I’m by no means a hard core gamer, so it should come as no surprise that I had no idea “Pokémon GO” even existed until the day it was released upon the face of the country as a free app for Android and iOS last week. As with most fandoms, I expect to perpetually be playing catch-up with this one. In fact, a lot of my friends are already forming gym alliances and evolving their pokémon, and I’ve just barely cracked level 4 and only have some very basic pokémon to work with. I unfortunately can’t play all day because of where I work, and I have a lot of other stuff going on (like this website!) so I can’t really go all-in except for a couple of hours on the weekend. I suppose my point is, there are definitely people out there much more well equipped than I am to write thoughtful, weighty think pieces about this gaming phenomenon. But I wanted to throw in my two cents anyway, because the very existence of this game and its almost instantaneous popularity have inspired me to do a lot of thinking.
Some of you might be aware of this, but my favorite anime, Dennou Coil, is finally available on disc in the United States (at least, the first part is; the second isn’t due to be released until late September of this year). If you’re not familiar with the show, a lot of people have jokingly called it “Google Glass: the Anime” because of its central sci-fi tech element – augmented reality glasses. The anime isn’t so much about the glasses as technology as it is about the elements of human nature that the use of the glasses eventually reveals in the characters, but I wouldn’t expect first-timers with the show to know that yet (a lot of emotional truth-bombs don’t get dropped until the second half of the series, via the expansion and then resolution of several story lines). To summarize without spoiling the finer details, the way the juvenile characters utilize their glasses is somewhat off-label, and through their explorations they come face-to-face with certain elements of human nature that seem obvious in retrospect, but revelatory at the time. When they form emotional connections towards simulated beings that only exist as part of the AR world around them, to the point that they grieve when those entities no longer exist, we suddenly realize that our own tendency as geek consumers to form deep connections to fictional characters and worlds and to then experience a sense of loss when those things come to an end is eerily similar and indicates the same thing – reality doesn’t necessarily correlate with tangibility, nor emotional verisimilitude with weight or mass.
I got a little bit flowery there (it’s difficult not to when you’re talking about your most favorite thing in the world!), so thanks for bearing with me. What I’m leading towards is that this anime series came out almost ten years ago (next May will mark its tenth anniversary), and was set in an undefined but clearly near-future setting which has still not entirely come into being. Yet, it has coincidentally made its US debut at a time when I can finally say I feel that we might be right on the cusp of taking steps to make the world of the anime into some sort of reality. This new Pokemon iteration is probably the first signal to me that we are making the approach.
Virtual reality and its sister technologies seem to be all the rage these days. After beginning as a Kickstarter project in 2012, the Oculus Rift VR headset was released to the public earlier this year, and they’ve partnered with Samsung to create add-on technology for the current series of Samsung Galaxy devices. Whereas earlier attempts at VR were strictly for stationary use, now you can literally carry a VR device around town in your pocket (well… the headset maybe not so much, but at least the phone/tablet portion!). The Oculus and its related devices are set to be used for specially-developed films, TV series, and games, among other applications which are probably not even out of the idea stage just yet.
To me, though, VR is still a mysterious and, frankly, intimidating form of technology that feels very unapproachable. It requires a huge commitment – proprietary add-ons or standalone VR units, for example – and of course assumes that, once you start using it, you won’t get migraines or end up with motion-sickness (likely consequences for neurologically-sensitive folks like me). You’re also basically chained to your location – if you went walking around the neighborhood wearing your Oculus, you’d end up tripping over your own feet or wandering out into traffic (and I’m only half-joking), since what you’re seeing has nothing to do with the real world around you. Augmented-reality technology, though, is more of a step up than a giant leap forward, as far as simulated action goes. What you’re seeing is the real world, enhanced with additional imagery that’s helpful or playful or serves some other functional purpose. There’s something inherently more friendly and inviting about it, since it takes something familiar and embellishes it a little bit.
“Pokémon GO” definitely is not the first video game or gaming experience to take advantage of advancing AR technology – several previous games for both common mobile devices and hand-held game consoles have incorporated the technology (whether via trading cards or similar collectible objects, or in other ways) to enhance a core gaming experience. The game that keeps coming up in conversation is “Ingress” (which I had only really heard about in the past week, but which is a few years old) which is considered sort of an AR MMO type experience with large teams that triangulate sections of territory. As is often the case, though, the early-adopters of the mechanic paved the way for an iteration that utilizes the same core gaming mechanic, but touches on particular nerve in such a way that it becomes extremely popular and turns into the face of the technology itself.
