A screenshot from Pokemon GO.
A screenshot from Pokemon GO.
Full disclosure, here at the start: I don't know Pokemon.
That's not technically true; here's a list of everything I knew about Pokemon before playing the new smartphone app, Pokemon GO (this knowledge absorbed solely through cultural osmosis, given the phenomenon's ubiquity).
1. Pikachu is a kind (species?) of Pokemon. It is an "electric-type" Pokemon. It is yellow. It has a cutesy voice. Said voice is profoundly annoying.
2. Squirtle is another kind of Pokemon, a "water-type" Pokemon. It, as one might imagine, squirts.
3. There are many different kinds of Pokemon, of many different types.
4. These many different types include: electric, water, earth, wind, fire, blood, sweat, tears, mother, jugs, speed and yeah no okay I only am certain about those first two.
5. The different kinds of Pokemon "evolve" into different forms, with different names, that are more powerful.
6. They evolve into these different forms as they gain experience from beating the snot out of one another.
7. The different types of Pokemon beat said snot better, with more verve, alacrity and elan, against certain types, and less effectively against other types. For example: Water types are good against Fire types, probably. (I mean, you'd think, right?) Digital types are good against Vinyl types, though they lack the aural roundness that really captures the yep you guessed it I'm making this one up too.
8. Pokemon are wild animals. The object of the videogames is to find them and catch them, by throwing a sphere called a Pokeball in their general direction, which I-Dream-of-Jeannies them, or Ghostbusters them I suppose, inside the Pokeballs. I find it's best not to dwell on this part.
9. You then take your Pokemon to Pokemon Gyms, where they beat the aforementioned snot out of one another for your pleasure.
Finally, here is the tenth fact that admittedly I do not know for certain, but have long suspected, about Pokemon:
10. The whole thing will ultimately stand revealed as an invidious effort on the part of Big Cockfighting to culturally acclimate multiple generations of the world's impressionable children to its loathsome business model.
Given the above, why did I download Pokemon GO last night? And play it last night? And early this morning, on my way to work out? And on my way back from working out? And while walking the dog? And on my way to the Metro? And while walking from the Metro to the office?
Thereby hangs a (cautionary) tale.
How It Works
Pokemon GO is called by its developers an "augmented reality" game. Unlike the many Pokemon games that have come before, the technology works with your smartphone's mapping software to place randomly generated animated Pokemon in the "real world" around you.
A screenshot from Pokemon GO.
On your phone's screen, you see a (remarkably detailed) map of your immediate neighborhood, and a Pokemon-themed avatar of yourself. As you go about your day, walking out and about, picking up your dry-cleaning or whatever, on your phone your avatar walks with you, through the map.
At certain random intervals you are alerted that a Pokemon is nearby. You walk up to the real-world location, hold up your phone, and boom: the real world and the game world come together. Your camera captures the spot in question, but the game places an animated Pokemon gazing up at you expectantly, on the sidewalk, in the park — wherever.
Using your touchscreen, you toss a Pokeball (which isn't as easy as it might seem, TRUST ME) at the creature, and capture it. It then joins the roster of cute animals you've trapped in a hellish extradimensional netherworld so that they may fight for your amusement, like you're some kind of Caesar Commodus in ugly shorts and jaunty ball cap.
There's more: Certain landmarks in your neighborhood — statues, parks, even random buildings — are designated "Pokestops" by the game, which means you can periodically approach them and refresh your supply of Pokeballs and whatnot. And every few blocks, certain locations are designated Pokemon Gyms, where you can gather and have your darling li'l magic slave gladiators duke it out with other folks' darling li'l magic slave gladiators.
Importantly, you cannot take your Pokemon to a Pokemon Gym until you reach Level 5. I imagine this is because going to a Pokemon Gym is a lot like going to a regular gym: You tend to put it off until you've done some work on your own so you can be less self-conscious about your Jigglypuff.
