I’ll admit it. I was a major grump when Pokémon Go exploded onto the scene in early July. The graphics confused me, hearing the word “Jigglypuff” during bathing suit season made me sad, it was draining all our data, and I read that hapless hunters were being lured into unpopulated areas and getting mugged. Plus like all the other moms in the universe, I feel under constant siege by Phones and Snapchat and YouTube and all the other iThings that have sapped the ability of everyone under 18 to look anyone in the eye.
I wanted the kids to spend the summer reading great books, harvesting vegetables, hiking Half Dome. In truth, that was only June. Soon enough my noble plans of evening walks and board games unraveled, and I actually heard myself suggesting out loud that wouldn’t it be fun to binge-watch Veep from the beginning as a family? That’s when I began to see the beauty in those strange little creatures I couldn’t actually see.
For the uninitiated, Pokémon Go is a new video game brought to you by the same folks (Nintendo) who created Donkey Kong (1981) and the very first ‘connected’ video game – the Pokémon Gameboy edition (1998). It’s a free app for your phone that uses Google Maps to allow ‘trainers’ to ‘see’ strange little creatures all over the real world. Next, they throw Pokémon balls at them and capture them (I am not making this up). Unlike the typical Candy Crush-type games, Pokémon Go requires its players to go outside to find Pokémon, as well as ‘gyms,’ ‘lures,’ and ‘stops’ which are generally located in public landmarks. Sound like a summer gimmick, soon to fade? Perhaps, but at this very moment it couldn’t be more red hot. In just a couple of weeks, the number of active Pokémon Go users has already outpaced those on Twitter. Oh, and like most good things it the world, there’s a Piedmont connection. Nintendo’s partner for the game, Niantic, Inc. is led by Piedmonter John Hanke.
As you might imagine, my understanding of how it all works is still quite rudimentary. When superstar customer Sally Aldridge suggested that Mulberry’s should try to become a ‘Pokestop’ or a set a ‘lure’, thereby encouraging the legions of young Piedmont players to come in for an ICEE, I had to ask my son Charlie (Level 5, thank you very much) how we’d do that. Fortunately, he informed me that we were already a ‘Pokestop’ and a ‘gym’. Which he assured me was a good thing. Once you reach Level 5, you can take the Pokémon you’ve caught to a Pokegym to fight one another, which sounds kind of crazy but Charlie assures me won’t break any wine bottles.
What turned me around about the game, besides an intriguing OpEd this weekend by Amy Butcher, was overhearing my three rarely-interacting-positively kids laughing and debating the best strategy to catch a wild Exeggute vs. a Squirtle. And then deciding to go for a walk together outside to catch Pokémon on Piedmont Avenue. This has never, ever, happened in our house. And it was enough for me.
Look, I get it. It’s a video game, not world peace. But don’t you think that might be part of the explanation for its astronomical popularity this stormy summer? From Brexit to the attempted coup in Turkey to a growing list of tragedies marked by place-names (Orlando, Dallas, Nice, St. Paul, Baton Rouge) there’s been very little comic relief in a season that’s supposed to be free and easy. Maybe when reality looks so unappealing, when everything is so scary and sad and incomprehensible, virtual reality is the only answer.