For anyone who wasn’t around at the time, or for whom the craze didn’t exactly catch, Pokemon is a franchise of games, cartoons, and comics centered on a fictional world populated by creatures called Pokemon (a portmanteau of “pocket monsters”). The people in this world capture, collect, care for, trade, and battle these creatures, traveling around and having adventures in their quests to catch them all.
In September of 1999, I turned ten and began my own Pokemon journey. It’s a familiar story, especially because the protagonist of the Pokemon TV series, Ash Ketchum, began his winding, years-long adventure at the same age. For me, it was a matter of my sister giving me her old hand-me-down gray GameBoy and my parents driving me to a Kmart and buying me a Red Version of the video game.
That was enough. I was hooked. I watched the anime with a religious devotion. I used every opportunity I had with a computer to look up articles about the Pokemon games and characters and strategies. I saved for handbooks and trading cards, covered my body and my bedroom with Pokemon paraphernalia, and even argued with rage and passion against the changes that followed and left me behind as the franchise expanded and reoriented itself to attract newer, younger customers.
While the heyday of Pokemon is still very much tied to that period just at the turn of the millennium, it has continued to sustain a moderate, if smaller fan base. That shifted in July of this year when Nintendo released an augmented-reality smartphone game called Pokemon Go. The brief explanation is that by downloading his application and running it through one’s data and location services, users can move about in the real world and be presented with digital Pokemon characters to try and capture. They can visit local businesses, churches, and landmarks to gain in-app items and battle their collections of Pokemon.
The popularity of the game was stunning. It quickly became one of the most widely downloaded apps in the world, blowing up stock in Nintendo, and rubbing up against Tinder and Twitter in terms of overall usage. It hit at a perfect moment as popular culture shifts into Nineties nostalgia and the people my age who played the old games are primed with our smartphones and our desire to be reminded of the old days.
I resisted the temptation to download Pokemon Go for days. Mostly, I was afraid of getting addicted to it at a time when my focus was on finding some form of gainful employment after recently finishing graduate school, relocating to a new state, and getting married.
Those same reasons ended up being the impetus for my finally giving in: I needed an outlet, and Pokemon had always been one of those escapes into which I could fall. When I (rather shame-faced) told my wife that I had started playing it, she cheered me on, offering to drive me around our new home city to explore and look for new electronic critters to capture. She called it great self-care and I hadn’t really allowed myself to go far enough as to actually call it that. It was though, and with an honest degree of moderation, it’s helped see me through some of my depressive struggles that have come with a few very big life changes.
Hidden Financial Costs
This is not to say that the game is without its more problematic elements. For instance, before I ever actually downloaded the application, I saw written across multiple articles and think-pieces the dreaded term “micro-transactions,” one of the only aspects of digital content that actually make me grateful for ads.
If you are unfamiliar, micro-transactions are an increasingly commonplace system within videogames through which players can trade their actual, real-life money for add-ons in their games. Usually, they aren’t required—if you’re willing to shut down for instituted wait times and patiently play through the increasingly steep leveling system, games like Scramble and Angry Birds can be played and enjoyed without any need to ever spend a cent beyond the cost of a phone and data.
Other games, like the well-advertised Game of War, all but require players to spend large amounts of money to play successfully, and designers use manipulative game mechanics to take advantage of those with impulse and addiction susceptibilities to wring them dry. The user profiled here lost over $9,000 to these practices (disclaimer: I do not endorse the sexist nature of much of the article’s humor, but do find the narrative compelling enough and the breakdown of the design structure understandable enough to still include).
Pokemon Go thankfully does not fall into this sort of gameplay, but its inclusion of micro-transactions does add to the trend. More importantly, it adds a class-based element to success. Those with more money to spend on in-game items will invariably have an easier time of advancing in the game, catching more Pokemon, and leveling up their profiles than those of us who must attain the items the free way, by visiting real world locations and wiping for them hoping to find something useful.
Black and Brown Kids’ Safety
Another inherent disparity within the game is its geographical privileging of certain locations over others. Players of Pokemon Go must visit what in the game are deemed “PokeStops” to collect the items necessary to advance in the game. These are typically notable landmarks. Churches are very common PokeStops, as are post offices, government buildings, parks, and monuments. In many ways, this can be a positive aspect as local businesses see an increase in foot traffic from players visiting their locations.
The problem is where geography butts up against other aspects of identity. I, for instance, live in an area of the Appalachian mountains some distance away from the small but bustling downtown of my city. If I did not have the resources to travel down to it regularly, I would be relegated to visiting the same few locations local to me. This is even more terrifying given my status as a young man of color.
A homeowner in Vancouver who was tired of Pokemon Go players on his lawn posted an angry sign railing about them, and the image went viral. Plenty of people had a good laugh and a few had a nice discussion about the ageist dismissal of a relatively harmless pastime. When I saw this, the first thought I had was fear for some of those kids, especially the black and brown ones.
Pokemon is wonderful, but when I was playing those GameBoy games, I was in the safety of my parents’ home. I grew up in the South and have just recently moved back and am all too keenly aware what a brown body like mine can run into traipsing through the wrong lawn. As far as my cursory research has shown, no one has experienced any assault for trespassing, and both creators and players are pushing out messages to stay safe and avoid dangerous situations, but the game mechanics remain a reminder that there are bodies and economic stations that are more free than others to wander about with childlike glee.
Even in self-care, I must remember what I appear to be.
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Playing Pokemon As Self-Care
This is not to detract from those very positive aspects of the game, or the incidentally inspiring features that it presents. For example, one of those in-game items that I was discussing earlier is the “lure,” an item that players can use at locations to attract Pokemon to the area for 30 minutes at a time. Many small businesses located at or around PokeStops are using lures to attract foot traffic, driving unprecedented droves of people to their locations.
Many hospitals are designated PokeStops and a movement has started for visitors to drop lures at them so that children and others stuck there can play the game despite an inability to get out and about. While I don’t for a moment believe that the original intention for these purchase-able add-ons was to combat the ableist nature of blanket-asking players to navigate their communities, it is nice that more privileged players are taking it upon themselves to do so.
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Finally, for me it still comes back to that ten-year-old kid who collected and obsessed and loved these characters. At almost 27-years-old, my day-to-day carries with it a wholly different set of criteria and expectations. And yet, for a few minutes at a time as I’m walking down the street, across my apartment complex to pick up laundry, or sitting in the passenger seat while my wife and I pass an afternoon with a pleasant drive, I can be that Pokemon trainer again, as gleeful and happy and lacking in shame over it as I ever was.
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[Feature Image: A photo of a lime green subway car with Pokemon characters printed on the windows. The car door is open and there are people standing inside. Source: Todd Lappin]