That weekend, I had an opportunity to ask some of our local leaders in person about how things were going. Was it still all calm and quiet? They smiled and confirmed that there had been no incidents... and that the only people out on the streets in downtown, where it had been rumored there was going to be a protest, were Pokemon Go players.
I thought it was some kind of joke that I just didn’t get. I had never heard of Pokemon Go. The game had just been released a few days earlier, but was growing, both in popularity and notoriety.
I quickly learned that Pokemon Go is an “augmented reality, GPS-enabled” game. Unlike Candy Crush Saga and other popular Facebook games, Pokemon Go can only be played on an Android or iOS device. “Augmented reality” may sound intimidating, but it just means that the game combines computer generated animations with images from your device’s camera. When you play the game, you see game characters superimposed over the video from your camera.
“GPS-enabled” means that it’s not designed to be played while sitting on the couch. To play the game to the fullest, Pokemon Go players need to… well… Go! Go outside. Walk around their neighborhoods. Go to parks. Go to historic sites and landmarks. Players are encouraged to move around, and some functions even require that you walk certain distances. There are also physical locations identified on Google Maps as “Poke Stops” and “Poke Gyms,” and certain aspects of the game are only available when you are present at one of these special locations.
In the days that followed, I heard even more about this game. Some of my Facebook friends were posting about it. Churches were talking about the pros and cons of being “Poke Stops.” News stories about the game’s overwhelming success and accompanying technical issues were hitting the mainstream media, along with a couple of news stories to pointed to the necessity of maintaining awareness of your surroundings while out playing.
If you know me, you know that I love technology, so of course I had to check it out for myself! And it didn’t take long for me to see why it was so popular. It’s easy to play. There aren’t many augmented reality games out there yet, so the novelty of it makes it attractive. And while I understand that there are issues with the game, I can also see some positive things coming out of Pokemon Go.
The “mobile” aspect of this game is definitely one of its positive features. We’ve all seen enough articles about the obesity epidemic in America and the dangers of a sedentary lifestyle to know that it’s a good idea to get up and move around more. The game actions that require players to walk certain distances make it somewhat similar to activity trackers, except that in addition to tracking your steps, it also provides a virtual motivation for you to reach a goal. So if, like me, you’ve made a commitment to make fitness a higher priority in your life, why not have some fun while you’re at it?
But I’ve also been impressed by how Pokemon Go seems to be crossing generational lines. There are families playing this game together - kids, moms and dads, even grandparents! They’re talking to each other about it, helping each other play. Groups of friends are getting together to go Pokemon hunting. They’re going to the Poke Stops and Poke Gyms together - and when they see other players there, they’re talking to them as well!
But Pokemon Go is not without its problems. The special locations in this game were grandfathered in from its predecessor, and at present, there is no way for property owners to add or remove their site from the list of special locations. This means that the managers of some locations where it’s inappropriate to play the game are unable to opt out of it. This has led to some awkward situations, like private security officers chasing Pokemon Go players off of private property and officials from the National Holocaust Museum asking visitors to refrain from catching Pokemon on their property.
The game has also been criticized in part because the word “Pokemon” is a contraction of the Japanese words for “Pocket Monster,” and if you look in the right dictionary, the definition of monster can include demons. While this alone may be something of a semantic overreaction, the ultimate goal of the game is to capture, nurture, and use these monsters with magical powers to fight against other monsters captured by players on other teams. And even though these Pokemon characters begin as colorful, cartoonish animations that run the gamut from kinda cute to rather creepy, some of these Pokemon take on a decidedly more evil appearance as they mature, or “evolve” in the lingo of the game.
Some Christian leaders have expressed their opposition to the game because of these elements. They believe that it’s inherently dangerous. While I respect their convictions and understand why they feel that way, and have my own concerns, I’m not completely in that camp. There are definitely games and entertainment options that I do not allow my young children to participate in. But Pokemon Go was primarily intended for teenagers and young adults, individuals who are old enough to understand the difference between fantasy and reality. Like many other things in this world, computer based games, played responsibly and in moderation, are neither inherently evil nor holy. To quote the apostle Paul from a couple of different passages, “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be mastered by anything” (1 Cor 6:12). Therefore, “Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind” (Rom 14:5).
The most successful games and the most compelling fantasies always have elements that are rooted in reality. We are living in a world where real, unpredictable, seemingly unstoppable human monsters are causing a lot of hurt and a lot of fear. Fear that threatens to paralyze and control us. So it shouldn’t really surprise us that a game focused on capturing “monsters” - and controlling them instead - would be so popular.
And like most games, this is probably just a passing fad. We’ll be talking about something else by winter. But honestly, for many right now, it’s been a welcome diversion. It’s been an outlet, something else to focus on instead of all the bad news in the world.
Last week, I shared that fear and hurt can distort things in our minds and cloud our judgment. Our fear can lead us to withdraw and isolate ourselves. If we’re not careful, we can become so hyper-focused on the fear that we can forget that there are also a lot good people in this world. And when we do something together, even if it’s not for some grand and wonderful purpose, even if (gasp!) it doesn’t lead directly to a Bible study or deep spiritual discussion - there is value in that.
I’m not telling you to stop what you’re doing and download Pokemon Go. It’s not about the game, it’s about the act of playing, interacting with people. I’ve had similar “accidental community” experiences when I take my kids to the Splash Pad in Pineville or the Zoo in Alexandria. My kids make friends with the other children, and I always wind up striking up a conversation with other parents. There is value in reminding ourselves that the majority of us are not out to get each other, and that we’re not really that much different from each other.
So go outside. Not just outside of your house, but go a little out of your comfort zone.
Go out and play. And make some friends. :)