They say laughter is the best medicine, but in light of the recent craze over Pokémon Go, it may be time to update that prescription for the 21st century. As the country reeled in the wake of the murders of Alton Brown and Philando Castile, millions turned to the addictive pleasures of Pokémon Go, a new augmented-reality game from Japanese company Nintendo. It would seem we have chosen distraction over laughter. But to what end?
For the handful of people not in the know — and, really, where have you been? — Pokémon Go is an app and a game based on the popular card game and television show. Once users download the app, they can pick an avatar, which appears as a figure on the screen and walks around in a virtual map, much like Google Maps. (Many of the programmers used to work for Google Maps.) The user can stop at various locations called “PokéStops” and pick up supplies like “Pokéballs,” which are needed to capture the coveted Pokémon.
If you happen to work near the New York Public Library, for instance, your Pokéstops might include a copy of the Gutenberg Bible or one of the Lion statues. When a Pokémon is nearby, your phone will vibrate with a dramatic pronouncement. (“A wild Zubat has appeared!”) The app then taps into your camera as a tiny animated figure appears to be floating in front of you. Players swipe to fling the “Poké balls” over the Zubat to capture the Pokémon, which you can then add to your “Pokédex.”
As absurd as it sounds, this aimless pursuit has quickly become a phenomenon, leading the Apple store’s top-grossing chart within 24 hours and increasing Nintendo’s share price by as much as 25% in less than a week. Judging by its current ubiquity, it won’t stop anytime soon.
It’s easy to spot other Pokémon Go players out in the wild. They’re usually standing on a corner looking on their phones, periodically checking in with their surroundings. Often they will be walking and looking down at their devices, then take a quick peak at the real world. Well, hopefully they do that. Already, there have been reports of injuries from players stumbling around. “It’s important to remain alert,” the app warns as it starts up. “Be aware of your surroundings at all times.” But no disclaimer can stop a rabid player from getting lost in the screen.
Pokémon Go may have real potential as a social experience. There is no competitive element, unless you are at a “gym,” a designated hub where users can battle each other for Pokémon, a main feature of the original card game. That incentivizes people to join forces. Already players have organized Pokémon Go pub-crawls, walks in the park, and dating mixers. Parents and kids can bond over the game, spending quality screen time together out in the world.
At the same time, Pokémon Go epitomizes the way modern technology has increasingly drawn us out of genuine social experiences and into a virtual world. As the first truly successful augmented reality game, it offers a uniquely twenty-first century form of escapism. But it’s not encouraging us to connect with each other so much as it’s demanding we connect virtually under blatantly silly pretenses. We are all too susceptible to trivial distractions, and this game may in fact suggest that we’d rather engage in this kind of behavior than build more constructive relationships (notably, Pokémon Go surpassed dating app Tinder in the app store within a matter of days).
But at least we’re having fun with it. Users have taken to posting screen shots of their Pokémon on social media with little more than a few words: “No Electrode, not the water!” or “Help him!” No words are required for images of Pokémon perched on top of a cat’s belly, floating near a dog’s nose, or hovering over a high-waisted backside. The game will likely spawn some meme or new form of Internet art, whether it’s cheeky screen shots or a new sub-genre of Pokémon-inspired furries. You can even meet and hire a Pokémon Go trainer off of Craigslist, a level 15 player who will sign in as your user name and collect as many Pokémons as possible (“I will catch them all.”)
While Google Glass didn’t exactly pan out, it turns out that augmented reality provides an enticing synthesis of real and virtual encounters at a moment when we crave that happy medium.
But Pokémon Go may not have a monopoly on mainstream AR forever. No one expected Facebook to become the global phenomenon that it did, and its ability to adapt has kept it relevant. Even so, the average age of a Facebook user in the U.S. is 40. Facebook used to be a place to cruise pictures of your crush, now it’s a soapbox for anyone with a keyboard. Instagram, once the cool younger sibling, has new competition from Snapchat. Snapchat users say Instagram feels static and antiquated once they get used to all of Snapchat’s features. If Pokémon Go wants to stay relevant, it will have to fix the bugs and add more interactive features, otherwise it risks becoming another one of the many skeletons in digital media’s closet.
Needless to say, the instant popularity of the game does say something about the nature of technology at this very moment. We’ve spent so much time on our phones that we no longer distinguish one form of communication from the next. Sending a Snapchat video of yourself saying something funny is not much different from that Saturday morning FaceTime date. Why text someone when you can write a funny comment on their Instagram photo, and see what they had for lunch to boot? It’s all contained in the same device. Now we’ve moved on to chasing Pokémons. But only time will tell where they’ll lead us next.