July 13, 2016
Pokemon Go, Ghosts, and Goats
Nash takes off at a run, meaning he’s seen the silhouette of an uncaught Pokemon on his radar.
He’s the the most eager of our gang, despite the fact that he can’t remember all the original 150’s names. Machop becomes “Standing Guy”. Wheedle is the “Pointy-Head Guy”. Now he’s in hot pursuit of “Ghost Ball Guy”.
I follow at a more leisurely pace until I hear a chorus of bleats. It’s not the splintery 8-bit cry of a Pokemon, but instead a giant herd of landscaping goats waiting to be moved to a new grazing spot. And there’s a Ghastly in their midst.
A stranger stands by the goat pen. Even if I didn’t recognize the telltale upward flick of his thumb on his phone screen, the green L-swoosh on his hat and the red-and-white ball clipped to his belt give him away. We nod the nod of fellow trainers and I join him in flinging Pokeballs at the Ghastly until the ghost goes down in a burst of stars on my screen.
We pause our playing to watch the goats stampede through the suburbs. But since they’re not Gogoats, it’s soon time to move on.
Within one week, Pokemon Go has transformed the way I interact with the world. (Despite the fact that, in its overloaded-server launch state, it’s the most unusable app I’ve ever continued to use.)
In a way, it feels like I’ve trained for this. I’m already used to walking for miles while starting at a screen (my Kindle). Since I’ve played Niantic’s previous game Ingress, I know the best local routes to collect resources from portals… er, Pokestops. And, like many in my generation, I share the latent dream of being a Pokemon trainer in real life.
My quest to catch ’em all goes back to doing extra chores to save up for booster packs and sitting on the sidewalk with a link cable tethering me to the neighbors’ Gameboys while we battled and traded. Today I don’t even own a DS, yet I was one of those refreshing the app store all through the beginning of July, waiting for launch date. Nostalgia is a powerful force.
Combine this nostalgia with a game that allows you to explore new places and public art pieces, pumps you full of exercise endorphins, reinforces gambling psychology, and catches the curiosity of other pedestrians, and you have a viral hit on your hands.
I still didn’t expect this. As I roam the streets in my group of four, phones held fixedly in front of us with charging cables snaking to the external batteries in our backpacks, over half the people we encounter are playing. It’s like an MMO where our avatars and our real selves overlap in space.
I’m giddy over the hype. This far surpasses Ingress and geocaching and really anything I’ve ever experienced. I love the ridiculous notion that so many people will drop everything they’re doing just to catch a stupid Pidgey – myself included.
On the third day, we pour outside to find a nearby Persian and meet multiple neighbors whom we’ve never spoken to before doing the same thing. They direct us to our quarry. Even the shallowest interactions, like teaming up to battle a gym or getting tugged into large group selfies, feel exciting.
During the town’s summer festival, we pop some Lucky Eggs and park ourselves in the middle of four Lures by the city hall to grind for XP. Dozens of trainers catch Pokemon at a feverish rate, even while fireworks pop overhead. Imagining this scene playing out across the world, I feel like I’m part of something very big and strange and fleeting.
I’m beginning to suspect the absurd ending of the original Pokemon Go promo (the one where everyone sprints to Times Square and jumps up and down fist pumping like crazy while battling Mewtwo) might not be too far off from reality. I don’t know whether witnessing that would be terrifying or exhilarating or both, but I’d like to stick around and find out.
I’ll see you out there, fellow trainers.