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Pokemon Go

Comment: I despise Pokemon Go, and there’s no way I’m the only one

The biggest digital phenomenon of 2016 so far, Pokemon Go turns such basic pursuits as going outside, talking to strangers and visiting national monuments into a mere game – and it’s driving me mad

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 July, 2016, 7:03am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 July, 2016, 7:03am

For the first 48 hours of obsessive Pokemon-hunting, I tried to cultivate an aura of magnanimous chill. If my fiance planned to play the game through every meal and conversation, the least I could do was feign some level of polite interest.

I was tested, I’ll admit, when I returned home from work to see our energetic beagle mix passed out on the kitchen floor. (“We were out a long time,” Jason admitted. “I think maybe Pokemon ruined walks for her.”)

The chill faltered again when, on a weekend trip to Target, Jason yelled, “Cait, watch out!” as a Staryu floated past my swivelling head. (“I thought I was about to run into someone,” I hissed. “Don’t do that in public.”)

But the last straw, the very last one, came as we drove down the street on Saturday, making good time in the light morning traffic. “Babe, can you” – Jason said, jerking the wheel suddenly – “can you just, real quick, I need you to – can you catch this Doduo for me?”

Pokemon Go is, by all accounts, the single most important digital phenomenon of 2016. I hate it. I hate it with the futile, frustrated passion of anyone who hates an approaching trend and knows, without a doubt, that it will swamp them.

I hate the glitchiness of the game, the server crashes and GPS errors that plagued my brief hours with it. I hate the reheated, commercial nostalgia of the whole Pokemon shtick. I hate the lack of mission, the non-existent narrative, the intended aimlessness of the game: “What is the point?” I demanded, to Jason, who offered only “to catch them all”. Lame.

But most of all, I hate the self-declared singularity that Pokemon Go and its maker, Niantic, are wearing like a laurel wreath: This game, unlike all other games, encourages players to get out in the world, to meet other people, to do and see “real” things.

Sure, my fiance chatted up some neighbourhood kid when they battled in the gym on the edge of our street. But don’t tell me that Pokemon Go is “aspirational” or gets players “off the beaten path” when we’re wandering through Safeway, him 20 feet behind me, because he thought he saw a Sandshrew in Aisle 3.

The primary gimmick of Pokemon Go – and the game’s main “innovation”, although that overstates things – is this illusion of augmented reality, the idea that places and characters from the Poke-world are mapped onto our world, virtually. Opening the game invites you into a fantastical alternate universe, where magical creatures stalk your commute and futuristic spires dot your daily landscape. You need only look at your phone, constantly, to partake.

Experiencing the world this way is, it turns out, rather more exciting than experiencing it as it is. Players report taking long walks, detouring into places they previously hadn’t. The New Statesman praised Pokemon for getting children outside in an age when they can often be found indoors.

Some bars and coffee shops, fortuitously located near PokeStops and gyms, have enjoyed a recent uptick in traffic. Several of my friends have even ventured out to these new Poke-hubs and ended up chatting with new Poke-acquaintances.

This is all well and good, of course, but the hype glosses over something that gives me pause: With an app such as Pokemon Go, we’ve essentially turned such basic pursuits as going outside, talking to strangers and visiting national monuments into a mere game. These are activities we’ve long undertaken on their own merits. But everything must be digitally augmented now; no value is inherent.

The same could be said of the sorts of “engagement” trumpeted by the makers of Pokemon Go. If you’ve ventured to a local PokeStop, you know that – counter the pitch – most players aren’t making friends or appreciating the vista anew: They’re squinting into their screens, ignoring each other, hoping to sight that rare Pikachu.

In many cases, that concentration would appear to come at the expense of all other types of social awareness. Pokemon Go players have blundered into embassies, police stations, graveyards – even oncoming traffic. And many of the bar and restaurant owners who’ve spotted more people around haven’t actually spotted more interaction. Some players just loiter on the sidewalk, pounding on their touch screens, not even bothering to stop in.

One local bar-owner told my Washington Post colleague Fritz Hahn that he recognises he’s near a PokeStop but isn’t sure whether the game is driving customers. His bar is crowded with people ignoring each other for their phones, sure – but these days, he said, that’s the usual.

Given all this, it seems unfair, even disingenuous, to pretend that playing Pokemon Go is somehow socially superior to binge-playing Xbox in your bedroom. At least in that scenario, the fantasy’s tied to a place; it can’t continuously overshadow the physical objects (and vexed fiances) around you. Plus, you actually interact with other players in, say, popular role-playing games. That’s more than I can say for all the suits surreptitiously Poke-hunting on their lunch breaks.

To be clear, AR is a fascinating and deeply cool technology. I suspect that it will result in fascinating, very cool things, from enhanced visions of the distant past to cutting-edge medical techniques to immersive games that engage us in far more than lukewarm childhood fantasies.

The best AR will, we hope, enhance our understanding of our real-life environments, making visible – as the Atlantic’s Ian Bogost wrote – “previously unseen” possibilities. Pokemon Go does little more than distract from the physical environments it entices us into: The only thing “augmented” here is the bottom line of Niantic and Nintendo.

After the Doduo incident, Jason and I endured a stinted 20 minutes or so of silence, in which he put on Spotify and cleared his throat a few times. Finally, he asked whether I’d stop being mad if he promised not to play Pokemon Go while he drives.

“No,” I said. “I’ll stop being mad if you stop playing Pokemon, period.”

He’s still playing; I’m still mad. And so – deadlocked – we persist.

The Washington Post