Pokémon Go--No, Wait. Loading...
I’ll admit: when Pokémon Go first came out, my first reaction was close to disgust. The world is burning. It seems like the United States is on the brink of social upheaval. Racist violence continues. My own state’s tyrannical aversion to accountability and justice just included cutting public access to cop cameras meant to hold police responsible for acts like the executions that launched this recent round of protests.
I read as Black friends described the absolute terror of being pulled over–of texting ‘love you’s to their mothers before the cop gets to their window in case they’re about to be killed. And I read as white friends whined about unreliable servers or being asked to stop loitering at stores (relabeled by the game as Poké Stops) unless they plan on buying something, then later: how unfair it is that everyone on Facebook expects them to be political. That’s something I’m learning this time: ‘political’ is how we code recognizing other life experiences different than our own. For instance, when we’re white, it’s ‘political’ to be made aware of racism. When we’re cis, it’s ‘political’ to be made aware of trans-antagonism. People are being murdered, and we don’t want to be involved in or inconvenienced by those ‘politics.’
White privilege has never been clearer to me. White fragility has never been so obvious to me.
But as the generally apolitical white folks of my social media news feeds suddenly seemed to be waking up to racist United States, and taking it upon themselves to explain why Black Lives Matter is critical to say instead of All Lives Matter, a generation gap further revealed itself upon the social geographies of last week’s collective consciousness.
The Pokémon craze seemed to be primarily hitting millennial white cis men. At first, this bewildered and angered me. Here is our generation, which prides itself on valuing social justice, living up to the stereotype that we’re all perpetually petulant Peter Pans, literally as injustice is being talked about all around the country by literally the same generations we criticize for being out of touch.
To some degree, I think that observation is spot on. Our generation embraces fantasy. We cosplay as Harry Potter. We’re going to download Pokémon Go. And hell, I even spent my Christmas vacation playing Dungeons & Dragons and Ocarina of Time. There is definitely a racialized dynamic of privilege gate-keeping fun that allows white kids to play in fantasy worlds and executes Black kids doing the same.
But it’s also more complex than that. Fantasy is how this generation dreams, how we learn (and perhaps someday will teach), and how we escape. For instance, from the outside, Harry Potter is a capitalist goldmine full of sub-brands and the promise of an entirely new world to explore (and commodify). From the inside, Harry Potter is simultaneously a narrative that illustrated to our generation how to stand up for justice, how to be courageous, how to face down both our friends (thanks, Neville) and adults in power. It’s not just entertainment. It’s visionary moral instruction in an otherwise myth-thirsty age.
Pokémon offers a similar re-enchantment of the world, and also an escape. Jeff Sparrow at Overland describes the new Pokémon craze in the context of the Situationists and the dérive:
“The game’s buggy. The app empties your battery and it eats your data and its servers are constantly overloaded. Yet for all its flaws, it manages – at least temporarily – to set you wandering a city landscape that’s been re-enchanted, a place where monsters appear in everyday streets and where familiar landmarks serve new purposes according to the logic of a different universe.”
The majority of the Pokémon players I observed in my circle of friends are Queer people who spent the weeks prior to the game’s release mourning Orlando, and in some cases failing to change the country’s mind about guns. Maybe we could use a little re-enchantment of the world around us. Maybe we just need a break from the logic of the mundane world.
If millennials–regardless of privileged or marginalized positions in society–are dreamers and world-changers, perhaps we can look at the juxtaposition of this last week’s Black Lives Matter protests and Pokémon craze as two (albeit very different) sides of the same coin. That isn’t to equate the injustice of racist violence and discrimination to downed servers, but instead to point out that both engagements–civic participation and immersion in virtual reality are value choices by a generation guided by a need to change the world they find themselves in.
Millennials want a world where Black lives matter, where Black people can live, work, play, and go outside without fear of discrimination or violence. We maybe also want a world where recreation and entertainment are human rights enjoyed by all of us.
After attending a rally and leaving positively certain that our peaceful political theater will once again incite no change whatsoever in the status quo, I decided to dive into my hypocrisy and download the game.
There are better game reviews out there, but I’ll echo a few points here. You sign in with your Google account, which is worrying some folks, perhaps unreasonably, and some claim the whole thing is a CIA op. Personally I don’t feel like I have much to hide (which isn’t to say I resent having the right to privacy), and I don’t feel like the government gains much from augmented reality snapshots of my bathroom and couch, so these objections haven’t really given me any pause. Like many millennials perhaps I choose to walk a fine line between the allure of utopia and the surveillance of dystopia, and perhaps I’m being too trusting. Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s “The Game” (season 5, episode 6) seems relevant here (in the event of Pokézombie-pocalypse, this is how Data saved the ship).
What has given me pause are the lengthy server crashes, the lack of in-game troubleshooting help or instruction (I had to Google how to catch my starter Pokémon), and the constant bugging out. If it is a government spy op, it comes across as incompetently designed as one might imagine government projects to be.
At the park yesterday morning, a young man approached me with his phone out. ‘Is yours working?’ I thought maybe he needed to make a call. It turned out he was just trying to play the game and would settle for seeing the game live over the shoulder of someone else. Other groups of millennials were huddled under trees and sitting in the grass, phones out, searching for purpose or distraction maybe. I confessed I was reading an article about the limitations of social justice to confront capitalism. ‘Oh cool,’ he replied, but I could hear tones of disappointment and frustration.
While waiting for the servers to come back up, I walked six miles today. I saw a hawk perch on the swing set just a few feet away. I ran my errands. I did a lot of reading. I sat down and wrote this whole thing. I watched videos of a highly militarized police force advancing on civilians 800 miles away. I read about why our police force cannot be reformed. I read some friends talking about the successes and failures of Black Lives Matter rallies in their communities, how maybe we should stop protesting all together or focus on supporting Black-owned businesses instead of or in addition to protesting police brutality. I found myself absentmindedly Googling suggestions to reboot the game app or change various settings in hopes of getting it to work.
Tonight, the servers came back up. I went to the park–re-purposed as a hub for multiple gyms and Poké Stops–and there encountered a wild gaggle of other phone-watching millennials. A group of Black kids were hiding from imaginary police in the safety of the jungle gym–Hands up, don’t shoot! Nearby, their mothers were glued to their phones as an older sibling instructed them to walk around the park in order to get a Pikachu. About a dozen of us congregated by a tree at the tennis courts–like normcore ravers attempting to decode directions to the party. There’s water types here! I caught two Seels. A little girl celebrated capturing a Meowth, then took the local gym with a Haunter.
And then the servers went back down. For a few seconds we all avoided making eye contact with one another as we hoped the game would restart. When it didn’t, our circle silently broke apart. The park became a park again. The little girl’s victory vanished from our world. A pair of ordinary rabbits ran by. I caught a glimpse of the half-Moon overhead, and the mundanity of the dis-augmented suburban U.S. South again eclipsed the sublime union of common cause or common game.
Some gamers went back to their cars and left. The little girl went to play on a swing, visibly questioning her relationship to a non-material world and its rewards. The little boys’ mothers shouted for them to play another game. I walked a few more miles like I usually do at night. I checked my phone–for the game, for news of some new rallying point, some progress somewhere, some change (Jesus, Bernie)–and then I went home.
Millennials seem to be at a shared juncture right now: waiting for the worlds we want to finish loading.
Pat Mosley a writer living in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. His interests include post-capitalist economics, psychogeography, alternative religions, and contemporary life in the U.S. South. Connect with him via email to firstname.lastname@example.org