Pokémon Go has become a quick cultural phenomenon. The numbers speaks for themselves - the game has more users than Tinder, has topped Twitter’s daily users, and people are spending more time playing the game than they are spending on Facebook. The most recent statistics revealed that Pokémon Go has been downloaded more than fifteen million times. There have been several viral news stories about users finding dead bodies, getting in car crashes, getting mugged, falling into a pond, falling from a ledge, and even one man who was caught cheating after his (now ex) girlfriend found out that he had visited his previous girlfriend’s house via the geolocation where he’d caught a Pokémon character.
Though Pokémon originated in the 1990s as collectible trading cards, the magic of this new version isn’t due to the resurgence of a childhood game and our relationship to that nostalgia, nor is it in the thrill of catching these rare Pokémon. The brilliance of this game is in the capacity for users to interact in person. I’m not talking about sitting in your room on a headset arguing with a thirteen year old in Indiana about tactical skills like many video games nowadays, but rather getting outdoors and having an excuse to breathe fresh air and interact with humans. Yes, humans, you know, those two-legged creatures that we seem to continuously ignore, especially if we live in larger cities.
Pokémon Go has granted strangers a socially acceptable pass to interact with other strangers. I live in New York City, a place where any sort of nicety is met with suspicion. Where the auto response to someone saying “hi” is often met with a hesitant glance, or even verbalized, “What do you want?” We all seem to be in high-speed subsistence mode, with our headphones in our ears and screens in front of our faces, completely ignoring one another as we continue on our way towards our various destinations. It’s perplexing that in the Internet age where everybody has so much to say online, we seem to have so little to speak about face to face.
Somehow Pokémon Go has momentarily mended this gap: one of my co-workers was stopped at Madison Square Park by a man playing the game, and he ultimately walked away with her phone number. Another one of my friends was stopped in Prospect Park by a man who pointed her in the direction of the Pokémon she was seeking. There’s a kinship among players, a sort of camaraderie that people, and particularly those in larger cities, have lost in these tumultuous times of gun violence, terrorist attacks, and tense political rivalries. In this era where we feel the most helpless, a virtual game has brought folks together to temporarily remind us of what we already know but have recently forgotten: the only way we’ll get through these trying times is by being kind to one another and helping each other along – even if the first step on that path means pointing one another towards the whereabouts of a Zubat.
The proof of this is in those small interactions on the street, via social media, and larger gatherings in major cities like Sydney, Australia, where 300 residents met at Pokéstops in Peg Paterson Park. In this gloomy alternate universe that has become our reality – waking up to cyclical horrific news about even more unthinkable atrocities – it’s refreshing to watch people find enjoyment in something as carefree as a game and share that joy with each other. Though it may be discouraging (and at times dangerous) to see people attached to their smartphones for yet another app, there’s a glimmer of hope in the interactions that this app is creating in real life. The upsides are that it’s a fun, innocent game and gives people an excuse to interact. The downsides are that the hype of the game may eventually wear off. More problematic is that Pokémon Go has magnified the issue that we are living in a society where there’s demand for a virtual reality game that gives us the excuse to communicate. Why have we created a culture where one must have a pretext to talk to another? Can’t we simply engage in conversation without any expectations for the sheer pleasure of having a dialogue with a stranger?
Last Friday I boarded the D train to Manhattan and witnessed an interaction between an elderly woman in pearls and a younger woman covered in tattoos discussing our current state of affairs in this country. When they each got off of the train at Broadway-Lafayette, the younger woman turned to the elder and said, “thank you so much for being so nice to me. It’s so rare on the subway.” They each strung an arm over the other in a sideways embrace and parted ways as soon as the doors opened. The quiet absence of these unprompted conversations and neglected compassion is as elusive as Arcanine. When did we stop being kind to one another? When did we start looking out only for ourselves? Or more importantly, when did we decide that these concepts are mutually exclusive?
Admittedly, I haven’t downloaded Pokémon Go. I’m not into phone games or video games or app games, but I can appreciate that maybe this particular game has created a middle ground where people can mingle, especially those who have spent so much time on their phones and social media that they’ve forgotten how to start a conversation with an actual, live human being. I appreciate that there’s a revival in families taking walks and looking for Jigglypuffs, or that people are uniting at 11pm in Central Park to catch an Evee as a result of Pokémon Go. Still, there’s a sullenness hovering over the entire concept. Apparently the majority of us need a game in order to take a simple stroll with our families. Apparently the majority of us need a game to begin a conversation with someone in the park.
I’m a firm believer that the only way we’ll get through these times of tragedy is by humanizing and being kind to one another. So while I may not participate in Pokemon Go, I’m still a part of this society and appreciate that a lot of positive exchanges are resulting because of the launch of this viral game. Though I’ve seen non-users roll their eyes in annoyance at this trend (and did myself in the beginning), I do not hate Pokémon Go or its users, for there is enough hate in this world right now. I appreciate the positivity and the unity that has somehow resulted because of a simple app. It has shed more light on the fact that humans are in desperate need of finding a lifeline that links us together and allows us to relate. It’s a statement that we’re craving common decency and commonality. In times like these, when it comes to good vibes, we’ve got to catch them all.