The phenomenon is more than a series of annoying Facebook posts from phone-obsessed wanderers — it’s an insight into the millennial Zeitgeist
If you’re in your mid-to-late 20s — or possibly even your early 30s … or just a total nerd — it’s safe to assume that your Facebook newsfeed has been practically consumed with talk of gym battles, faction wars and server issues. You’re probably wondering why your seemingly rational friends are wandering the streets (sober!) at all hours of the night. On behalf of, like, literally all of us, let me apologize. Because yeah, we might need to Pokemon GO calm down a little bit. But I swear, there’s an explanation for the mass hysteria. And it’s not because we’re all having a collective seizure again — that was just the one time!
Not unlike a stuffed toy inside of a claw machine, Pokemon GO dropped into the hands of a ravenous public in the United States late last week, and effectively reverted us all back to the wide-eyed 10-year-olds we were in the late ‘90s. We had box braids and crew cuts, jelly sandals and light-up sneakers. We were fueled by sugar cereal, convinced we could do anything we set our minds to and fixated on the curiously named pocket monsters from Japan to the point where many of our (deliriously religious) parents legitimately thought that the cartoon characters had to be demons, because we were clearly being possessed. What else could explain our unbridled fervor? This was our Star Wars. Bigger than Sinatra. More pervasive than Beanie Babies. We determined to catch them all.
Your girl was no exception. 1998 found me at the crossroads between Girl Scout troop meetings and MTV’s Total Request Live marathons. I was not just a girl, but not yet a woman: Someone who hadn’t quite figured out the difference between Cucumber Melon body spray and actual deodorant. It would be years still before I would learn that there was nothing shameful about the fact that I was developing poorly-repressed crushes on girls while my friends were starting to attract attention from boys. Also, I’m pretty sure that was the year Ginger left the Spice Girls, and Will Smith came out with that appallingly masturbatory Western movie. (I purchased the soundtrack with my own money. It was a trying time.)
But as I watched the Pokemon series’ protagonist, Ash Ketchum, battle his way through the Kanto region, on a seemingly never-ending quest to capture all 150 (at the time) Pokemon, I was transfixed. With loyal Pikachu at his side, he faced all obstacles head on, even when the cards (and Team Rocket) were stacked against him. Something about his Indigo League journey mirrored my own pre-teen perils, as I navigated foreign concepts such as “algebra” and “menstruation.” As he struggled to find his footing as a Pokemon trainer, I in turn struggled to come to terms with my bisexuality … which (spoiler alert!) would take the entirety of my teenage and college years to figure out, act upon and eventually accept. I mean, I may not have understood why I felt attracted to both football players and cheerleaders, but I definitely understood how to level-up a fire Pokemon. Just like Ash’s quest to become a Pokemon Master, my passage through the twilight of my girlhood years was paved with victories, defeats and enlightenment. It was less about the destination, and more about the journey.
Perhaps that’s why I spent hours writing ridiculously bad fan fiction, playing the card game at lunch and fastidiously recording the episodes on our aging VCR. Perhaps that might be why I threw one of the biggest fits of my life when my fundamentalist Christian mother banned all things Pokemon from our home, at the behest of the fear-mongering church pastor she was taking orders from (talk about a cultish brainwashing!). Pokemon was more than just a cartoon series or a trading card game. It was (and to this day remains) a worldwide phenomenon. When Ash threw his first Pokeball, he caught more than just a Caterpie; he captured our attention. Twenty years later, he still has it.
Which is why we’ve been completely riveted by the release of Pokemon GO, a mobile game app that finally makes it possible for us to live out our childhood fantasies. Like every other diehard fan my age, I’ve spent a fair amount of money on Pokemon for various gaming systems over the years, but for me, none of have compared to this one. Instead of sitting in your rec room pressing buttons while mushrooms grow under your feet, the game requires you to physically get up, to leave your home and explore your surroundings like a real live person! All in order to capture Pokemon. A simple trip to the grocery store is now an expedition. An afternoon in the park becomes a safari. Turning a corner means you could uncover a new Pokemon. This is augmented reality unlike anything we’ve ever seen, while (barring a few key updates that I’ve heard are on the way) being everything we’ve ever dreamed of.
I’m no longer watching Ash catch Pokemon — I’m walking in his shoes. My friends have children who they are now teaching about Pokemon through the game, and it’s been insane to watch the fandom come full-circle. I mean, not since a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away have we seen a fire burn this fiercely, with a practically spiritual love for the source material being passed down through generations. It’s so much more than just a game at this point.
So if you see us walking down Greenville Avenue, staring intently into our smartphones while you’re hitting up happy hour at the Blue Goose, it’s not because we’re immature. If you see us talking about our recent conquests on Facebook, it’s not because we’re being distracted from real-life issues. If you see us pull over to catch a Pokemon at a local business, it’s not because we don’t have anything better to do. For many of us, our Pokedex has been a map guiding us through our lives.
And, if nothing else, it’s getting people to Pokemon GO outside for once. Gotta catch ‘em all, after all!
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 15, 2016.