Pokémon No?

“Braaaiiiinnnsssss…er, I mean: Buuuulbaaaasaurrrr…”

They’re among us: listing through the park, bursting into restaurants and stores in search of virtual sustenance. Yes, the zombie apocalypse is finally here – and although it’s not exactly the scene that AMC’s the Walking Dead might’ve pumped us up to anticipate, there are still some stark similarities (and differences) between the undead we know and love from T.V., and whatever-in-the-heck is happening throughout cities, towns, and neighborhoods across the world.

The pandemic I speak of is, of course, the Pokénomenon known as Pokémon Go. For those who either must’ve literally had their heads buried in the sand the past week, or who still aren’t entirely sure what a Pokémon is, cnn.com has a really great breakdown on the whole matter, covering everything from the technical aspects to the actual game-play.

Pokémon characters can pop up almost anywhere!

Pokémon characters can pop up almost anywhere! At least while staring through your phone….

Essentially, Pokémon Go is an app/game. Your phone uses GPS to paint a cartoony grid of the land around you: streets, shops, terrain, etcetera – pretty normal stuff that you might see via any other app as you try to navigate your way around the real world. The magic comes in when you track down and find Pokémon at any given location. A Pokémon (short for ‘pocket monster’) is a make believe creature with its own skills, attributes, etcetera that you can catch in the wild and then trade or battle with other players.

They’re not actually there, of course. They simply appear as a picture on your phone screen – though this is where the line between reality and imaginary begins to get both interesting and murky.

Gods, this an old person thing to say, but I remember when I was a boy, playing the original Game Boy Pokémon games in the late 1990s. Times were simpler then. There were two versions: red and blue, each containing slight variations in game-play and available Pokémon in order to get parents to buy their children the same game twice over. Pretty brilliant. The type of marketing savvy that has helped sustain Nintendo for the past 50 years as a titan of the video game industry despite their mammoth corporate rivals: SONY and Microsoft.

Pokémon Go is merely the next step in the continuing timeline of innovative gaming. But here we enter new, obscure territory where interactive gaming is being projected onto the real world, actually motivating people to get up and move around. And so what does this all mean? What’s the next step after this?

I like to think that the late, great Kurt Vonnegut would’ve had an essay or several to say something about the fact that I can now be minding my own business in a bar or a restaurant and somebody might at any moment rush up to me, their phone raised to capture a creature perched on my shoulder that seems so very real to its hunter, even if I might be oblivious to the entirety of the event.

The truth of the matter is that I’m not sure what to make of the most quickly successful app in tech history. I’m not sure where this is all headed or why.

What I do know is what I see, walking through the park on a balmy July evening. There’s hundreds of them. Phones raised, heads drooped. Mostly kids. 13-20somethings. The park’s usually empty after dark, certainly by midnight, but not tonight. Maybe not ever again.

Maybe that’s good?

What I see is people. Some alone. Some in pairs. Groups of four, or five, or six, or seven. People sitting in lawn chairs and on towels. Walking with backpacks. People holding hands. Black people, white people, Latino people. Not fighting. Not drinking or smoking or defacing public property.

I hear people laughing.

I seem out of place. Taking my seat on an empty chair. Neither judging nor asking. Just observing.

They hardly seem to notice me as they drift around, the occasional glance more a curious wonder of a Pokéless anomaly among them, before turning back to their own world.

They don’t seem to notice the moon, clear and cornbread crisp through the humid air. They don’t seem to notice the dots of light surrounding it, like Mars. I can tell this is Mars because I have an app. The ‘Sky Map’ app. It’s free, just like Pokémon Go. It’s a miracle of modern science: a chart of the sky and heavens that our ancestors – from cavemen to our own parents – could have only dreamt, if they’d been crazy enough to. A delusion in the mind of dreamers, here now in my hand.

Hmm...looks almost Pokéballish from a celestial point of view. What wonders are awaiting inside...

Hmm…looks almost Pokéballish from a celestial point of view. What wonders are awaiting inside…

They don’t seem to notice Mars. A whole other planet. A whole other planet ranging above our heads. The great rust giant. The God of war. Perhaps there’s no Pokémon up there – yet.

They don’t seem to be talking about the troubles of our own planet. Of jihads and droughts and chaos and coups. They talk about teams. Team Valor. Team Mystic. They meet others who talk about the same. They high-five and cheer, or boo and jeer. Perhaps training them for their future. Team red. Team blue. The lines are drawn in the sand as the tide burps and belches ever nearer.

Yet their thoughts are still turned downward, onto their screens. Onto Poliwhirls rather than poly-Gods in the skies above. Who knows what the future will bring. Inside their game. Inside our game. Who knows what good can come of their play.

Who knows what we can accomplish with the power in our hands. When we talk. When we play and work together.

Let’s hope we find out.

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