Pokémon Go: Beautifully Disappointing

Between the ages of eight and eleven, I was secretly sacrilegious. Whenever I said a prayer, I would tack on a silent addendum, hoping that God might hear it and make it so. Even as a child, I knew that my plea, while not technically forbidden by the man upstairs, would certainly be frowned upon by the people around me whose health and safety I was supposed to be praying for. Yet as the eight-year-old intermediary between the divine and the mortal, I always slipped in a secret extra stowaway prayer, right between gratitude for the sacrifice of the son and hope to gain nourishment from our meal: I repeatedly asked God to do me a solid and make Pokémon come to life.

As a child of 1995, I never knew a world without Pokémon. Between the cards, the show, and the handheld video game series (the most important of all on the mean streets of Lowell Elementary School), Pokémon rises to the top of my list—alongside Harry Potter, Star Wars, and Lego—of fantasy worlds that defined my upper-middle-class childhood, fraught with an optimistic sense of adventure and a taken-for-granted right to self-expression, two of the traits that millennials are known for.

I am 21 now. Technically an adult, but socially a child, leaving me stuck between two sets of norms. I think fart jokes are really funny, but I work 20 hours a week while taking classes. I have a tuxedo, but I would rather wear one of my five dinosaur t-shirts. I have a smart phone, but I recently downloaded Pokémon Go on it.

From the Japanese game developer Nintendo, the maker of the original Pokémon franchise, Pokémon Go represents Nintendo’s first serious foray both out of their own system of consoles and into Augmented Reality. The game, available for Android and iOS systems, attempts to deliver the experience of the original to our day-to-day lives by allowing players to explore the actual area around them in search of Pokémon. . The ideas of exploration and collection (the intrinsic motivation of Ash, the protagonist of the anime) are central to the spirit of Pokémon Go—and fans are downloading the game in droves. In just under a week after its July 6 debut, Pokémon Go became the most popular app on both iOS and Android app stores and surpassed both Tinder and Twitter’s Daily Active User count. As The New York Times points out, Pokémon Go suggests that millennials are getting old—the app is our “First nostalgia blast,” as Quentin Hardy writes. Yet it is because of this unprecedented wave of popularity that game developer Niantic found itself hopelessly underperforming in terms of server availability, creating an unplayable game for much of the first few days, as well as serious, game-breaking bugs which persist to the present.

Pokémon Go simultaneously falls short of and surpasses my hopes. Since childhood, my favorite aspect about playing Pokémon has always, always been the emotional attachment that I form with my Pokémon. The motto “Gotta catch ‘em all” never got to the heart of the trainers’ particular bond with their individual Pokémons. Rather, at the core of the franchise was that the Pokémon team you assembled became an identifier. To play Pokémon—especially as a child who was not very good at reading or critical reasoning (or lots of things, for that matter)—was to invest a huge amount of time in these creatures who became digital pets, if not a sort of virtual friend group. You grew as a trainer as your Pokémon leveled up, got stronger, evolved. You inevitably felt a deep connection with specific Pokémon, especially your starter—a choice of one of three Pokémon, impossible to obtain anywhere else in the game.

That sort of personal connection is, to a large extent, absent in Pokémon Go. The way the player evolves is by catching more of the same Pokémon; the instant you catch a duplicate Pokémon with higher Combat Power than your current Pokémon, your Pokémon is effectively useless, ending your relationship with it. To further remove emotional attachment, the game incentivizes trashing your older Pokémon when a newer, stronger replacement comes along, by allowing you to trade them in for candies, which are the only way to boost power or evolve your Pokémon. Whereas in the video game or anime version you might battle against wild Pokémon, against other trainers, or against gyms to strengthen your Pokémon, this element of the game is jarringly absent in Pokémon Go. In addition, the fact that one can carry up to 250 Pokémon at any given time, rather than the traditional six, makes party choice entirely irrelevant. In all, these features create a sense of total detachment between player and Pokémon. With an absence of restriction, we see a commensurate absence of personalization, as the trainer would have to make strategic decisions about who to take and who to leave at home.

Indeed, I feel little to no attachment to the Pokémon in Pokémon Go; in fact, I transferred my starting Pokémon, squirtle, when I captured his evolved form wartortle, a treacherous move that would have been a huge emotional and strategic blunder in the Pokémon games of my youth. In doing so, I felt almost evil, like Team Rocket, the villains in the anime, who always are defeated because their desire for powerful pokémon keep them from forming the relationships necessary to triumph. The 12-year-old version of myself would not approve of my action: At that age, I once cried because I had loaned my sister mycopy of Pokémon Sapphire, and she had released my sceptile, the first Pokémon I had ever had and my best friend in the game. The juxtaposition of these two truths is jarring to me, and it saddens me that I have not, and most likely will not, form these kinds of emotional attachments to my Pokémon in Pokémon Go.

In a larger sense, the emotional deficiency of Pokémon Go represents the inevitable betrayal of my childish values—implicit trust and unconditional friendship—that marked the relationships I held in the days when I played Pokémon after school every day. These betrayals are inevitable; they make way for relationships that we cultivate and we work towards. I believe that this sort of sacrifice is necessary, and possibly good, but I can’t help shake the feeling that there is a commensurate wonder lost from the world during the process.

But the weakness of Pokémon Go lends itself to a certain kind of strength. When on the constant search for new Pokémon, one must physically walk places—a lot of places. The first full day that I used Pokémon Go, I walked 17 miles and burned 1260 calories. Health benefits and aching legs aside, my 17-mile expedition led me to run into ten strangers who were also clearly playing in Allston, near the Harvard Athletic Center. (I could tell they were playing when they walked by talking about fighting gyms.) So I braved one of the biggest nerd barriers and introduced myself. We talked. We exchanged tips. We griped about the slow rollout. I made genuine human connections while playing a video game. This is the strength of Pokémon Go. While I don’t feel any real attachment to the Pokémon, I did form real attachments to people. A few days later, after my roommates downloaded the game, we walked to the Charles River to try to catch goldeen. (We failed.) The game fosters these kinds of genuine human experiences, which are often hard to do in adult or, in my case, pseudo-adult life.

In all, I feel two ways about the game. On a selfish level, I’m disappointed. I feel like it has been neutered and released too early. I want to feel submerged in the fantasy world I knew as a child, yet I know that I can probably never truly return to that place of unbridled optimism. This bittersweet, nostalgia-filtered anguish has led me not only to feel dismayed about the game, but to play it in an attempt to recapture the feeling. It represents a reality that I’m aging, that the world I knew is falling away from me as we hurtle into the great unknown of adulthood. I have not yet graduated from college, not yet been forced to put away my childish things. As my adolescence stretches out into my early twenties, the expectations for my behavior become unclear. This is the field in which Pokémon Go operates. It is a game for me, for right now.

I can’t say that I’ll be playing it in ten years, I can’t say that I would have played it ten years ago. But in this moment of trepidation and uncertainty, it serves as a bit of the past to cling to, but also something that helps us interact with the present. It is the familiar and the unknown. It is, whether by design or happy accident, contradictory. Millennials, rejoice.

Image Credit: Wikipedia // Game Freak

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