I was a Pokéchild. I had a biscuit tin full of meticulously sorted trading cards and an undefeated Psychic deck built around Alakazam’s intensely frustrating Damage Swap power. My sister and I religiously watched each new episode of the animated series as it aired on Sky One at 8am every morning. The morning they surprised us with a double episode finale, we were late for school. When the Gameboy release eventually dropped in Ireland and I got my sweaty little paws on Pokémon Red, I spent a long and indolent summer trading and battling on the green with the kids in my neighbourhood. I played so much that I would go to bed with the infamously tinny Pokémon music still ringing in my ears. Back then, the world of Pokémon was colourless and rigidly two-dimensional, the gameplay repetitive and the storytelling lacklustre. But for all its flaws, the contents of that little red cartridge instilled in me a profound sense of wonder and curiosity.
I was eleven years old when the Pokémon craze swept through Ireland, which was also the average age of the protagonists in both the animated series and the games. I think, for many kids of my age, the near-universal appeal of the franchise didn’t come the collectability of the monsters nor the adrenaline of the battles (though these things were certainly factors). The beating heart of Pokémon was a world that said, “Hey kid, imagine if, instead of sitting at home and doing boring homework, you could be out travelling the world on an important mission with a loyal band of fantastic beast companions at your side?” It was an intoxicating proposition. When my Gameboy batteries were eventually confiscated and I was forced to go to sleep, I would indulge in detailed fantasies about what my life would be like if Pokémon were real.
Fast-forward to 2016 and suddenly the world of Pokémon is more real than that eleven year-old girl furiously tapping away at her Gameboy could ever have imagined. In 1999, the idea that almost everyone in Ireland would own a pocket-sized personal computer – one that could make video calls, respond to voice commands and surf the World Wide Web in full colour – was the stuff of science fiction. Now, my phone acts as a window to a parallel universe, an alternate world where vibrant monsters frolick in the streets. Pokémon Go creates a simultaneous sense of being privy to a magical secret and being part of a vast communal experience. The wonder is back and this time it’s on par with tumbling through the wardrobe into Narnia.
We don’t know exactly how many people are playing Pokémon Go, but estimates for the US alone go as high as 21 million daily active users. The app surpassed Candy Crush as the most popular mobile game of all time within days of release. It also shot past Twitter and might even be set to overtake Google Maps and Snapchat in terms of daily active users. An early marketing survey says over 80% of Pokémon Go players are between the ages of 18 and 34, which indicates that the nostalgia factor is definitely a huge draw. (It’s also worth noting that Pokémon Go is populated by the original 150 monsters, a direct appeal to the millennial demographic.) However, 34% of respondents also said they’ve never played a Pokémon game before, so this phenomenal success cannot be attributed entirely to jaded 20-somethings reliving their childhood fantasies.
Augmented reality is not a new concept, nor is this the first time it has been attempted on this scale in a mobile gaming app. According to games critic Leigh Alexander, writing in The Guardian:
“Pokémon Go is developed by San Francisco-based Niantic, a company with close ties to the heritage of real-world play. Before it spun off from Google in 2016, its best-known work was a 2012 game called Ingress, a science fiction-themed app which aimed to get users out of the house and interact with real-world locations […] Ingress saw over a million installs, but the cultural penetration of the game remained indistinct, beloved mostly by eggheads and inventors who already believed in the dream of AR.”
But where general science fiction failed to penetrate, the pocket monsters came, saw and conquered. Like Batman and Harry Potter, Pokémon is an established feature of our cultural landscape. When I was a child, Pokémania made national news in Ireland. (I remember chuckling at Anne Doyle attempting to pronounce “Wartortle” on the RTE Nine O’Clock News.) Sixteen years after the craze receded, my absent-minded father can still tell me which monsters were my favourites. (Although he will still be calling them “Pokey-mans” on his deathbed just to spite me). This cultural pervasiveness, combined with the delightful novelty of augmented reality, comes together to create a sort of comforting magic, an alchemical blend of the strange and the familiar. When I showed my father an Oddish bouncing around on our kitchen counter, he laughed out loud and said, “Now, that really is excellent.”
One of the main appeals of videogames is an immersive quality that, in my experience, cannot be achieved through other media. The player interacts with and influences a fictional world while the game mechanics keep the illusion of agency intact. Traditional videogames are experienced as a one-way window to another world; playing is like reaching through a portal to manipulate the universe beyond. But Pokémon Go allows us to carry the fantasy with us into the tedium of our daily lives, filling our route to work or our weekly grocery shop with surprises and opportunities. Honestly, I can understand why people are walking off cliffs and stumbling onto crime scenes while immersed in their hunt for Pokémon. I swore I wouldn’t be one of those idiots chasing Pidgeys out into traffic, but then I managed to fall out my own back door while trying to catch my starter, Bulbasaur. Today, I neared tripped over a low wall while trying to activate a Pokéstop. Even as I sit at home, stubbornly static in attempt to get this piece finished, I check my phone every few minutes to see if any more Drowzees have spawned in the back garden. The other day I think I may have disturbed an actual rat while climbing about in the bushes looking for a Rattata. Interacting with the world through Poké-tinged glasses is nothing if not addictive.
