Gotta buy ‘em all
Pokémon GO, addiction, and the virtual consumer.
Other than excessive re-readings of the Harry Potter series, my 90s childhood was devoted to GameBoy Color. The portable device allowed users to enter different narratives via plastic cartridges—it also offered me an escape from childhood boredom. Pokémon Red, in which I became a tiny, pixelated blimp exploring a flat, grey world, was my favorite game. I was fascinated by the idea of caring for not one, but hundreds of “pets” with no real-world responsibility. The game soon seeped into other areas of my life; I hopped on the virtual-toy fad of the late 90s, carrying a Pokémon Pikachu Pet everywhere. I started sleeping with a Pikachu stuffed animal and forced my mother to accompany me to Pokémon: The Movie 2000 (sorry, Mom). It wasn’t just the game—I had become a Pokémon fan, and, by extension, a predestined addict of Pokémon GO, the virtual-reality app released this past July, 2016.
For the two and a half days after the app’s release, I did nothing—literally—but catch Pokémon. The morning of its launch, Pokémon GO divided (and distracted) my coworkers: half lamented the app, bringing up articles they’d read online about thieves using Pokémon to lure unsuspecting victims; the other half (actual players, myself included) denounced their attempts to ascribe value to our new escape. We were enjoying the game on our phones more than our jobs. And while I felt ashamed for spending my entire lunch break trying to “catch ‘em all,” I was, for the first time in a long time, abandoning the drudgery of my own life in favor of a little fucking fun. However, in my brief time as a Pokémon trainer, I became someone I detested—someone who would rather spend hours in a false phone universe than in books, or in activities that would advance my cultural awareness or fulfill my adult responsibilities. I was addicted.
The Pokémon GO obsession has been subject to both scrutiny and fascination. It’s another thing to keep us glued to our devices, distracting us from actually living. For those of us who play, the quest for Pokémon takes precedence over just about everything. And why? In my own case, it’s childhood nostalgia and liberation from a world in which Donald Trump is running for President of The United States. For others, it’s perhaps an unconscious participation in a digital rendering of the consumer-driven life.
It’s hard to ignore the similarities between Pokémon GO and the consumer tendencies that are cultivated by a capitalist system. In the app, the user is rewarded for collecting more. The more he or she collects, the grander (and cooler) the Pokémon options become. The user grows stronger and wealthier, ready to “battle” other users in the Pokemon universe (which, because it’s VR, is also the real universe), guided by a slogan that taunts, “You must catch them all.”
And yet the historical context for Pokémon itself is neither aggressive nor predatory. Executive director Satoshi Tajiri based Pokémon off of bug collecting, a popular Japanese hobby he enjoyed as a child. The franchise would only later expand into lucrative games, toys, and videos, amounting to $46.2 billion in sales to date. Like everything caught in the sticky American web of capitalism, it turned into a business (the amount of money my parents likely spent buying me Pokémon Trading Cards, movies, toys, and games, is horrifying). But unlike the business of making money, Pokémon GO manages to get its users outside and moving, a very un-app, un-video game thing to do.
This makes it challenging to hate Pokémon GO. Sure, its connection to capitalism is a difficult subject to avoid (and easy to “hate on”), but the app subtly and successfully manages to make physical activity a possibility for a community otherwise trapped still and indoors. Imagine telling someone who just said they’ve been outside and exercising for the first time in years that they’re just “participating in capitalism.” Shitty, no?
Another positive aspect of the app is that it forces users to engage with their environments. This app isn’t going to make me a Brooklyn history buff, but it has made me something of an aficionado of neighborhood murals, many of which I’d missed before playing. Using Pokémon GO isn’t the worst thing you could do with a smart phone. And “discovering” your neighborhood while getting exercise is a far more positive pastime than engaging with traditional video games, which keep us indoors.
The game may be exploiting our capitalist tendencies, but we’re not exactly being made into consumers by playing. As long as you don’t spend actual money on extra Poké balls, the game is free. In fact, if you’re spending time playing a free game that forces you outdoors, you’re presumably spending less time on Instagram and Facebook, both of which are rife with ads and blogs encouraging users to buy buy buy. Playing the app was a departure from My-Life-With-iPhone in the sense that I was on all its other addictive apps less. It’s embarrassing and notable that I didn’t once think about buying anything during my time as a Pokémon trainer (highly problematic, but I digress). I was moving, I was outdoors, and I was, suddenly, eleven years old again, focused on using something for entertainment—not as a mechanism around which my entire life revolved.
On whether or not playing Pokémon GO is necessarily good or bad, I’m unresolved. It certainly was fun, especially the part about revisiting my childhood fantasies and “playing” something. Play was such an enormous part of my upbringing—it’s absent from my adult life. But, alas, life can’t be all about play, and Pokémon GO consumed me as much as I consumed it. After two and a half days, I deleted the app. The kind of play that risks most of my precious free time to catch computerized creatures is not the kind of life I want, extra vitamin D or not. And while I’m here for nostalgia, my GameBoy never controlled me the way my iPhone does. I should probably take more time to walk around the park for no reason and put down my phone. And, maybe someday, when I’m a more balanced human, I’ll have the discipline to redownload Pokémon GO (and play only during playtime).
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