Pokémon Go

Professor Willow by @edo_mond

I decided to play Skyward Sword again. I set up my old Wii system, but there were no batteries in the remote.

I got off my ass and put on some flip-flops and went to the CVS to get some. Since the Skyward Sword opening sequence always makes me cry, I also picked up some tissues for good measure.

I go to check out, and the lady working the cash register eyes up me and my batteries and my tissues. She gives me this look, like, I know what’s going on here.

And this is why I decided to give up on Skyward Sword and start playing Pokémon Go instead. For some reason I got the feeling that I may need to get out more.

*

I resisted Pokémon Go for a few days after it came out, my rationale being that this is where I would draw the line on being a huge nerd. I am an adult, and adults don’t walk around looking at pokémon on their phones.

But let’s be real, can you think of a better use of the privileges of adulthood? Because I can’t.

*

There’s a bench on a tiny patch of grass in the triangle of a three-way intersection next to my apartment complex. Because it’s not technically a park, it’s not technically illegal for me to have an open container of alcohol there, so sometimes in the evenings I go there to write.

One day, a little after eight, three tiny children start wandering around with enormous smart phones. What’s going on is obvious to me.

“Hey, are you guys playing Pokémon Go?” I ask them, pulling out my phone.

They get really excited, and we dig our heels into comparing notes on the pokémon in the neighborhood (all poison types all the way down), a conversation that goes well until a harried soccer mom runs over and begins apologizing to me.

“I’m so sorry these boys are bothering you,” she says, “but it’s this Pokiemans app they’re addicted to. God, it’s just the dumbest thing.”

“Yes, of course,” I tell her, sneaking my phone back into my bag, “it absolutely is.”

“I blame the Japanese,” she continues. “It’s them and their devil worship that leads to things like Pokiemans.”

Although her wording is imprecise, she’s not wrong. The eighteenth-century Neoconfucian drive to scientifically classify supernatural phenomena was appropriated by State Shintō during the Meiji Period, the cultural echoes of which can indeed be found in the Pokémon games. I think about explaining this to her and decide against it.

“Mmmmmmm,” I respond, and she wanders off after the kids.

So that went well.

*

Here is a thing I wrote when Pokémon Go first came out:

The way the game works is that you attract more pokémon the farther you walk (the minimum seems to be 2km), and you attract rarer pokémon the farther away you get from your starting location (the minimum is around 3km). Traveling above a certain speed (no one can agree on what this is) doesn’t count toward your “walking” total, so you can’t drive, and the sudden stops required by the game make biking impractical. What this means is that the game isn’t going to reward you if you’re just walking in a circle around your block or your neighborhood.

Very little of this turned out to be true. There was a lot of speculation and misinformation surrounding the game, when it was released, and there still is.

Pokémon Go doesn’t tell you what to do or how anything works, which is all the more frustrating because it’s the first game of this nature that most people have ever played. I’m ashamed to admit that I have dug deep into Reddit to search for answers, but it seems that even experienced players still have no idea about the specifics of what’s going on.

*

During the second half of July I kept seeing articles on my Facebook feed about people playing Pokémon Go getting bitten by snakes, walking off cliffs, being mugged, jumping into traffic, and so on. This sounds ridiculous until you start playing the game and begin to understand the incredible amount of effort that a player has to put into it. If you go through the trouble of going all the way to a neighborhood with a lot of Pokéstops, walk for a mile, and don’t catch anything, of course you’re going to drop everything and get excited when you finally see a pokémon. And if you have to cross the street to get in range before it runs away, then that’s what you’ll do.

The way I’ve come to understand this based on my own experience is that people probably wouldn’t take such crazy risks if the game weren’t so difficult.

Pokémon Go does not go out of its way to accommodate casual players. I habitually walk several miles a day through neighborhoods that have a wealth of Pokéstops, but I’ve only made a moderate amount progress in filling out my Pokédex or leveling up my avatar. Unless Niantic can figure out how to reward players on a more consistent basis, I don’t think they’re going to be able to keep the game going for the entire summer. Once the casual players arrive at the conclusion that Pokémon Go isn’t something that everyone can enjoy, I’m worried that the middleground players will drop out as well.

*

Bella: What level are you in Pokémon Go?
Edward: Seventeen.
Bella: How long have you been seventeen?
Edward: A while…

*

Pokémon Go is a lot of fun, but it’s also given me an opportunity to witness something very strange. I’m lucky to live in a walkable urban neighborhood with multiple gyms, and they’re all controlled by this one kid, who’s maybe around ten years old.

This sounds cute, right? WRONG.

The kid is a little shit, and he’s unilaterally nasty to anyone who tries to talk to him. There’s a gym outside a local café, where I’ve had the odd experience of sitting and watching him at work. If someone sees him playing and asks for help or advice, he tells them that he doesn’t want them to get better than him. If someone asks him to ease up so that they can train at the gym, he tells them that they don’t deserve to play if they’re too weak. And so on. The kid is really serious about pokémon, and he seems to only be able to have fun with the game if no one else is.

This situation has forced me to reevaluate the premise of the Pokémon games, in which the player-character is, similarly, a ten-year-old kid who apparently doesn’t have anything better to do with his life than to walk around fighting everyone he encounters. It’s a lot of fun to be that kid in the games, but watching the expression of that attitude in real life is… kind of upsetting?

This past weekend a core trio of teenage girls (one of whom works at the convenience store next to the café) got together with a looser group of friends and destroyed the kid, knocking him down from all of the gyms he controlled. I saw them stationed at the physical location of each gym, and they communicated with each other via old-school walkie talkies.

It was kind of epic.

*

Despite the continuing issues with Pokémon Go, Pokémon as a broader franchise goes out of its way to be open to newcomers. What I’ve witnessed over the past month of playing Pokémon Go is this ideology of acceptance translated into the real world, with older or more experienced players actively helping younger or less experienced players.

I live by the National Zoo in DC, which has a good three dozen Pokéstops. When I go for walks there, I see players approaching people who seem confused about how something in the game works, and the zoo employees and volunteers have been engaged in helping the kids who come up to them to ask for directions. I’m sure there are hardcore trainers lurking by the gyms at either end of the park, but the overall approach seems to be one of enthusiastic welcome.

Even in more “adult” environments, like the bar scene at Adams Morgan, it’s been amazing to see how an inclusive attitude regarding gaming has become a means of fostering real-world kindness. Pokémon Go is like an all-ages and friendship-focused version of Tinder for nerds, which is something that shouldn’t work but does.

Oh man. What a strange and wonderful world we live in.

( Header image by @edo_mond on Twitter )

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