, swiping: “Ooh, I finally got a raspberry!” one girl says.
Dash is in Pokémecca as he navigates through the on-screen version of our world, carelessly stepping off very-real curbs and even completely losing the rest of our flesh-and-blood family for several disorienting minutes.
“I just caught the best Pokémon I’ve ever seen!” he says when we find him (and five other times that evening). “Mom, look, it’s beautiful. It’s a flaming pony.”
But Stone is having none of it: “This game is just about acquiring things. It’s so … American. You just keep trying to get more.” And later: “It’s the wrong message to be teaching people. It’s mass enslavement of small animals!”
“No, it isn’t,” Dash insists. “You just catch these wild animals because you want to — oh, my gosh. I just realized how bad this is. You catch them because you want to … make them fight.”
Wait, copious consumption, the end of freedom as we know it, and fighting as entertainment? Perhaps this reality isn’t so augmented after all. And damn it if evolution ain’t that easy.
Starshine Roshell is the author of Broad Assumptions.