Whenever something gets wildly popular very suddenly, people tend to get burned out and start to hate. Maybe it’s cupcakes, or Garden State, or shoulder pads. With Pokemon Go, the effect was almost immediate: people were either way into it or they believed it was the downfall of everything good in the world. The question, repeated by smug people everywhere, was:
Why are a bunch of grown-ass adults obsessed with a stupid, glitchy game about catching fictional animals?
Hmmm… Isn’t ranking the worth of what people do with their leisure time — in a world where Keeping Up with the Kardashians is a very successful television program — a slippery ass slope? Besides, like any activity, the way you engage with Pokemon Go is different for everyone. If we’re going to ask why people are “obsessed,” we have to also ask what part of the game people are actually obsessed with. For me, it’s certainly not the “gameplay” — it’s the fact that Pokemon forces me to interact with the world around me.
This might sound crazy, and leave me open to lots of snark, but in just a few weeks, Pokemon has completely changed the way I view my community in Richmond, Virginia. See, I work from home. And on top of that, I have clinical depression. So sometimes I stay inside for weeks and only leave the house to go to the grocery store… if that. The lust for adventure I once had has been missing for a long time: squashed by lack of funds and lack of time. Then comes this game — which creates enough nostalgia in me to pique my interest — and it’s free. Sure, you can pay for extra things, but it’s not like the game is unplayable without spending money. I personally haven’t spent a dime yet. So far, I’ve beaten a couple of gyms. I’ve got about 66 Pokemon in my Pokedex. But honestly, that’s not even the point. Not by a long shot.
I’ve discovered an entire new world while playing this silly, stupid, over-hyped game.
For one thing, I’ve begun talking to my neighbors. For too long, I’ve complained that I don’t have any friends, or that all my friends are online. To some extent, that’s true, but that’s only because I was living behind the safety of a computer screen instead of walking outside to engage my surroundings. And I’ve been missing out in a big way.
I’ve only been living in Richmond since 2014, and I moved to a different part of town over the summer. And working from home? Typically being an indoorsy, computer-obsessed writer geek? That’s definitely not a recipe for an active lifestyle. I’ve been living here and loving it here, but really I only ever knew the inside of the occasional restaurant.
Now, every day, I look forward to taking walks around my city (yes, to chase stupid-ass Pokemon). I’ve become more active, I’ve met more people, and I’ve been connecting with human beings in a way that I’d been desperately missing without realizing it. I’m no longer just a bystander in my neighborhood: I’m an active part of it. I’ve found local artisan food markets that weren’t on Google. I became a member of a local brewery that’s within walking distance. I’ve learned the names of people I’ve seen a million times but never spoken to.
PSSSST here’s the real secret. You don’t need to play Pokemon Go to experience all of that in your neighborhood, but if that helps to get you outside, that’s fine too. For me, even if I’m busy or depressed, it’s hard to resist the appeal of knowing that you’re only 0.5km away from hatching your 10km egg. Sound weird to you? Life is weird. But life can be fun, too. And if you don’t think a game like Pokemon Go is fun, you’re probably not having a lot of fun yourself already.
The truth is that getting out there and exploring what’s outside your front door is an activity that can be done by anyone. You don’t need money, you don’t need fancy hiking boots, you don’t even need a smart phone. You just need a sense of adventure and a willingness to explore the unknown. Abandon your fears at the door and talk to the people walking down the sidewalk. Ask people if they need help. Bring water bottles to give to the homeless on hot days. Smile. Engage in conversation. Do something that makes you uncomfortable. Get to know your neighbors and your neighborhood. Support the local businesses you see. Walk. Walk. Walk. And then walk some more.
Look, I get it. It’s easy to be dismissive of Pokemon Go as a silly trend thought of by stupid “lazy” millennials who are still obsessed with the cartoons from their childhood. Or the “downfall of society” (Oh, really? It’s somehow less worse than watching grown men smash into each other in games run by an organization that protects domestic abusers?). But I’ve never seen a gaming “trend” that seemed to shift society toward human interaction as much as this one has. When I visited Monroe Park (a park I’d literally driven by hundreds of times, but had never once visited) to take advantage of the Poke Stops, a student from the nearby Virginia Commonwealth University exclaimed to me, “Wow, I didn’t know this was such a happening place!”
The fact is, anywhere can be a “happening place” as long as there are people there — a sentiment which has been expressed a million different ways since the dawn of time, but is still somehow forgotten.
Point being, it’s a big world out there, and even if you’re not playing Pokemon Go, you can still travel across the land, searching far and wide for… whatever you want, really. I search for Pokemon, but what I discover — community engagement and hidden local treasures — is the real payoff.
Oh, cool, just a mile from my house there was AN ENTIRE HIDDEN BEACH on the James River and I had no idea. But you still think Pokemon Go is stupid?
A freaking Mona Lisa painting completely hidden in an alleyway near my house, surrounded by weeds and garbage cans. It was a Poke Stop — I never would have found it otherwise.
A photo of VCU students playing Pokemon Go at Monroe Park in Richmond. I’d driven by it thousands of times and never stopped until now.