I don’t really know much about Pokémon. I mean, I have a cursory knowledge of the characters and have gathered that they’re based on a Japanese anime series, have enraptured kids since the mid 1980s, and are more or less a distant relative of those side-walking Super Mario Bros. mushrooms, except they have way kinder eyes. That’s about where my knowledge ends. I don’t, for instance, know why they’re trapped in red-and-white orbs or why they seem so subservient to their ball cap-wearing masters who snatch them away from their natural habitats and train them for bouts against other creatures. And I sure as hell don’t know what a Charmander is.
Why, then, am I in Riverbank State Park, phone held out like some sort of divining rod, searching for the famed flame-spitting critter? Because, like so many others right now, I’ve downloaded Pokémon GO, Nintendo’s augmented reality game that lets players enjoy what can best be described as a Pokémon-centric virtual scavenger hunt that can only be exposed through the lens of a smartphone. You play and compete with others; the goal is to catch as many as possible. The entire thing sounds so silly, I thought, when I first heard about the game and saw newscasts about distracted players smashing into street signs and tumbling down hills. As I try to track down Charmander, who I heard was found in the park earlier, I still think it is, but I can better appreciate the craze.
As a '90s kid raised on a healthy diet of up-up-down-down-A-B-select-start, I have a soft spot for video games. I regularly run and gun through locust horde, sprint through Middle Earth decapitating orcs, and wander the wasteland eviscerating ghouls to wind down after a long day. At this stage in my life, that translates to a half hour before bed, the equivalent of streaming an episode on Netflix. It's a fine distraction, but not one to which I'd like to be tethered while outside. Give me a slow-pitch softball game, a pair of running shoes or, better yet, a carousel of Kolsch; I have enough texts, emails, and slack notifications to distract me from summer.
This game seems innocent enough. When I walk, my created character, who has spiky orange-tipped hair and matching visor, walks too. He follows a Google Maps–esque grid strewn with icons to tap and critters to find. If one of the highlighter-shaded creatures does appear, the map morphs into a Street-View feed of my location over which the character stands (or hovers or hops or flies) and I must tap and swipe strategically to catch him. There's also a complex leveling system for both my character and the creatures I've caught.
I'm a person with decent self-restraint. I can calmly ignore a basket of sweet potato fries and continue eating a salad at lunch, turn down a night of drinks when it's a gym day, or put my phone in my bedroom and not suffer from any fear of missing out when I run an errand. But this digital world is so enticing, I found myself checking my phone and flinging those white-and-red pods more often than I ever imagined.
Here's why: via the game, the banal parts of my everyday life were suddenly infused with a sense of fun. I found an ice Pokémon on the bread aisle while picking up a few groceries; the next afternoon, the game caused me to stray from my normal route home in search of a golden-backed creature, and I stumbled across a coffee shop I never knew existed. It was a mere three blocks away from my office. Even my walk to the subway became a chance to survey the sidewalk for hidden creatures.
At Riverbank Park, there’s no sign of Charmander. Faulty Intel, it seems. Or perhaps a glitch in the system. But I put down my phone and stay for a while, leaning against a railing to watch the waning summer light fall over the Hudson. Not a bad way to end a day.
After the sun disappears, I get up and look at my phone once more to see if, by chance, the creature is lurking about. A young man in a baseball cap stops me. Turns out he's searching for the same thing. We laugh, accept that we've both been duped and chat about the silliness of it all. The next evening, on the subway home, I see the young man sitting diagonally from me on the train. He notices me too and motions with his phone. I nod, smile, aware of the same secret world.