I don’t really need to say this aloud, but I think it bears mentioning anyway; people freaking love Pokémon. It’s been that way since my friends and I were playing Pokémon Red and Blue in high school, and with each new generation it seems like the fandom continues to grow and expand. The Pokémon series has always invited players to join forces in one way or another, since one of the primary attributes of the game is that neither version will give you access to all the pokémon of that generation. Sure, you could be a shut-in, buy two handheld consoles, both versions of the game, and trade pokémon with yourself, but the spirit of the mechanic essentially requires you to find a friend (or friends) and bargain with one-other to complete your pokédexes. This mechanic invites players to go outside themselves and interact with others, but there’s definitely a limit; if your friends are playing the game, it’s not really necessary to reach outside your core social group and meet others to get your money’s worth. What’s interesting about “Pokémon GO” is that the essence of the game is intact but the mechanics thoroughly encourage a different way of playing.
On Saturday my boyfriend and I decided to go for a walk around our neighborhood at dusk. It was my first opportunity to really give “Pokémon GO” a fair play through, since until then I’d either been busy or in a location that made playing the game impossible (it can’t be played effectively while riding in a car, for example). I noticed that a local strip mall had a couple of Poké-stops and so we walked a couple of blocks to get there. One stop led to another stop, and suddenly we were headed down a winding path into a large local park. We’d lived in the neighborhood two months already, and yet this was the first time we’d taken the time to wander over and enjoy walking along the small lake there. There was something particularly magical about this evening; the warm, musky summer air, the light fading from the clear sky, the sparkling lights reflecting on the water’s surface… and the groups of two or three people that we began to notice, their faces glowing with the light from their smartphones, chatting, and laughing, and interacting with their environment. Aside from a few individuals here and there, it appeared that the majority of the people out that night were there to enjoy some of their first experiences with “Pokémon GO” A few people yelled out “gotta catch ’em all!” as we walked by, and we all shared a good laugh about it. It was amazing to me to look around and just be able to sense that almost everyone around me was there for the same reason; as someone who doesn’t leave the house all that often, it felt brand new and fresh, like I was a part of an experience much bigger than what was displayed on my smart phone screen.
I think it’s worth mentioning that, aside from the gaming aspect of the experience, there are some tangible real-world benefits to logging in. Like I mentioned, I’ve lived in my apartment for two months already, and Saturday was really the first time I’d gotten out to walk around and explore our new neighborhood (well, the first time while not in a moving vehicle, anyway). Sure, I was drawn onward by the promise of gaining some extra items (and I was amused to find that the Starbucks near me is considered important enough to serve as a Pokéstop!) but I didn’t set out with any particular goal in mind and wasn’t taking a walk in order to “burn calories” or anything like that. Instead, it was carried back to my childhood, staying up late during Summer vacation and meeting up with kids in the neighborhood to play capture the flag in the fog of night. There’s something incredibly nostalgic about taking advantage of that freedom we have as adults, something we may or may not have had as children, and walking just to see what’s over the next hill or across the next bridge. Meeting up with random people is something that seems so difficult now that we have homes to manage and jobs to do, and yet this became effortless while we were walking around for that hour or so. The experience is like being able to share a secret with a million other people at once, to be part of a group that isn’t based on many of the things that keep us separated from one-another in other contexts.
What brings me back to Dennou Coil is that the anime and this game both demonstrate our ability as human beings to indulge in that shared magical act of transforming something that’s nothing more than a straightforward game or tool into something that furthers our connections with one another. The world of the show may be overlaid with imagery that doesn’t exist without the aid of the show’s technology, but to the characters, that upper layer may as well be part of the real thing. Dennou Coil teaches us that the realities forged in our hearts, the feelings we have towards people and things both solid and in the worlds of our imaginations, are real and worthwhile. They matter.
I’ve seen a lot of pooh-pooing on Facebook by people who aren’t interested in Pokémon, and while I respect their right to be non-participants in this fandom (just as I would hope anyone else would respect my fandom choices), it also makes me kind of sad that they’re missing out on that feeling of participation that I’ve experienced. Looking around and just knowing that the group of teenage boys walking down my parents’ street, or the two young women in front of Penzey’s in Uptown, were all participating in an activity I’ve quickly grown to really enjoy is a terrific feeling. I believe that technology should serve to enhance our lives, and while games are often said to waste time rather than contribute to anything of import, something that provides the opportunity to high-five a fellow pokémon trainer and heck, even just get out of the house and enjoy the real world for a little while, is providing a wonderful service.