Straight Creepin', or: Deciding To Go With Pokemon GO
Wednesday, 9:05 p.m. ET: My Twitter timeline is filled with horrible news, and with people (it seems to me) understandably desperate to escape that news by sharing screenshots and avatars from Pokemon GO, which has just been released in the U.S.. I piously ignore them, and read more about the news.
9:10 p.m.: I visit the app store. Not for any reason. Just to see. I note that Pokemon GO is free, in the sense that it features "in-app purchases" which of course means, if one is even the tiniest bit obsessive, that it is anything but free. Un-free. Anti-free. There is free, and there is its polar, anti-matter, negatively charged opposite, and that is this game. No thank you.
9:12 p.m.: I download Pokemon GO.
9:13-9:18 p.m.: I name and build my avatar. The options, in terms of designing my look, strike me as appallingly limited. I can choose only the color of my skin, hair, lumpy unflattering jacket, I-Love-the-90s cargo shorts, sneakers, backpack and jaunty ball cap. I am particularly miffed that I cannot even alter the tilt of said ball cap from "jaunty" to, for example, "rakish." If the developers are on their game, they will make this option an in-app purchase.
9:19 p.m.: The game's tutorial begins by informing me that "There is a Wild Pidgey nearby!" I hold up the phone and see that "nearby" is an alarming understatement: A cartoon bird-like thing is here, two feet before me, fluttering above my living room rug. It is PIDGEYING FROM INSIDE THE HOUSE.
9:20 p.m.: I attempt to throw a Pokeball at it. I do not know how to do this. A 3-second online search would reveal the proper methodology, but I admit to being a bit disconcerted by having this aggressively cute thing fluttering in my apartment, so I persevere. Do I simply jerk my phone in its direction? No. Do I touch the Pokeball at the bottom of the screen and sort of flick it toward the Pidgey, like I'm at the world's cutest strip club, attempting to make it rain? Yes. That is what I'm supposed to do.
9:23 p.m.: It isn't easy.
9:25 p.m.: Ok, it really isn't.
9:30 p.m.: The Pokeball falls precisely below the Pidgey and there is a light show. The Pokemon vanishes, and there, on the rug of my apartment, next to the ugly uncomfortable orange chair that nobody ever sits in but that my husband thought would "pop," lies a Pokeball that sort of ... jitters. Disconcertingly. As if the entity inside it is struggling for air and light and freedom and yeah nope I'm not going to think about that anymore.
9:32 p.m.: "There is a wild Squirtle nearby!" The tutorial continues. There, by the fireplace that we can't use because of zoning, a blue turtle-looking thing is gazing up at me with abject, wet-eyed love. Aw. Good thing the tutorial gives me an unlimited amount of Pokeballs, because ...
9:33 p.m.: Gah.
9:34 p.m.: Nearly got it...
9:35 p.m.: Are you kidding me with this.
9:36 p.m.: Success! Captured! HA HA HA I consign thee to oblivion, aggressively cute soul-eyed turtle thing!
9:40 p.m.: The screen fills with a map of my neighborhood, in astonishing detail. The alley alongside our building. The running path in the park a block away. The circular driveway(!) of a nearby apartment building. And, more: a world of Pokemon out there, waiting for me.
9:41 p.m.: I decide to close the app. No need to go poking around the neighborhood at night. Everything will be there tomorrow. And anyway I have a piece to revise, due tomorrow.
10:01 p.m.: I am standing in the alley beside our apartment, near the garbage cans, peering at the world through my phone.
10:02 p.m.: "There is a wild Rattata nearby!" The map indicates a rat-like Pokemon — ears, tail, the whole schmear — somewhere ahead of me. Earlier the tutorial informed me that I should look for Water-type Pokemon near lakes and rivers, and Grass-type Pokemon in fields, etc. For a second, I'm deeply impressed: this alley, after all, has a Rat Problem. It was here, a few years ago, that a rat the size of a Bichon Frise crawled into our car's engine to curl up and sleep its dreamy, ratty dreams, only to be woken, suddenly, messily and extremely lethally by the fanbelt, when we started the car the next morning. Makes sense, I thought. You look for Rat-type Pokemon in rat-infested alleys. Way to go, game.
