It’s time to ban Pokémon Go.
The app, which is an off-shoot of the Nintendo franchise that pits cute creatures against each other in non-lethal bloodsport, turns smartphone-owners into real-life hunters. The mechanics are clever: The game buzzes your phone when a Pokémon is near, and imputes a graphic of the beast on the environment using the phone’s camera. The goal is to catch the bugger by swiping your finger across the screen. Collect enough of these colorful monsters and you become king of the nerds, or something.
The game’s seamless blend of technological fantasy and reality is wickedly simple—and extremely addicting. Pokémon Go is so simple that it’s beginning to infiltrate all manner of public places. Players complain the game is making them late for work. Thugs are robbing unwitting competitors glued to their screen. American soldiers are “catching them all” on the frontline. The Holocaust Museum had to chastise attendees for playing the game in a place of mourning. Ditto for Arlington National Cemetery.
At a local coffee shop, I recently had to experience the maddening frustration of two patrons taking forever to order because they had to catch a “Bulbasaur.” After unsuccessfully snagging the thing, they finally got on with their order, aloof to what happened. They were oblivious of the fact they held everyone up to play a video game. In public. As fully-grown adults.
Can you say, “pika pika, screw you”?
The distraction factor is only the half of it. Rumors abound that Pokémon Go is actually a CIA tool used to spy on unsuspecting minors (and plenty of adults). The company that developed the game had some connections to the security-industrial complex, namely the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. The app requires users to consent to giving up a trove of personal data in order to play properly.
It may be true the surveillance state is using Pokémon Go as cover to spy on innocent Americans. But, like the Snowden NSA revelations, it doesn’t much matter. Practically all smartphone apps demand access to private data, and most of our countrymen willingly give it up for commercial benefit. You could sit down every single American in a dimly-lit room and show them reams of facts and figures to prove that the government and large corporations know every detail of their life thanks to the smartphone. And I betcha a first-edition Charizard they wouldn’t show a smidgen of concern.
Another smartphone app selling off your data to big-time marketing firms isn’t the danger behind Pokémon Go. What’s at stake is something more fundamental, more anthropologic. Perhaps even epistemological (or maybe I’m huffing too much Koffing fumes).
Pokémon Go has enticed our popular imagination because it bends reality, mixing the real world with the fake world of little monsters. By transposing the form of sweet, capturable creatures on prosaic surroundings, it brings a flare to our benign lives. The hook is clear: Your life is lacking in excitement, so here’s a non-existent plaything to distract you. Have fun!
It’s genius, really. Pokémon has made an art out of alleviating boredom. And therein lies its danger.
In his book, The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction, Matthew Crawford dissects where the modern feeling of listlessness comes from. Kantian-soaked consumerism has made an idol of personal satisfaction. The digitized mode of living we’ve become accustomed to has eroded our value for the concrete, the tactile, and the tangible. Think of all the imbeciles you see twiddling their lives away on Facebook. Pokémon Go turns social media addiction into a game that never turns off.
Pokémon is the perfect representation of what Crawford calls “vulgar freedom.” We don’t just have the freedom to pursue our happiness within the bounds of the common good. We now have the liberty—and imperative—to throw off the burden of reality. Changing sexes, adopting a different race, catching a Rattata in line at the grocery store – they all stem from the desire to subvert the truth. What’s real isn’t good enough, so it’s replaced by something imaginary. We used to call it playing make-believe. Now it’s brave and revolutionary.
History tells us where the desire to toss off the shackles of the old order leads. Without objective meaning, we seek alternatives. This novus ordo seclorum is rarely any better, especially considering present-day trends. Reality TV slogans are our new catechism. Opioids form the Eucharist. Squirtle is our new god.
For furthering the degradation of Western society, Pokémon Go needs to go. My hope is that the app is a passing fad. If it has lasting power, more extreme measures might need to be taken. The DEA might have to classify Pokémon as a Schedule 1 narcotic.
I kid about the last part. But something must be done to end the madness. There is no pride in becoming a Pokémon master, just disgrace. Players need to be reminded of that. Some good, hard-nosed public shaming might be the right remedy for this existential epidemic.