Years ago, my siblings and I caught (pun intended, since part of the game revolves around “catching them all”) Pokémon fever when my brother received a Game Boy and Pokémon Emerald Version for Chanukah. All three of us would take turns staring at the tiny device, traveling around the fictional Hoenn region to find Pokémon, battling Pokémon trainers and becoming Pokémon masters. My parents, of course, weren’t so thrilled with our constant Poké-obsessions, but for us it was a way to tap into a magical, virtual world.
I played a few other installments of the series (read: gave Nintendo my birthday and Chanukah money, over and over!) for the next few years, before finally giving it up after letting go of my beloved Nintendo DSi. I never expected that, in 2016, I would be once again obsessed with the series—along with much of the rest of the world! I’m talking, of course, about Pokémon GO. For the uninitiated, Pokémon GO is a new smartphone app that modernizes the classic Pokémon gameplay by taking the monsters and placing them in the real world. As you walk in the real world, your character walks on the in-game map, and when you encounter a Pokémon, you can see it in front of you and catch it using augmented reality (where the phone’s cameras are used to show the real world as a backdrop to the virtual characters). It’s simple to play—even simpler than the Pokémon games on Nintendo handhelds—but the location and augmented reality aspect add a spark that other mobile games like Angry Birds and Cut the Rope don’t have, in my opinion. It makes the game come to life in front of you, allowing you to be active while playing and to interact with others about the game in real life. There are also “Pokéstops” and gyms in the game that correspond to real-world locations, allowing players to battle or get items at places like the Empire State Building, random exhibits in the Metropolitan Museum of Art or Fair Lawn’s Temple Beth Shalom (yes, really).
The game has taken the world by storm; people all over the globe are playing the game together and catching monsters. Israeli President Reuven Rivlin even posted a picture of a Pokémon in the Knesset on his Facebook page (or at least, a clever staffer made it happen)! But the game’s success has led to a mix of stories both positive and negative. Introverted players have been galvanized into getting out and playing the game; random New Yorkers have bonded over battling the game’s “gyms” together; solemn sites like the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, have needed to ask their sites to be removed from the game; two people in California tragically walked off a cliff while playing. Many are enthralled by the game, but many are lambasting it for distracting people and taking away their attention from the real world around them.
To me, Pokémon GO is—like other internet-based games and social media—“neutral.” Used in the right way, it can be a great game to play with friends or alone, allowing you to explore your surroundings in a new way and perhaps to discover landmarks you hadn’t noticed beforehand. The other day, for instance, I was walking down Fifth Avenue toward my internship with Pokémon GO running, and noticed a Pokéstop for a sculpture I had never seen and another one for Roman heads carved into a building. Realizing that I had never seen any of this in person, and yet that according to the application I was in the right place to see them, I looked around and saw both in person for the first time, even though I had walked around the area many times for school.
Yet there is the danger of getting too obsessed with Pokémon GO, which could be more detrimental than getting obsessed with any other sort of phone game. Of course I could accidentally spike up our Verizon bill if I use too much mobile data while playing, which could be costly. (The game requires an internet connection either over wifi or mobile networks, but the location-based element means that the game encourages you to travel to places where there’s no wifi signal.) But there’s also the fact that Pokémon GO, while linked with the real world, can easily overwhelm the real world and draw in too much of my attention when I should be focusing more on what’s going on around me than what is on my phone screen. I haven’t walked into any walls yet, thank God, but I have caught myself once or twice focused on capturing a creature when I really should be talking to my family or rushing to catch the next train. (No matter how rare it is to find a Magmar in Port Authority!) It’s easy to think that since the game takes place “in the real world,” you stay focused on the real world—but it really just adds a virtual layer that could be a detrimental distraction.
I’ll admit that, for me, Pokémon GO is not life-changing or overly profound; it’s a unique new diversion, that’s all. Already I’m starting to get a bit bored of it—there are only so many times I can catch the same Pokémon over and over. However, I appreciate how the app is a way that friends can unite and play a virtual game in the real world, and I think if the app is used properly, it can help us be engaged with your surroundings and to notice details we never did before. Just be sure that you aren’t disturbing anyone when you try to catch that Pikachu!
Oren Oppenheim, 18, is an alumnus of Ramaz Upper School in Manhattan and lives in Fair Lawn, NJ. This coming fall he will be attending Yeshivat Orayta in Jerusalem; he will start college at the University of Chicago in 2017. He is currently a high school intern at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Contact him at [email protected].