Leaving her gym the other night, a coworker of mine encountered what seemed like a herd of zombies. The parking lot was eerily quiet but lit by a multitude of cell phone screens, held up to the entranced faces of their operators who meandered around the lot in shifting circles. She quickly realized this wasn’t some Night of the Living Dead re-enactment (or the real thing!) but another manifestation of the new cultural zeitgeist: Pokémon Go.
As you’ve surely heard, Pokémon Go is a game lots of people—21 million a day by one estimate—recently started playing on their smartphones. It uses GPS and augmented-reality technology to allow players to see Pokémon creatures (from the eponymous video game) in their bathrooms, in public spaces, inside private businesses—just about anywhere, it seems. You throw PokéBalls at the beasties to capture them and visit tagged PokéStops to collect game swag and earn points. Players also visit locations designated as Gyms, where players (called “Trainers”) can have their Pokémon fight other Pokémon.
Businesses marked as PokéStops or Gyms are seeing their sales go up, but not everyone’s happy about being a destination for throngs of players. Take the US Holocaust Memorial Museum here in Washington, DC. Phone-toting enthusiasts were reportedly causing scenes inside, in some cases capturing a lethal gas-spewing Pokémon near an exhibit featuring testimonials of Nazi gas chamber survivors. Museum officials have pleaded with the public to avoid playing Pokémon Go inside what is, for many, a highly emotional, somber, even sacred space. Three US Congressmen who are appointed members of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council even sent a letter to the Pokémon Company and the game developer, Niantic, Inc., asking them to remove PokéStops from inside the museum.
Surely, we can agree that while it isn’t illegal to engage in such behavior, certain places are sacred to some people and were established for education and reflection, not for someone with a smartphone to run in and “grab PokéBalls.” It’s like a few years ago when people starting posting smiling selfies taken at Auschwitz and other memorial sites. Again, not illegal, but completely tone deaf and understandably offensive to those with a much closer connection to the horror that occurred at those sites.
Churches are another popular place to nab Pokémon. Commenters on the American Humanist Association’s Facebook page gleefully chirped about how they didn’t even have to enter churches to capture the characters lurking therein. “All I need is ten seconds to grab the balls!” said one. “Finally, church is good for something!” quipped another. While I’m sure there are plenty of regular churchgoers who are also grabbing balls inside houses of worship, can we agree that it’s pretty obnoxious for nonbelievers to drive out of their way to do so? And don’t even get me started on the notion that folks are endangering themselves and those around them by playing while driving (and pumping unnecessary CO2 into the atmosphere to boot).
Champions of the game will tell you that most people play Pokémon Go on foot. This is touted as the most positive outcome of the craze—getting more kids and adult gamers outside and moving around. Okay, sure. But do we really think spending even more time on our smart phones—while still not talking to each other—is healthy?
“These games are excellent for teaching children many things,” said one commenter responding to a Guardian article on the game. “From kindness (the whole storyline of the console games is to show your Pokémon respect) to basic arithmetic [sic] (How many more attacks will it take to win, and will my Pokémon last that long)….”
Show your Pokémon respect? What about showing mourners at the Holocaust museum or Ground Zero some respect? While I do think that humanists and other critical thinkers can differentiate between harmless Pokémon Go play and that which is disruptive or even dangerous (players have reportedly been robbed while playing), I’m concerned that some are drinking the Kool-Aid. “Today Pokémon Go lured me to this statue of Cesar Chavez,” someone wrote at the AHA Facebook page. “What do you think that means?”
In her Guardian piece Hannah Gould likened the Pokémon Go craze to a religion, with origins in Japanese mythology. Citing contemporary Japan scholar Anne Allison’s book Millennial Monsters, Gould characterized the game as “techno-animism,” where digital creations possess a spirit, or soul if you will. “This type of animism is embedded in commodity consumerism, where emotive ties between people and things are used to push products,” writes Gould, likely referring to the fact that you can pay for shortcuts to advance in the game, not to mention the gargantuan retail opportunities Nintendo is looking at with Pokémon products. “But it is equally a means of fighting the dislocation of modern life by allowing consumers to create meaning, connection, and intimacy in their daily routine.”
I find it hard to believe people are creating any kind of valuable meaning or connection with each other while playing Pokémon Go. (Have you guessed by now that I am not a fan of video games?) But I wholeheartedly believe that seeking out some fun and escapism is understandable in today’s world, where we’re daily teetering on the brink of annihilation or existential crisis brought on by the annihilation of others. Religion functions as a comfort in the face of such threats, but is often criticized by the nonreligious as unproductive wishful thinking. My concern is that gamers may retreat too far into fantasy and, in turn, neglect each other.
As I wrote this piece (which I’m sure is not going to win me many fans in the gaming world), I’m reminded of a scene in The Big Chill where the character Meg learns of her male counterparts’ screen hobbies:
Meg: “You relax with video games?”
Male Friend: “Don’t knock video games.”
Meg: “Jeez, I let you out of my sight for a few years and you develop all these moronic interests.”
Male Friend: “Don’t knock morons.”
My intent here is not to mock everyone who plays Pokémon Go, and I certainly don’t think they’re all morons. But I implore those who enjoy it to: a) use common sense when it comes to your safety and the safety of those around you; b) show some empathy and respect when judging where and when it’s appropriate to play the game; c) resist the urge to assign any meaning to the game beyond sheer entertainment and escapism; d) consider how you, the player, is being played. According to BuzzFeed, Niantic can collect all kinds of information about you and your online activity. “And if you use your Google account for sign-in and use an iOS device, unless you specifically revoke it, Niantic has access to your entire Google account. That means Niantic has read and write access to your email, Google Drive docs, and more.”
The world can be a dark and scary place—for people, not Pokémon. May we all try to increase our interactions with other humans without simultaneously shoving smartphones in our faces.