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The Gift Of Pokémon Go

I am a proponent of savouring simple joys. Not in an Amélie, stick-your-gross-hand-in-a-barrel-of-uncooked-lentils type of way, but I try to have a list of small, calming activities on hand for when the news is too overwhelming. Grilled cheese and tomato soup, old episodes of Gossip Girl, that song in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend where she sings “you’re just a poopy little slut who doesn’t think and deceives the people she loves.” You need a release when the world is too much.

Recently the world has been way, way too much. I keep waking up in a state of real panic, with my peripherals dimmed and my heart beating loud in my ears. Never mind the actual, real political and social horrors of our reality: My brain is committing self-sabotage all on its own. My apartment is a dump—there is a growing pile of garbage in the corner of my living room and a collection of beer bottles on my coffee table. I have played all of Dragon Age: Inquisition twice. I had a nightmare that I had $75 in my bank account—I’m not even safe from my worries in my subconscious. Do you sometimes get into depression holes where you know the way out but it seems insurmountable? You know that your friends love you and want to see you but the hole is so deep and you aren’t sure you’re gonna make it?

Before I downloaded Pokémon Go, I hadn’t spent any significant time outside in weeks. There’s a grocery store across the street that sells beer; I didn’t really need anything else. But on the Sunday afternoon when I downloaded the game, when the servers weren’t so overloaded that I couldn’t log in, I took a two-mile walk. My legs were sore and I ended up having sun poisoning from all the time I spent outside. But I was happy: At last, I was happy.

Pokémon Go is an “augmented reality” game, which is a genre that’s been around for a while but never really caught on like this—Niantic, the company that made Pokémon Go, had a moderate amount of success with Ingress, which provides much of the mechanics for their follow-up. The basic concept is that you take the world as it exists and put some other shit on top of it. That church over there? A place to get Pokéballs and potions. That park? The tall grass where Pokémon are chilling. The absolute best feature, hands down, is the way the game takes over your camera when you’re trying to catch a Pokémon. No, that Ponyta isn’t just some abstract object on your phone—it’s right there, over by the bench, prancing next to unsuspecting bystanders.

Pokémon is now 20 years old, and it’s been in my periphery for pretty much that whole time. I think I own all of the games—I haven’t finished most of them—and even if I think I’m not really into them I still feel a tug on my heart if I hear the battle music or look at an Eevee for over three seconds. That’s part of what has made Pokémon Go such a cultural phenomenon. People who played Pokémon grew up, had kids, and are now able to share that phenomenon with them in a really simple way. You don’t need to drop over a hundred bucks on a 3DS—you can just pick up your phone and tap into a part of your childhood.

But what made Pokémon such a successful franchise in the first place is that it speaks to a fundamental human desire: the need for adventure. Every Pokémon game and all of the seasons of the television show are about leaving your home and discovering a beautiful, exciting world. It’s about making lasting friends and sharing your joys and sorrows with them. And it’s about cute animals. I think most of us love cute animals. The great disappointment of growing up is discovering the world is mostly rote, routine, and that having a cute animal actually costs a lot of money.

Pokémon Go has been an absolute gift for me because I can have that adventure that I still crave. It’s a dumb, shallow, repetitive game, for sure, but I caught a Squirtle hanging out by my L stop, and within that frame of my phone’s camera I felt suddenly that the world was bright where it had been dull.

The game itself does actually encourage you to learn new things about your neighbourhood—the PokéStops, where you can grab free items, are all at publicly accessible locations. And you know what’s publicly accessible? Historical landmarks. Parks. Public art. And you know, I could have looked up how many murals are in Chicago and visited them at any time. But sometimes you need to hang a frame around the world to understand that it is beautiful. Yes, even in these moments of violence, fear, upheaval, and uncertainty, the world is still beautiful.

Pokémon Go probably isn’t going to change the world or anything, but for the brief period of time it is in the cultural zeitgeist, it is changing my small part of it. It is a reason to leave the hovel I call home. It is a reason to go places I haven’t been before. It’s a reason to see all those friends I love and miss so much. Because of Pokémon Go, I have been able to meet and pet a lot of cute dogs and if nothing else, I am grateful for that. I texted my friend, Fontaine, about this game and told her that I’m so happy to finally have my Pokémon adventure. She called the game a dream come true—and it is. It’s a childhood dream fulfilled, it’s a rope to lift you out of that hole, it’s a small joy in a world of great terrors, and I cherish the ability to see the world with fresh eyes.

INNERSPACE CLIPS