10:08 p.m.: I cannot locate the Rattata. Two rats, rattily canoodling, yes, but no Rattata. I figured it would be easy — just look around the darkened alley through the phone, waiting to see a brightly colored cartoon staring back at me. It should stand out, but either the map's wonky or the servers are overloaded. There's no Rattata anywhere to be found.
10:09 p.m.: Three feet away from where I'm standing, my ground-floor neighbor peers out of his bedroom window. At me. And my phone. I wave the chipper wave of "Hey neighbor!" He lifts his hand and holds it there: The not-wave of "I am disconcerted."
10:10 p.m.: I call it a night.
THE NEXT DAY
5:55 a.m.: I wake up to head to the gym. My real gym that is, just a block away, not a Pokemon Gym, the nearest of which, according to the game map, is in front of the Whole Foods four blocks away.
6:00 a.m.: I set out from my building into the world, on my way to work out. (Do I feel the tiniest shudder of gleeful anticipation, as I take out my phone and open the app? Does the following wildly stupid thought flitter though my wildly stupid brain: "Ooh I bet there'll be more of them out right now because they probably come out at twilight to feed."?)
(Reader, it did.)
6:02 a.m.: In just the block-and-a-half walk to the gym I come across several Pokestops where I can stock up on Pokeballs and seeds. (Don't know what the seeds are for, yet, but hey: any gymnosperm in a storm.) As I near each one, it grows larger on my map, and displays a recently-taken photograph: a sculpture of an elephant on the corner. A fountain. A bas-relief gargoyle on a nearby building. A historic plaque. By the time I reach the entrance to my gym, I haven't found any Pokemon, but just stocking up on gear at the Pokestops has moved me to Level 2.
7:05 a.m.: I step out of my gym, soggy with sweat, to find my neighborhood teeming with wild Pokemon. Well, not my neighborhood, exactly, but the park behind our building. So before heading home to shower, I take a detour.
7:06 a.m.: I walk down the rat alley toward the park. I notice the activity in the park is particularly heavy — animated leaves dance on the map, which I take to indicate the rustling of wild Pokemon, waiting to be caught. By me.
7:07 a.m.: I enter the park and walk through it slowly, methodologically. Nothing. I stand at its center, hold my phone out in front of me, and scan the area again and again, looking for bright, animated action. Nothing. Just the dumb park, and a dumb fountain, and some women doing yoga.
Right in front of me.
Like, 8 feet. Directly in front of me.
As I stand there, holding my phone.
With the camera on.
Pointed directly at their Downward Dogs.
7:08 a.m.: Through the camera, I watch, in J-horror slow motion, as the yoga instructor turns to face me. And frowns.
7:08:25 a.m.: It occurs to me I could defuse this situation, just by being clever and disarming, viz:
OPTION A: Shrug and say, "Ha ha gotta catch 'em all, right?"
OPTION B: Point to my wedding ring and say, "No it's okay, I'm very gay."
7:09 a.m.: In the end I choose OPTION C, easily the least clever and disarming one, which is to put my phone away and stride purposefully out of the park, down the alley, and into my building.
7:30 a.m.: As I take the dog for his morning walk, I open the app once again. Our normal route would take us past the park.
We take an alternate route.
7:50 a.m.: By the time we're done I've stocked up on even more Pokeballs and caught a Rattata. I tell myself it's the one who slipped through my fingers last night. And I permit myself a chuckle of evil glee.
JUST as the yoga instructor from earlier in the morning steps out of rat alley.
