I enjoy an augmented reality. Who doesn't, really? If you could walk to the train each morning and find a magical fairy beast whose scientific name (as logged in the Pokédex) is actually Jigglypuff, a creature you can carry with you everywhere you go, whose song lulls your enemies to sleep, wouldn't you want that? This is the world that Pokémon Go offers me, and it's a world I entered on Sunday, July 10, 2016, at approximately 6 p.m. and have blissfully inhabited since.
I played Pokémon Red and Blue and one of the subsequent Nintendo DS games years ago—I watched the TV show, collected the cards—but aside from a shared language (e.g., throwbacks to the original 150 Pokémon, common Pokémon accessories and tools), these experiences are largely irrelevant to Pokémon Go. Moreover, experiencing an updated, reimagined version of a franchise I already loved is not why I've spent the last few days walking through Midtown Manhattan hunched over my phone, desperately chucking pokéballs at a Nine Tails that refuses to be caught.
I'm really not a gamer, nor am I even particularly great at video games, but I've played a few for Xbox One that operate within such enormous, beautiful worlds, and whose narratives are so consuming, that they became a kind of literature to me. I experienced this first with the Mass Effect series, in which the player takes on the role of Commander Shepard, a special-ops soldier who is given permission by the galaxy's governing body to go a little rogue and lead a ship into remote star systems. The galactic map is massive, the planets are diverse, and it was easy to spend untold hours just exploring each system, ignoring the game's actual plot. Similarly, anyone who has stolen an SUV in Grand Theft Auto V, gunned it for the beach, stolen a speedboat, and then made for open sea while the sun is setting, knows there's a thrill in getting lost in unfamiliar, gorgeously rendered landscapes.
Video courtesy of Maroinus Gaming/YouTube
If I'm going to play a game, I need to feel like I just fell down a black hole into a fully formed universe that I can inhabit. But here's the thing: In Pokémon Go, the massive world I want to inhabit is the one I already do; the exploring happens not from the helm of a space frigate, but with, you know, my legs and a powerful little computer that guides me down a path in my neighborhood park I've never taken before or to a lookout spot on the East River that I've never visited. And playing it in public is like joining a private club. My husband and I played it while walking to work this morning, and it quickly became obvious that other couples were doing the same, stopping at the same murals to get more pokéballs, catching Rattatas on the same street corners.
When I put out a call on Facebook asking friends to tell me what they love about Pokémon Go, my friend Adam, who lives in Washington, D.C., replied, "I've witnessed some fun, random encounters: a cop stopping to talk about Charizards with a pedestrian, a dad and son yelling that they have to take back their gym. I've also been aimlessly walking around D.C. more, a city I usually don't enjoy traveling through. It's been nice to not have a destination for once, other than an old church full of Ekans or a smiling Koffing at a McDonald's."
On an intellectual level, Pokémon Go is slowly preparing us to live in a world where augmented-reality technology is part of our everyday (leaving aside the fact that the app crashes constantly and the servers were down for, like, two hours yesterday). Earlier this week, Sweet wrote about a router whose accompanying app demonstrates through animation the amount of bandwidth a user is actually receiving when they hold their phone up to their router. Pokémon Go employs a similar principle, using the cameras on players' phones to display animated beasts, creating the illusion that they've appeared in front of us on our desks, as we walk down the sidewalk, or wait on a subway platform.
In other words, our digital spaces are colliding with our physical spaces. We're living on the threshold of a new world. Pokémon Go is our gateway.
Sweet staffers chime in:
"Pokémon Go takes me right back to my childhood when the only thing I had to worry about was if my Game Boy had enough batteries. Now I get the chance to do it all over again." —Natalia Tyndall, administrative assistant, @tallylabella
"Take it from an unlikely nerd who never dabbled in Pokémon as kid, this game is unprecedented. It bridges the gap between reality and ultra-reality, in quite a simple way. It's wildly addictive. If you haven't tried it, try it; everyone else is." —Michael Russo, video editor, @iammichaelrusso