We need to talk about Pokémon Go.
Yes, this post is about Pokémon Go, because Pokémon Go has become a cultural phenomenon, and like any cultural phenomenon it is divisive. So divisive, in fact, that nary a day goes by now that I don’t see an argument break out on a Facebook post about it. These debates typically have a pattern. Someone – usually your average contrarian (AC) – deliberately baits others who they know are fans of the game by saying something like:
- You shouldn’t need a game to go outside and look around
- It’s not even real. Open your eyes and look at real things, real beauty is all around you
- So sick of all the Pokémon Go statuses, we get it you are playing the game
Unsurprisingly, this is followed by at least a couple of people, let’s call them Pokémon Go Defenders (PD), exasperatedly listing all the benefits of the game:
- Yes, but people are going outside, isn’t that a good thing? Who cares why they go
- People with social or general anxiety issues are able to use the game as a catalyst and motivation to go outside
- Players are meeting new people by gathering at Pokéstops, which wasn’t really possible for most people before the game
- People are appreciating nature, landmarks and new neighbourhoods thanks to the game
- People, especially young people, are getting exercise because of the game
And, this is usually met with one or more of the following responses from ACs:
- Yes, but isn’t that sad? Isn’t it SO SAD that people will only leave the house because of this game?
- What happened to just being curious and exploring your neighbourhood? That already existed before this stupid game
- If that’s the case then the next generation is doomed
- Someone bumped into me while playing the game!!! Some Poké player destroyed my garden. (Hyperbolic alternative: I heard 30000 people have fallen off cliffs and walked into burning buildings while playing this game).
- Are these people actually contributing to their neighbourhood or society?! Huh? That’s what I thought.
- I’m not attacking anyone, do what you want, I like games too, but these people should respect others and their property and those who don’t agree etc.
As per Internet rules, others will chime in with variations of:
- Who cares it’s just a game, live and let live
- More important things are happening in this world, and people are obsessed with catching imaginary creatures
- Horrible things are happening in this world, let people have their little fun, it’s not hurting anybody
- Someone mentions Justin Trudeau, or invokes Godwin’s law and mentions Hitler, or Donald Trump
That’s usually how these things go. Internet arguments are fascinating in that everybody thinks they won the argument and nobody thinks they are in the wrong. This applies to arguments about this “stupid game,” as well. By the way, all of the above examples have been paraphrased from actual Facebook posts I saw just today.
In most cases like these, everybody is at least a little bit right, but AC arguments become problematic when the intention isn’t to actually point out some truth about social problems, but to simply take away from, and disagree with, the majority. Worse still, it is rooted in a self-righteousness that is meant to position AC as superior to others who are engaging in the mundane, the popular, or the something-they-haven’t-tried-or-tried-to-understand. I read a comment today that insinuated that Pokémon Go players are “sheep” and continued to berate “unable-to-critically-think youth”. The original Facebook post baited others by proclaiming that while others were out catching “imaginary creatures”, they were out enjoying “real world experiences” with their family on a trip, taking in culture and so on. Another individual in the post rightly pointed out that a lot of people cannot afford to go on such trips, and that the app is free and far more accessible. Yet another person posted that they suffer from anxiety issues and found the app helpful, to which an AC replied “but your issues are not physical."
As with other cultural phenomena, Pokémon Go unintentionally reveals truths about our culture and underlying cultural discourses. Within this one Facebook post alone, ageist beliefs, class privilege and mental health stigma are apparent. I think that is sad.
Yes, it is disappointing that children and adults have become more sedentary. Studies have found that sedentary behaviour in children is related to: gender, socioeconomic class, race and ethnicity, the education system, and diet (1,2,3,4, 5). No, it is not sad that an artificial reality game is motivating them to go outside and move more.
Yes, it sucks that we are cooped up indoors, usually due to school or work, and that many of us do not explore our cities as much as we should because we’re too physically tired, mentally exhausted, have caregiving responsibilities or not enough money to do so. Class boundaries etched into neighbourhood borders also prevent people from going certain places due to stigma and fear. So, isn’t it kind of great that a “stupid game” is motivating people to go outside and explore places they wouldn’t have gone before? Isn’t it a good thing that people are happy to engage in a fun and physical activity, likely with their friends and family, despite stress, fatigue and the general dreariness of 21st century life?
Many people do suffer from social and general anxiety. If you’ve never experienced it, it can be difficult to wrap your head around the idea that someone can’t leave their house or get out of bed because of a non-physical problem. But these problems are equally debilitating. Not only that, anxiety often accompanies or exacerbates feelings of loneliness, depression and isolation. So, isn’t it brilliant that a non-medical or non-clinical/therapeutic intervention is helping people overcome their anxiety in this way?
It’s not easy to explore a neighbourhood or a big city if you don’t have friends or feel like you are alone. Isn’t it great that some people who feel lonely get to feel like they are a part of something? That they could potentially meet and get to know like-minded others? Even if it’s just for a short while?
In my research data, I came across a post from someone who talked about how the social media platform I was studying made them feel “a little less alone”. I thought about that post a lot during my study and it was great reminder of why I do what I do, and why I wanted to study social media, particularly with regard to mental health. It’s because I’ve been there, we've all been there. I, too, have been that person who felt a little less alone when I realized that others, even if they were strangers thousands of miles away, felt the same way; that I wasn’t truly alone even though I felt like I had no one to connect with “in real life.” I can guarantee that many, many people feel the same way about Pokémon Go along with other games and virtual platforms.
That’s another bugaboo I have: people who dismiss the importance of the internet, social media and the virtual world – that it is only important or meaningful if it is a means to an end that serves them. I could cite thousands of studies about the positive impact of the internet, video games, virtual reality ad nauseum but an AC would still hit back with “BUT AN XBOX ALSO KILLED THIS MANY PEOPLE ONCE." That is not the point. As with other technologies, articles and artifacts in society, like the internet, or cars, or even marijuana, it is what we do with them, how we use them that matters, and those actions are a reflection of our society. Relatedly, how you choose to react to such cultural artifacts and phenomena is a reflection of your ethos. Brene Brown says "we're hard on each other because we're using each other as a launching pad out of our own perceived deficiency.” So, if you want to shit on a person who went outside today and took a walk just to catch a Psyduck*, I'm judging you, not them.
None of these things are perfect, but they are, like Pokémon Go, a net-positive. All things considered then, the fact that Pokémon Go is bringing people together, alleviating stress, helping counter anxiety, and motivating people to move and exercise, explore new places, meet new people, and just have a little fun, is pretty fucking great.
*Pysduck is my favourite pokemon.