Pokémon Go, the virtual reality game app that has been luring people ages 5 and up off their couches and out of their air-conditioned homes this summer, is the brainchild of an equally invisible mastermind. Controlled by Niantic, Inc., a subsidiary of game creator Nintendo, people upload the game on their smart phones — for free — so they can wander the planet in hopes of capturing the elusive computer-generated, iconic monsters of the 90s. Once captured, you train the monsters to battle other Pokémon.
As much as I enjoy exploring uncharted territory, I am not playing Pokémon Go.
Back when my kids were in elementary school, I thought the Japanese anime characters were cute, harmless and it gave kids something to identify with. Similar to baseball, they collected cards to trade (and do battle) with friends. We purchased Pikachu backpacks, lunch boxes, stuffed animals, baseball caps and my daughter emulated the slightly stubborn, yellow creature, cheeks dotted red, for Halloween the year that her obsession with all-things-Pikachu reached its apex. I think she was six.
But then she discovered a new thing that was wonderful and moved on.
The premise of the revamped Pokémon craze is that you must go seek and catch the creatures by visiting parks, public buildings, museums, libraries and places of historical significance. There have been some whopping mis-hits — the National Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. and Arlington National Cemetery stand out — but overall, it’s a great idea because people are getting out and about, getting exercise, of a sort. You have to go to some lengths, miles in some instances, to earn your prizes. But some crass commercialism is leaching into the game, with businesses angling to designate their shops as PokéStops.
Instead of skimming historic sites, and businesses luring people in to buy stuff at their PokéStops, what if capturing a Pokémon was a learning moment?
We were biking with our son in Manhattan recently on city streets. Frightening, exhilarating, nerve-wracking — as I pedaled inches from monster buses, my helmet barely grazing their metal sides — those are the thoughts that zoomed through my mind. City scents wafted from shop doorways, sidewalk grates, and from the plastic bag a Chinese food delivery bicyclist carried precariously, the bagged food swinging from his handlebars. He zipped past me and I followed his lead, staying close, dodging and weaving through the clogged traffic, ignoring horns blaring, acknowledging his superior navigation skills.
On our journey from 88th Avenue on the East side down to the Brooklyn Bridge at the tip of the island, Harrison pointed out places of interest, restaurants he’d tried, and the Manhattan County Courthouse where he and our new daughter-in-law were recently married. Sight-seeing over the handlebars, I noted cityscapes and beautiful flower beds, and marveled at the skyscrapers. We stopped on the iconic bridge, spanning the East River, and then biked across its wooden boardwalk, battling hoards of tourists who strayed into the designated bike lane.
And last week we pedaled the South Platte River Trail in Denver, seeing the sights, admiring public art installations and enjoying fresh air and sunshine with a group of friends. We stopped for a photo shoot at the 20-foot tall Dog Tag Dog sculpture keeping guard over the grounds at the Denver Municipal Animal Shelter.
We were getting exercise and learning about our surroundings, but no Pokémon were captured. If I had my face in the screen of my iPhone, I would have fallen off the bicycle.
Let’s put some teeth in the Pokémon Go game and challenge Niantic to add an educational aspect to it.
I know there is some good in getting people out and about, and not everyone wants to bike through traffic. Sandy Myers, mother of an almost 16-year-old daughter and a son who’s eleven, says the game “is the perfect way to get geeks outside.”
In itself, Pokémon Go is pretty much harmless, except for the people who play it while driving, or the guy who fell off a cliff because his face was glued to his phone screen. Chris Green, a New York City graphic designer, enjoys catching Pokémon because it “makes [his] walks to work feel more productive.” But childhood sentimentalism drives it in large part. His colleague, Justin Xaisanasy, says he plays it “because it’s a nostalgic feeling. . . it’s fun and light hearted.”
When we were young we used to fantasize about catching Pokémon and being friends with them. With Pokémon Go that fantasy is becoming (somewhat) true and I think that is why people are so into it.
— Miji Um, Clinical Psychology PhD student
What if Niantic were to require seekers to answer one question related to each designated PokéStop? Before a monster could be captured, you’d have to learn something of significance about each stop. Let’s challenge the game company to add this feature.
Players can continue to get off the couch and get exercise. Myers, who minored in history and teaches yoga, says “we need to look back to move forward, reflecting inward, and learning. If you don’t know where you are, you don’t know what you need for growth.”
We might help create a new generation of do-ers and thinkers. And memories might be made in the process.
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Award-winning author Emily Kemme writes about human nature, illuminating the everyday in a way that highlights its brilliance. Follow her on her blog, Feeding the Famished, https://www.facebook.com/EmilyKemme, or on Twitter @EmFeedsYou . Life inspired. Vodka tempered.
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