The mechanics of Pokémon Go are simple to learn but hard to master, which is commonly considered the gold standard when it comes to a game’s difficulty factor. If you, your adorable grandma or your seven year-old progeny wants to wander around lobbing Pokéballs at all the colourful critters, the app will let you do just that without penalty or restriction. But if you’re more interested in beefing up your ’mons and dominating at your local Gym, there’s a whole mess of hidden stats and battle tactics to get stuck into. (As a child who read Pokémon strategy guides for fun, I’m already optimizing my hypothetical squad.)
The game has also been praised for the way it gently, irresistibly encourages players to get out of the house, explore the neighbourhood and interact with other players. Even in my small rural town, the local Gym has changed ownership three times in the four days since the app was released in Ireland. Someone dropped a lure at my local Pokéstop yesterday and – as a person who’s a bit socially anxious and also developing that adult thing where I’m terrified of Youths – I was apprehensive about wandering down to check it out. However, the teenagers I encountered were perfectly amenable to my presence. One of them told me that loads of Venonats spawn at this location and that they’re actually a pretty good Pokémon. Part of me felt like saying CHILD I WAS CATCHING VENONATS BACK WHEN YOU WERE STILL GESTATING, but I didn’t. But that interaction did get me thinking about what it means to be part of the generation who has rode the Pokémon wave from Red & Blue in 1999 to Go in 2016 and how it affects our reception of the latest addition to the franchise.
Born in the late 80s/early 90s, We The Millennials are old enough to remember a world without the Internet, but young enough that our subsequent initiation into the digital world felt easy and natural. In some ways, hyper-connectivity shrunk our perception of the world while complicating our sense of our place within it. But in another way, it impressed us with the power of possibility. Throughout our adolescence and ascent into adulthood, virtual spaces developed at a frankly alarming rate. Each new development, each leap and bound infused us with a new lease of wonder, while our youth continued to insulate us from fear of the unknown.
In 2010, I wrote an undergraduate dissertation entitled “The Internet as a Viable Space for the Performance of Autobiography”. It was called that because I was majoring in Drama Studies and I needed to link my final submission back to performance somehow. But if I’m honest, my thesis was an excuse to explore a topic that had fascinated has me since my early teens: the disintegration of the barrier between the virtual and the physical. I drew on Baudrillard and Žižek to put forward the theory that the barrier between the “real” physical world and the “unreal” virtual world is inherently porous. I argued that more time we spend performing our identities in virtual spaces, the more difficult it is to make useful distinctions between reality and virtuality. I also spent a solid chapter dragging theorists (soz Derrida) who approach virtual worlds as vague and faintly terrifying abstractions, as opposed to solid edifices around and through which our lives are structured.
Millennials were the first generation to encounter the realm of the virtual not as an amorphous abstraction located in an “elsewhere” on the other side of a screen, but as an embedded reality that moves and shapes the physical world. In some ways, Pokémon Go feels like the logical conclusion of that encounter. It’s already raising fascinating questions about digital property rights.
Pokémon Go can be overlaid on the physical world at will and allows its users to spend at least some of their day navigating a kinder, simpler reality. Given the unmitigated shitshow that has been 2016 so far, the appeal is obvious. There are still cynics, of course; to read my mother’s Facebook friends on the subject, this craze is symptomatic of the lazy, frivolous nature of millennials and our penchant for escapism is the source of all the world’s problems. There will always be naysayers, those who feel discomfort when they see other people enjoying things that they don’t approve of or understand and, like someone plagued with a particularly itchy rash, simply CANNOT leave it alone. Their indignation is not interesting, but I am intrigued by their characterization of this new wave of Pokémania as a form of pure escapism.
Pokémon Go has extraordinary numbers of people out and about in the world, interacting with their locales and with each other in ways no one could have predicted. Are their experiences of connection and camaraderie less valid because they are mediated through a screen? Is the world less real when we gamify it? Augmented reality can be characterized as escapism, but equally it can be viewed as a process of transformation. As people deepen their commitment to the reality of Pokémon Go, the social contract is modified, communities are formed and personal bonds are nurtured, all under the aegis of a massively multiplayer quest for a lost sense of wonder. For a generation suffering from epidemic levels of depression, anxiety and social isolation, this is no small shifting of the tides.
Yesterday a man walking his dog said to us, “Are you catching Pokemon? It really is quite the sensation!” He was literally an NPC.
— Jordan Gibson (@gibsoncomics) July 11, 2016
When I was a child, I wanted Pokémon to be real. Now that I’m an adult, I have a more academic perception of what constitutes reality. Throughout the history of the franchise, Pokémon have always been understood to exist, at least partially, as virtual entities; when they are captured in a Pokéball, they are converted to an energy state which can then be “stored” and “transferred” via computer, presumably as data. So in a way, not so different from the collection of data-based monsters currently stored on my smartphone. The popular advent of augmented reality means that the boundaries between the world of the physical and the virtual just got a little (a lot) more porous. Pokémon Go isn’t the conclusion, it’s just the beginning. Sure, we can write it off as pure escapism, but that’s also a refusal to engage with a new and rapidly developing facet of reality. Pokémon are here and they are having a profound impact on the way millions of people approach the world around them. So, are Pokémon real? Suddenly, the question feels moot.