From pogs, to Power Rangers, to scrunchies, to beanie babies, few 90s trends have had the lasting power of Pokemon, evidenced by a resurgence in interest in the game just this past week. Catalyzed by the release of the explosively popular alternative reality phone app, “Pokemon is Back” proclaim the headlines.
Only a week into the game and I've already amassed a collection of bizarre and strangely inspiring experiences. In fact, walking through the streets of New York and Brooklyn has become a truly surreal experience in the past seven days. Hoards of diverse gamers can be spotted on corners of parks, actually conversing across gender and racial lines in areas almost completely segregated by a recent history of harsh gentrification and economic tension. But just the other night, a group of non-white teens passed around a blunt at a gym location, happily sharing their loot with newfound friends.
(Koffing image via imgur)
Later, I would dethrone a former roommate and long-standing frenemy from his place atop a McCarren Park statue – I gleefully sent him a “Sorry bout it” text to let him know I had demolished his Pinsir with my Pidgeot. The next day on my lunch break on the Upper East Side, I watched 20-something people stampeding towards an innocuous building entrance after a server error booted the spot's gym leader – all of us were hoping to claim the territory for our own teams. We all laughed when we collided, only to find a 2000CP Snorlax had grumpily inserted itself on top of the stop. And just last night I tracked a Gastly for miles while walking a friend's dog. A passerby ominously warned me to “Beware the moon and stick to the road,” while another hound howled in the distance. Since when did strangers talk to each other in this city? Shouldn't we be minding our own business? When did real life become a video game?
(gif via Reddit)
This is all to say: PokemonGo is actually fun and actually helping people communicate. To say Pokemon is back is unfair: Pokemon never really went anywhere. Nintendo has continued to release entries in the consistently well-received franchise for decades now, with a growing arsenal of imaginary monsters generating considerable profit for the company. What has changed, then?
It's easy to talk about nostalgia as an economic or poltiical force or as a creative disease. It's also obvious and not really accurate to say that the newfound appeal of Pokemon GO is entirely nostalgic. Of course we do all love reliving our childhood fantasies in these re-contextualized settings which, through advancements of technology, allow us to overlay our favorite fighting friends onto something resembling reality. And when the game originally rolled out, it was easy to dismiss this iteration as a dumbed down version of the original gameboy incarnates: the flagship battle system of Pokemon Red and Blue had the complexity of a chess match (compared to the speed needed in games like Street Fighter or checkers). Pokemon GO requires less skill on all fronts, for sure. But these kinds of proclamations have become increasingly difficult to support now that players are discovering secrets, tricks, and strategies that were not immediately apparent. Game designers should take note here: players will quickly explore a game to its limits when not presented with any rules or tutorials, and that kind of exploration is it's own kind of joy.
We're now seeing testimonies on the internet from all kinds of Pokemon GO players about the actual effects the game is having on people's lives: from mothers touting its usefulness in children with autism, to people battling depression or obesity or social anxiety finally having the motivation to leave the house and talk to strangers, to war veterans claiming the app is more useful for managing his PTSD than marijuana or therapy.
Last weekend I met someone who walked over 40 miles in two days, the first exercise he's gotten in years, he claimed. Local businesses (and animal shelters!) are finding clever ways to promote themselves through the app.
So, perhaps the most baffling part of this past week of PokemonGo has been the backlash against the app and its users. From very real concerns about Niantic sharing their customer's data to more farfetched crypto-fascist conspiracy theories about our shadowy Nintendo overlords, not all are finding themselves pleased with the new trend. Added to the paranoiacally politically minded are the morally superior and smug who refuse to download the app out of some kind of fantasy about what it means to be "serious" or “an adult.” Haters gunna hate, I guess. What has been fascinating to see, though, is that the cycle of backlash followed by backlash against backlash that has so dominated internet discourse in the past decade is not exclusive to social justice dialogue.
So: does Pokemon GO's popularity “say” anything about our culture? It would be sappy and saccharine, but perhaps not entirely inaccurate to proclaim that the new game has revealed something about us that we only dimly knew we needed more of: actual human contact. Sure, that contact is mediated by stupid made-up animals projected onto hyper-surveiled mobile devices. Academics like to say that we now have more noise and less information: more communication but less connection. Who would have ever guessed that Pokemon would be the thing to prove them wrong?