But the last straw, the very last one, came as we drove down 16th 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?”
Pokémon 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 Pokémon shtick. I hate the lack of mission, the nonexistent 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 Pokémon 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 neighborhood kid when they battled in the Gym on the edge of our street. But don’t tell me that Pokémon 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 Pokémon 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 Poké-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 Pokémon for getting children outside in an age when they can often be found indoors.
Some bars and coffee shops, fortuitously located near PokéStops and Gyms, have enjoyed a recent uptick in traffic. Several of my friends have even ventured out to these new Poké-hubs and ended up chatting with new Poké-acquaintances.
This is all well and good, of course, but the hype glosses over something that gives me pause: With an app such as Pokémon Go, we’ve essentially gamified such basic pursuits as going outside, talking to strangers and visiting national monuments. 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 Pokémon Go. If you’ve ventured to a local PokéStop, 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. Pokémon 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 colleague Fritz Hahn that he recognizes he’s near a PokéStop 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 Pokémon 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 in Franklin Square, surreptitiously Poké-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. Pokémon 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 Pokémon Go while he drives.
“No,” I said. “I’ll stop being mad if you stop playing Pokémon, period.”
He’s still playing; I’m still mad. And so — deadlocked — we persist.
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