One night a couple weeks ago, my 13-year-old niece explained the fundamental concept of Pokémon Go—you use your phone to hunt for imaginary Japanese animals out in the real world, scoring points when you find them. I replied, “Be careful not to chase a Pokémon that’s inside a windowless van.” Indeed, Pokémon-based mayhem soon unfolded as the virtual world collided with the real one. People are driving into trees, falling off cliffs and finding dead bodies in the woods, all in pursuit of Nintendo’s imaginary monsters. When my friend Louis opined that this whole situation sounds really dumb, my niece told him he just doesn’t understand it. “Oh, I understand it,” he said. “I just don’t get it.”
Neither do I, so I download the app and create a Pokémon avatar. I name it JamesKPolkYMon, after our nation’s 11th president, who added 800,000 square miles to the United States during his single term. He also died of cholera three months after he retired, which was pretty punk rock of him. Talk about a mic drop.
I can’t even begin to catalog the bewildering web of strictures that govern Pokémon Go, but the main idea is that you need to physically perambulate from place to place in order to advance in the game. So I fire up my phone while walking my dogs. Within 100 yards, a rat-like cartoon creature appears on the map, and I switch the view to augmented reality mode. This is the part that everybody loves. Instead of a video-game map, it’s my street in front of me, viewed through the camera. Except my boring Pokémon-free world now includes a fictional purple animal who’s hopping around and beckoning me to catch him, which I accomplish by throwing red balls at him.
The idea is to assemble a menagerie of these things and then, uh… I don’t know. I’m only a Level 3, so I’m still not allowed to train them at a gym. Yes, your goal is to eventually take your imaginary animals to an imaginary gym. Why? I don’t know. I have a hard enough time taking my real body to the real gym, so it’ll be a while before my hierarchy of priorities includes worrying about whether my Pokémon have unhealthy BMIs.
Still, I do enjoy catching them. The problem is that the game’s logic doesn’t care about property lines or toxic waste dumps or active firing ranges. It’s going to place its Pokémon wherever it sees fit, which is how I find myself wandering my neighbor’s front yard in pursuit of an Oddish. There I am, furtively hunched over my phone, glancing up at his house and hoping nobody’s home, when it occurs to me that I’m being a huge idiot. Here I am, a grown man, trespassing in a neighbor’s yard so I can play a video game. What am I doing? I should go downtown. There’ll be lots more Pokémon there.
My wife is pulling in as I’m leaving, so I tell her I’m going to get a coffee, which sounds saner than saying I’m heading out to play Pokémon. She would like a coffee too. Great: How am I going to carry two coffees while catching Pokémon? It’s pretty inconsiderate of her to put me in this position, but I decide to compromise (with myself) by parking several blocks away from the coffee place. That’ll give me time to do some hunting.
When I get out of the car, it’s like I’ve stepped into some Stephen King town where everything is just a little bit off. Everyone is playing Pokémon Go. Cars are stopping in strange places—a guy in a Durango ignores 10 empty spaces and pulls up right in front of a fire hydrant, which I see on my phone is the location for a gym. “Look at that freakin’ guy,” I think. “He must be a Level 5. So cool.”
A group of people dressed as Santa’s elves walk past, staring at their phones. An oncoming Corvette swerves way out of its lane. A guy abruptly stops on the sidewalk, points his phone toward a parked car and starts manically jabbing the screen. And that guy is me. There’s an Exeggcute sitting in that Honda CR-V, and I definitely want that for my Pokédex.
As crude as it is, Pokémon Go confirms our hunger for a virtual world that overlaps and enhances our real one, where fanciful digital hallucinations are a norm rather than a novelty. I give it another two weeks until we’re all sick of it. I’m more excited about Nintendo’s announcement that it’s releasing a mini version of the original Nintendo Entertainment System, which will revive the magical worlds of Super Mario Bros., Double Dragon, Excitebike and 27 other games. Just like the original NES, those virtual worlds will be accessible exclusively from my couch. Right where they belong.