8:15 a.m.: Showered, dressed, I head out of my building towards the Dupont Circle Metro. As I cross one street, a wild Staryu appears. Disconcertingly, the tech positions him in the dead center of the intersection. From the sidewalk I hurl a few fruitless Pokeballs at him, burning through my impressive inventory. He dances in the street, avoiding each one. I sense a sneer on his featureless not-face, but I may just be projecting.
8:17 a.m.: Finally, as I stand stock-still in the center of the sidewalk while my fellow (slightly annoyed) pedestrians stream past, I get one Pokeball near enough to capture him. The game is delighted for me: fanfare, lights. Ha HA! I look up, half-expecting to be high-fived.
The real world, as is its wont, leaves me hanging.
8:22 a.m.: Near the Embassy of Botswana, a wild Duduo appears. Do I catch that noise? YEAH I do.
(After, like, three tries.)
8:25 a.m.: The Dupont Metro Station is itself a Pokestop. I stock up on Pokeballs and am about to put my phone away when suddenly "A wild Exeggute is nearby!"
Sure enough, as I peer through my phone, there it is. But it's not on the sidewalk. It's floating in the air above the Dupont Circle escalator. I stand at the top, and toss a some feckless Pokeballs at it, to no avail.
8:26 a.m.: It suddenly occurs to me that I have become that which I most abhor, a Guy Who Stands At The Top Of The Escalator. Which is to say: a monster. I put my phone away and resolve to keep it put away, and head down into the Metro.
8:45 a.m.: I step out of the Metro and begin the short walk towards NPR HQ. The phone stays in my pocket. My self-denial feels rigorous, ascetic, ennobling.
8:46 a.m.: So yeah anyway it turns out that the corner across the street from the Harris Teeter is a Pokemon Gym. I try and spot any people standing around there, staring into their phones, siccing their Cute Furballs o'Death on one another. I see plenty of people standing around there, staring into their phones, but I suspect that's simply because it's 2016.
8:50 a.m.: I reach NPR without incident. (I pass a few Pokestops — another fountain, a public sculpture — and stock up on more Pokeballs, but I've grown so used to this over the last three hours it fails to register.) There is a lot of construction going on around NPR right now, and on those blocks the game map is silent. A part of me is surprised by this. The wildly dumb part, frankly: the part that wonders if construction sites might attract wild Pokemon.
8:55 a.m.: I reach my desk and note, with some alarm, that even this morning's worth of fruitless Poke-dithering and yoga-creepin' has allowed me to reach Level 3.
I'm just beginning, I realize that. I'm still having trouble capturing Pokemon, and haven't even begun to train them, and I suppose (I know) there will be things I will be called upon to buy. And there is knowledge to be gained, a vast interconnected web of names and abilities and elaborate type-hierarchies detailing exactly which furry butts can get dependably kicked by which others.
Which brings me back to where this post began. I remain a Pokemon-agnostic, albeit one who finds the technology involved with Pokemon GO weird and compelling and weirdly compelling. No, more than compelling: absorbing.
I've spent many a weekend parked on a couch while grinding my way through Skyrim or parkour-ing across Florence's rooftops in a fetching hoodie, only to step out, blinking like a naked mole rat, into the harsh light of the real world. But a game like Pokemon GO is all about the harsh light the real world — or at least, the "real" world — about walking through its light and heat and smells in pursuit of its deeply weird and purely fanciful objective.
It's the kind of thing that would be impossible to explain to my parents, who disdained my indoorsy, books-and-Atari oriented childhood, though I would sure as hell love trying.
"It gets me out into the open air," I would declare triumphantly, throwing their own words back at them, and the sheer doughty power of this logical jiu-jitsu would leave them listless and bumfuzzled, and they would have no recourse but to sincerely apologize for the 18 years they spent haranguing me about going out for sports.
I, uh ... I'd leave it at that. I mean I probably wouldn't mention the bit with the yoga class this morning.
They don't need to know about that.