An early confession: I know nothing about Pokémon Go. Absolutely nothing. Too old for the first wave, too disinterested for the second. Everything I know of Pokémon has come from Facebook and mainstream media (with a little supplementation from Wikipedia).
I can tell you that Nintendo’s market value rose US$9 billion within five days of the release of Pokémon Go (July 7). Ten days on, it had gained another $8 billion. The market later found out that Nintendo didn’t actually produce the game or gain any financial benefit from its success and the stock plummetted 18% – a significant drop yet, curiously, they retained over $9 billion in market capitalization from something with which they have no direct connection!
Anyway, back to the game.
On social media and ‘hard-hitting’ current affairs programming, commentary on Pokémon Go falls neatly into one of three categories: mockers (‘how ridiculous’, ‘how pathetic’), scorners (‘how dangerous’, ‘how unsafe’), and cultural exegetes (‘well, isn’t that interesting?). I don’t fit neatly into any of those, so I’ll do my best to shoehorn my way into the third.
My credentials as a cultural exegete are scant, but I believe we are innately wired for community and created with a desire to belong. One need only to look at Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, even this website, to affirm this. Albeit in disintegrated ways, we want a ‘hood in which to belong. We’ve stopped short of needing a place where ‘everybody knows your name’, but if we can be anonymously embraced, that will do just fine.
I believe in some way, the Pokémon Go phenomenon reflects that need.
We have long craved third places. Historically, home and work locked down first and second, with church often rounding out the Top 3. For many, those three still find their way into our trinity of places. Others have gone further afield seeking organic expressions (though, interestingly, often far more organised): clubs, cafés, co-ops – settings where people are united for some reason or another.
Belonging gives us a sense of who we are and who we are not. We are not everything. We need others. We affirm our identity, individually and corporately, through those with whom we’re surrounded and the bedrock on which those affirmations are founded.
Increasingly, though, we shirk from the energy required to forge these relationships – the time, interest, love, consistency, and service that these relationships demand of us. We still crave community, we still want to belong, we still want to give of ourselves, but somewhere along the line, we mistook the effort demanded to enjoy these things as unrewarding hard work. Many gave up altogether.
No man is an island, but if it takes work that you deem unreasonable to enjoy that which you crave, perhaps you hang off the mainland all the same. If you’ve ever attempted to locate yourself within a community and been burned, ostracised, or made feel inadequate in some way, you have all the ammunition you need to stay on your island for years to come. Perhaps a lifetime. Sure, it mightn’t be that enjoyable, but it will be some version of safe.
I’m meant to be talking about the latest Pokémon Go phenomenon. In many ways, I have been.
When time, interest and the desire to invest are low, the desire doesn’t disappear; it is suppressed. It’s latent and will be activated by the least threatening catalysts. The path that, for you, presents the least resistance.
As I ran with Molly on Wednesday night with a dozen others who’d met up for intervals, our path divided two other groups.
On the river side, eight to ten people were midway through a tutorial on night photography—cameras and tripods connected them. The other side of the path looked more like a scatter graph; thirty to forty people walked disparately in haphazard directions, eyes on phones. It was in stark contrast to the military precision with which the boot-campers push their tires and heave their ropes in the same space at other times of the week.
My hunch was that the scattered, random group were Pokémon hunting. Mind you, they may have all been coincidentally checking their emails in a park – I’ve become increasingly self-conscious doing this in open spaces over the past few weeks!
Perhaps bumping up against complete strangers with few words or eye-contact, diverted by an essential focus of attention like a smartphone and the lure of Pokémon Go, is a low-level taste of togetherness without acknowledging the need or inclination for a moment.
Many will have opinions about Pokémon Go’s dangers and appeal; many of these may be well-founded. What I see is a hunger for belonging and affirmation – however it looks.
Why is Pokémon Go making such a profound impact right now? Well, partly for the sheer numbers involved – 75 million downloads and growing. Partly cause it’s a shooting star fad and they’re always fun to watch. More significantly, though, because it’s a competition-shrouded conduit for disintegrated togetherness. Hardly the finest promotional strategy you’re likely to see pedaled, yet a curious cause for its success.
Yes, it’s just a game, and people aren’t necessarily playing so that they can meet people and make new friends (no doubt some are), but it represents a benign excuse to be near others. All in the cloak of anonymity.
Their hunger is deeper than an app, but it’s some form of superficial scratch for a deeper itch.
If this seems like a finger pointed against Pokémon Go, it’s not the intent for a moment. I’m far more intrigued by the lengths that we’ll take to be near one another. More than proximity, how deeply we desire connection with one another.
I read something that happened nearly two thousand years back. A whole host of people were gathered in a room together. They’d been told not to go anywhere for a time. Suddenly, there were flames dancing above people’s heads. Not virtual creatures, but tongues of fire that appeared to rest on people, causing them to speak in other languages, connecting people in the room that language had divided.
Two millennia on, the ‘shooting star’ of Pentecost – the coming of the Holy Spirit – continues to unite people together. Not so much in a smart-phone-fueled accidental bumping up against one another, but in a deep-spirited, love-infused community that gathers momentum as it draws people into community and onto mission, rooted and established in love. If this hasn’t been your experience of spiritual community in Jesus’ name, know this: it is His intent that our deepest, truest formation would be in Him and expressed within deep, inclusive community. He doesn’t let go of that desire even when we drop the ball, mistake it for another game altogether, or run away from it.
Pentécost Go never caused an artificial spike in market capitalization for its ‘owners’, but they’ve never been about that sort of wealth in the first place. All power and authority are theirs already. The first thing they do with the wealth? Freely give it over in the strange currency of grace.