What is Pokémon Go? Is it the epitome of decadence? Evidence of America’s precipitous decline? No. Every popular game has its naysayers, but a doom-and-gloom attitude is harder to justify when a game is pulling players out into the sunlight to discover the places and people around them—and to do some good deeds to strangers in the process. The game’s ubiquity has given its playerbase many opportunities to be kind, from simply having friendly interactions while playing to showing up in force to walk shelter dogs.
Pokémon Go, in case you are mystified, is a mobile game that takes the beloved video game franchise out into the world, requiring players to explore their real environments in order to catch the fictional creatures. Players must gather resources from PokéStops, which are pinned to real-world points of interest such as statues, historic sites, public art, and even houses of worship.
As I wrote at The American Conservative, the game unlocks the potential of public spaces to become civic spaces:
PokéStops fight back against the flattening of the cityscape. Players of the game are being trained to orient themselves towards the sort of monuments and “decorations” that ennoble our habitat. The AR [augmented reality] makes more literal the idea (advanced by luminaries like Henry Hope Reed) that luxurious decoration of a public square enriches the city and its people. Perhaps it is a touch absurd to re-learn a communal love of these repositories of art and history because they provide us with virtual goods. But it is better than passing by them heedlessly, as if the city were as bleakly characterless as a modernist’s daydream. Better to be searching the nooks and crannies for monsters, and find civic flourishing along the way.
Additionally, Pokémon Go lowers the social barriers to interacting with strangers in public. While playing the game, I have observed and participated in lots of spontaneous conversations, all friendly and cheerful—even when I ran into a member of a rival team battling mine for control of a Pokémon gym, he volunteered tips and advice on how to play the gym battles. The bright aspirational tone of Pokémon may contribute to this collaborative attitude. The game designers also made it so that players are not competing against each other for Pokémon: There’s no reason not to let another passing player know about a rare Pokémon you spotted, because both of you can catch it without preventing the other from doing so. Swapping tips about Pokémon locations is a new form of greeting in the streets of Manhattan.
Some might be discomfited by the fact that the game is facilitating interaction between nostalgic millenials and youngsters just setting out on their first Pokémon journey. Isn’t it dangerous for kids to talk to strangers? Not really. Perhaps the game will do us another service if it helps ease parents’ anxieties about children playing in a free-range fashion. Kids will benefit from reminders to be safe when crossing streets and mindful of traffic. They will not benefit from cultivating a default attitude of suspicion toward strangers. This advice holds for Pokémon Go and for life in general.
One night early in my Pokémon journey, I spotted about twenty young adults gathered, phones in hand, around an equestrian statue in Tompkins Square Park. Apparently there were a lot of uncommon Pokémon in the area. I opened up the app: The park was indeed hopping with imaginary creatures. I tried to catch one (a Doduo) while the most outgoing member of this impromptu group of Pokémon trainers showed me a video on his phone: the highly-ambitious concept trailer for the game. “I get goosebumps at this part,” he said of the climactic moment in the trailer, a massive collaborative battle in Times Square where hundreds of players work together to capture the most powerful Pokémon of them all, Mewtwo. So far, the app as released has no mechanism for such large-scale events. But we can dream.
Back in Tompkins Square, the gaggle of Pokémon players made their way en masse to another sculpture: Someone had spotted the uncommon Pokémon Eevee, and everyone wanted a chance to catch it. My new friend, who showed me the trailer, mused out loud, “Maybe we’re part of a movement, guys. Maybe this is how the world changes: through Pokémon.” There were some chuckles. Perhaps all inchoate movements at first inspire laughter. Then the spokesman confessed: His phone was out of charge and he had to head home. “What type of charger do you need?” asked a young woman, and she offered a cord snaking from the portable charger in her purse. “Look at this world!” he said, wonderingly, as he plugged in.
Alexi Sargeant is an assistant editor of First Things.