My phone is out.
I’m stumbling across campus, looking on my screen while an unimaginative avatar also walks across campus. I’ve worked at Lake Forest College since 2001, and today, 15 years later, it’s suddenly become somewhere else—a blazing hot otherworld adjacent to the beginnings of our soon-to-be-constructed new science center.
The sense of scale is difficult to understand. I take a few steps in the wrong direction, re-center the avatar, and try again. I approach a small sculpture outside the Carnegie Building, and receive a few Pokeballs in return for spinning a disc-like representation of the sculpture.
Yep, it’s Pokémon GO, and I’m no sure where I’m going, or whether I’d prefer to stop.
If, like me, you’ve never had much desire to “catch ‘em all,” or even to catch one, there’s a good chance you came of age before 1990. In that case, the phenomenon of Pokemon—small monsters trained to fight each other—may be as unfamiliar to you as the frazzled belly of Tickle Me Elmo or the personalities of each highly individuated Backstreet Boy.
I played for a few minutes, and then I put the phone away. I caught two Pokemon. I’m not sophisticated enough to recall their names or attributes. The next day, I played again for a few minutes, showing the Dean that his office had been infiltrated by a Pokemon. I then inexpertly dispatched the creature in a show of academic and administrative prowess.
Newly aware, I noticed great numbers of people playing the game all around me. I recognized in my few aggregate minutes of playing—and in the many articles about people causing car accidents, getting stabbed, or searching for Pokemon in the Holocaust Museum—that I am unlikely to become a serious enthusiast. I did, though, learn quite a bit from the game. About parenting.
My 9- and 10-year old daughters don’t have their own phones yet (and they won’t for some time), but they do play with mine and my wife’s phones. I thought my quick test runs with Pokémon GO would clarify my feelings about the game in terms of whether I should show the girls, but instead, it just taught me some serious parenting lessons.
So, my daughters, here’s what I know now.
1. Children are creatures: Yep, I already have to spend most of my time trying to find you, training you to do something important (brush your teeth, put down the hammer, etc.), or feeding you. (Do you feed Pokemon? That seems like something this game will make me do.) I already have to care for a number of other people, a cat, and tropical fish. Pokémon GO strikes me as punishment, uncompensated labor, whereas my own hard-to-catch creatures, that’s you my daughters, at least want to hug me, show me magic tricks, and share discoveries about the world.
2. Children need to be tricked to go outside: I’m not going to use this game as an excuse to get you out of the house. For that, I use balls and rollerblades and bicycles and bubbles. These lures doesn’t always work, for the pull of the inside-world screens are strong...but fish didn’t drag their aquariums onto land when evolving out of the oceans. Can we look at phones outdoors, sure? Yet how dour the park will be when the your friends stare, like their exhausted parents, into the black mirror as the sun sets around us.
3. Technology is not the enemy: Ok, you caught me. I admit to glibness above. I’m no Luddite, and I direct a project called Digital Chicago that works with VR and Google Cardboard, smartphones, and 360-degree cameras. I just taught a course on selfies and drones, and my art is based on principles of collage and remix culture.
Still girls, do as I say, not as I do.
4. Pokemon gyms seems to be everywhere, and I don’t want you to be in control of one: Apparently, I need to achieve Level 5 to take my Pokemon to the gym, and I can then attempt to defeat the current Pokemon gym-head so I can install my Pokemon as the top monster. I told a colleague today that since I don’t go to the gym in the real world, it’s hard for me to get behind the virtual concept. Nonetheless, there were three gyms in the small part of campus through which I wandered. We think of the campus as public space for the community, and I am loathe to further enfranchise a sense of individual ownership of these spaces. Same for our parks. Girls, it’s not your park, we have to share it.
5. The map is never the map. It never takes you where you want to go. It’s always a compromise. If the earth is a globe and you smash it flat to make a map—good luck getting an accurate representation. This has political and symbolic implications, but it’s also a reminder that all the planning and surveying you do, my daughters, is sometimes just another way of getting you to walk where someone else wants you to go. Yes, you can make friends with others who want to capture the creatures with you (the people in the Pokemon Go trailer look plain orgasmic), and those people may well be your real friends. But please remember, you’re going to have to push back—hard—against the paths that others try to lead you down. You definitely don’t want to walk off a cliff.
Put another way, my girls, the world is going to get more virtual as we become further dependent on the supercomputers in our pockets that are more powerful than those that helped NASA land us on the moon, and we’re probably approaching the great singularity that will fundamentally reshape what it is to be human, and we can’t possibly predict what’s to come.
And, I’m probably being overprotective of your childhoods and inconsistent in the thing I expose you to, but I do know this: it’s not the screen that’s the problem, it’s the way we look at it, the length of time we stare into the depths, and the ways are seduced into the repetitive behaviors.
You can have your screens, sure, sometimes, but what type of world am I teaching you to live if I help you to now spend your summer catching, collecting, and fighting with others? That’s a sure recipe, at least symbolically, for some unhealthy adult relationships.
It’s an augmented reality I hope you are never forced walk through. So for now, at least while you’re still young, we’ll need to let the Pokemon live free.