In the second half of 2016, two roads diverged in an online wood. Each wound through a universe populated by fabulous creatures. One was delightful. The other was morbid. One knew it was fantasy. The other was deadly serious, and some who ventured there ended up spoiling for civil war, committing violent crimes, and brandishing knives, guns, and bullwhips against their phantoms.
The wise and good chose Pokémon Go, while the foolish and furious chose what came to be called QAnon. Or maybe it was just an accident. Maybe it didn't matter what kind of person you were before you entered. After you were in, you were in; your reality became significantly augmented, not to say distorted or even obliterated. And while QAnon is the subject now of much analysis—including in Clive Thompson's column in this issue—Pokémon Go deserves a closer look four years after its launch. The global phenomenon never went away. When contrasted with QAnon, Pokémon Go suggests that augmented reality games are not intrinsically corrosive. The players exhibit, of all things, a kind of online well-being—sociability and outdoorsiness, amusement and irony. While some in other quarters of the internet have gone gravely wrong in their hunt for enchantment online, millions more Pokémon Go “trainers,” as they're called, have kept their imaginations fired in a world where the endearing virtual monsters are mischievous or mighty or loving but never sadistic—and bear no resemblance to humans in the news. Pokémon also can't die; instead, they cutely swoon.
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“I've been a Pokémon fan since I was young, and when they first announced the game I was excited,” Bryan Escobar, a Puerto Rican HVAC repairman and apartment porter, told me. When the Go version launched in July 2016, he jumped in, playing a handful of times every week. Now he plays for hours daily. “Adding legendary Pokémon to catch by battling them in raids gave the game so much hype. Another sweet addition was when they introduced adding friends and trading Pokémon.” With the pandemic, Escobar continued, PoGo has introduced new features that improve indoor play, although on his days off he still walks between 6 and 12 miles chasing Pokémon.
Casey Greenfield, a Manhattan lawyer, came to the game later. “I blame or credit a friend who came to New York for a conference in 2018,” she told me via email. “I asked if there was anything else she wanted to try to fit in. She said yes: Community Day”—an event that celebrates some of the game's most beloved Pokémon.
“So she took me on an items run and showed me the basics of gym defense. Sunday found me and my son running in frigid rain after floating steel creatures.”
How much does she play now, two years later? “If you're playing, it's just there—maybe the way some people refresh their Twitter feeds,” she said. “It's not like being in your gamer chair with a portable urinal. I'm not saying it's more glamorous; I'm just saying it's different.”
The social internet sometimes seems to exist to slake our thirst for enchantment during our daily rounds. Greenfield's Twitter comparison was apt. There's a reason I tap the blue app a dozen or more times a day; a glance at quips by far-flung oddballs enlivens my routine. Likewise, during the short time I played PoGo, the gray sidewalks came to life with all kinds of weird stuff: sentient noses and pineapple lily pads. A walk to Key Food swept me through an invisible tollbooth into a kind of Narnia of kawaii. Better yet, no one could tell me from other tired moms.
Fortunately, there are more disciplined minds, like Escobar's and Greenfield's, than those who, quixotic about online fantasies, mistake their pocket monsters for reality.
QAnon devotees similarly relish being in on a secret and slipping around like spies; despite their singular insight into the true workings of the universe, no one can tell them from tired moms either. They, too, are intoxicated by their virtual creatures, including the dastardly ones they call “Tom Hanks” and “Hillary Clinton.” Like Pikachu and Butterfree, these cartoons were designed online. Life's mundanity dissolves when you play an alternate-reality game, and everything from broken sidewalks to stifling quarantines can turn into high drama.
But I said two roads diverged. QAnon became a holy war, while PoGo remained a game, requiring a willing suspension of disbelief. That funny little weirdo called Swablu is not really “there,” but for now we'll pretend he is. Most brains learn how to do this as children. We grasp that the world has room for both mice and Mickey Mouse, both the hanzi 鼠 and the brown-gray rodent it represents. Education is meant to cultivate nimbleness with signifier and signified. That facility is literacy itself.
Fortunately, there are more disciplined minds, like Escobar's and Greenfield's, than those who, quixotic about online fantasies, mistake their pocket monsters for reality. Pokémon Go has tens of millions, at times some 150 million, monthly players all over the world. By contrast, QAnon's numbers are usually given vaguely as “millions.” And while QAnon adherents are notoriously solitary, angry, and furtive, PoGo trainers say the game has furnished them with bigger, warmer, more adventurous, more active, and more engaged lives.
“One of the things I like most is all the people I've met,” said Nicole Rosen, a Winnipeg linguist who plays the French version of Pokémon Go, the better to relish the mind-spinning complexity of Pokémon names, which some in her field study for their “sound symbolism,” or “Pokémonastics.” (Don't skip that incongruously French accent aigu over the e in the word Pokémon—itself a wasei-eigo, or Japanese pseudo-Anglicist portmanteau word, for “pocket monsters.”)
“The game started off somewhat solitary and has now become much more social,” Rosen went on. On event days, “players all congregate in certain well-known areas and parks. They also added in-game friends and trading, which means people can interact even more. A lot of people seem to have taken it up again since being holed up at home, and the outdoors has been one of the safer places to be.”
“It is an almost unendingly generous and considerate community in which people want to see others win,” Greenfield said.
Elizabeth Carlen is a PhD candidate in biology who has appeared in the pages of WIRED for her research on pigeon evolution. Carlen is drawn to PoGo—the way Pokémon can be made to “evolve.” Some mornings, she sets research code in motion on her computer, then opens the app to catch a Pokémon or look through her Pokédex while the code is running.
“I'm a biologist; I like collecting and organizing things. My Pokédex is like my own little museum of animals I've collected.”
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Enchantment, taxonomies, off-road adventures, and forensic pleasures: A rough consensus seems to exist that these are the chief components of Pokémon Go's allure. There are surprises to behold, classifications to make, tasks to complete, mysteries to solve. But these qualities also belong to other successful ARGs, including Q. Even if the attraction to magical worlds is not itself destructive, players evidently require discipline to keep their virtual experiences in bounds. What's more, not everyone can play a game, meaning realize they're playing, and realize that what they're playing is a game. This may be true, even when the game is as well built and flexible as Pokémon Go. Niantic, the game's developer, has several layers of safety reminders in the game, and the game stops if it detects that a player might be driving a car.
With hundreds of millions of players, PoGo has still yielded no stories of people shooting up pizza places in search of Snorlax, or launching congressional campaigns to promote Darkrai as the chosen one, or murdering people to end the depredations of Muk and Kabutops. By appealing to what Carlen calls “the problem-solving, hunting-gathering part of our brains” rather than the affronted, bloodthirsty part, Pokémon Go is a sophisticated and humane fantasia, and it's gotta be the best AR game that's ever hatched.
But superlatives, I learned, are for outsiders. When I raved to Greenfield about the perfection of the game, which I took up again while writing this piece, she corrected me. “Fans seem to operate the same way Simpsons fans do—it's the best thing ever created, and it's a constant disappointment. ‘F*&^ing Niantic’ is maybe among the top 50 phrases I hear, at times out of my own mouth. This is probably like other gaming and superfan cultures?”
This article appears in the October issue. Subscribe now.
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