As a child, I was terrified of television. Not from any of the typical myths parents feed kids: that too much time on the couch breeds laziness, for example, or that dumbed-down programming rots brain cells. Instead, I was afraid the characters on-screen would come to life. It took me a while to fully grasp the distinction between fiction and reality, and I didn’t understand why something that moved and spoke and looked fully alive on a TV set couldn’t start walking and talking in our living room. Already shy around strangers, I thought bringing the monsters and mad scientists that populated children’s TV shows into our house sounded more like a nightmare than a form of entertainment.
In time, the barrier between the immediate world and the world on the screen hardened. By second grade, I was watching movies, and my younger sister—who never shared my anxieties—made PBS Kids an after-school ritual. Yet while my parents restricted our TV consumption to shows they deemed “educational,” my favorites were the outlandish, fast-paced animes I could watch only at friends’ houses— shows like Yu-Gi-Oh!, Digimon, and Pokémon.
When Pokémon Go came out this past July, I didn’t think much of it. I’d sold my card collection in fifth grade, ready to leave my nerdy, tomboyish childhood behind for clothes, boys, and the little else preteen girls were supposed to be interested in. It was funny, I thought, that the cast of creatures I’d grown up with were making a comeback, albeit in a totally different medium. Any pangs of curiosity I squashed by reminding myself that this was, after all, a game for kids.
I began hearing about Pokémon from friends and coworkers, some five and ten years older than me. In school, playing Pokémon past a certain age made you something of an outcast, a gamer who hadn’t quite grown up. I knew kids I’d traded cards with in elementary school who still met on Friday nights to play Magic the Gathering and Dungeons and Dragons in a downtown basement. They wore Slayer t-shirts and didn’t wash their hair and had a strange, ghoulish air about them, like they spent more time in the universe of their games than our own.
Pokémon Go wasn’t like that. People talked about Pokémon at parties, at work, on public transportation. Once I downloaded the game I was struck by how readily it started conversations. I was living in Boston, a city notorious for its keep-to-yourself culture, and it shocked me how many people would use the green map on my iPhone screen to segue into a more personal dialogue. It was like we were all in on a joke together—children still playing video games, only dressed up as adults.
Still, I never played without a twinge of guilt. When other commuters looked over, I’d open another screen, embarrassed by the satisfaction I still derived from catching a cartoon. I wondered what it meant to spend so much time disconnected from their world while still embodied in it. I read articles about people running into traffic, crashing their cars trying to catch a digital image perched on their dashboard.
At first, I dismissed these stories as sensationalist. After all, shutting out the world for a phone screen was hardly a new phenomenon. But playing Pokémon Go wasn’t ignoring the real world, exactly. It was more like looking at the same world through a highly distracting lens. In addition to the familiar parks, office buildings, and subway stops that lined my commute, I saw gyms, Pokéstops, and the animated creatures I’d once watched only on TV. If texting, tweeting, scrolling through Facebook— essentially doing anything on a smartphone—meant leaving real space to participate in virtual space, Pokémon Go felt like the first time this virtual space was actually invading real space. In a sense, my childhood phobia had finally realized itself.
I wish I could say this slightly dystopian perspective was what made me stop playing. In truth, though, I just got bored. Initially, the game’s augmented reality offered a way to translate otherwise monotonous hours commuting into hours of near-immediate gratification. Instead of waiting for the bus, I was scoring points, leveling up, advancing in a digital universe whose map matched my own. But as my collection expanded, the easy thrill of catching Pokémon came to feel as two-dimensional as any other form of mindless entertainment.
Virtual reality aside, Pokémon Go captivated me because it was fun. Surreal as it first was to see cartoons imposed on a camera screen, when I opened the app, it wasn’t to contemplate the increasing digitization of human experiences, or the implications of inhabiting two worlds at once. It was because throwing Pokéballs and earning experience points was a rush. That was what felt the most childish about it—that we were willingly funneling our time and attention towards tasks that were, underneath their high-tech trappings, as basic and brainless as any arcade game.
Early on, it felt almost defiant, like a collective rejection of adulthood. Inside each fellow players’ knowing smile was the affirmation that the instantaneous, unsophisticated joy we felt at catching new Pokémon wasn’t something to be ashamed of; that you were never too old to get sucked into—and delight in—a video game. But with every new level, the limited set of challenges felt less and less compelling, until I found myself opening the app for no reason other than habit. If part of what Pokémon Go sold us was a trip back into childhood, it seemed, it could only last so long. Maturity might steel us to old fears, but I wonder if the same thickened skin doesn’t also blunt our sense of excitement. Maybe that’s for the best.
Looking back, the most redemptive part of my gaming wasn’t inside the game at all. For years, I’d struggled to connect with my younger stepbrother, Joe. For the first time, we were living in the same house, and I hoped family dinners would open up opportunities for more than two word conversations. Still, we passed the first month of summer in detached silence. It wasn’t until I mentioned Pokémon at some point in July that we finally began talking instead of merely acknowledging one other. Simple and superficial as it was, I think the game gave us a language we both understood. Like the strangers on the subway, our shared stake in an artificial world had, at least temporarily, dissolved the screen between us in this one