What Can We Learn From Pokémon Go?

First, let me say that I’m more surprised than you are that I’m writing about Pokémon Go. But earlier this year, I began writing about social and cultural issues as a way to (hopefully) engage healthy conversations about the topics that usually get us in a tizzy.

For those of you who are living in a hole, Pokémon Go is an augmented reality game that allows players to “catch” cartoon-like creatures as they interact with the real world. The app’s technology allows users to interface with their environment and physically go to the locations to capture the creatures. In addition, the app has the capacity to interact with other users locations creating an instant community of users who are able to collide face-to-face as they traverse the various “Poké Stops.”

Since it was released on July 5th, the number of active daily users of Pokémon Go has approached the number of active daily Twitter users in less than a week. The immediate and overnight phenomenon is unlike any other app in the smartphone era.

But what’s really behind it?


Before I go any further, I have to share the disclaimer that I have not played the game. And before you go there, I’ve already been scolded with the “Don’t knock it until you try it” approach, but let me give you some context. My purpose in writing this article is to share some perspective from an outsiders point-of-view. I don’t intend to judge its users, nor do I intend to defend any one position. I simply hope to shed some light on why, in less than a week, nearly 10 million Americans are walking around outside looking for invisible creatures on their cell phone and what we can learn from it.

The Good…

Proponents of the game have noted that its interactive format has had a profound impact on individuals who are prone to isolation. People who struggle with depression and people who tend to be introverted and reclusive are now out walking, using the game as their motivation. In addition, people have found community with other users, striking up conversations in public. Conversations that, if we’re honest, would have never happened. And lastly, parents are using the game as a common bond to connect with their children.

The Bad…

Critics of the game and its users have a different tone. They’re overlooking any positive outcomes to point out the pitfalls. For example, a twenty-one year old was stabbed in the shoulder as he approached a stranger who he thought was a fellow user. Users have been robbed after the game’s GPS disclosed their location to assailants. And, according to a CNN article, “The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and Arlington National Cemetery, both in Washington, DC area, have both issued appeals for players to avoid hunting Pokemon on their sites.”

So where do we stand?

The Perfect Storm

The curious part to me about this entire ordeal is that the release of the game comes on the heels of one of the most terrible weeks and terrible months in recent history. Over the past thirty days, America’s ugliness has been on full display. From our heated political environment to recent terrorist attacks to the shootings in Dallas, we have shown that anger, racism, and fear are alive and well. Add to that a generation of adults and kids alike that have become addicted to their phones and you have a perfect storm for the success of an app that allows people to escape the ugliness.

As I process what I see, I have come to three conclusions:

1. People long for community

The success of this game proves a point that I have been writing about for a long time. Deep down, people long for community—community is what we were created for. Yes, some people struggle with depression and some people are introverted, but beneath those labels and struggles, people have a desire for connection. If it takes an augmented reality app for people to come to grips with that, then so be it.

2. We are quick to polarize issues

Fans and critics alike have taken sides just like every other debate in our country. The immediate social media response to the game proves that we are quick to polarize issues. From gun control to #BlackLivesMatter to Pokémon Go, we automatically run to the defense when something opposes us. Maybe, just maybe, we’ll learn to see people beneath the issues we face and begin walking through our conversations with grace and mercy. Besides, “judgement is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy.”

3. Addictions are dangerous

My only fear with Pokémon Go is that it will further drive our addiction to escape reality. I understand that ugliness is all around us, but reality is not something we should avoid. And that’s what addictions do, they draw us out of reality. But the curious thing is, an addiction to a video game is no different from an addiction to a career. I see so many people using a self-righteous position to point fingers at Pokémon Go users claiming that they’re “getting stuff done” instead of wasting time on a video game. Well, I hear you Captain To-Do List, but addiction is addiction, stop throwing stones. On the flip side, if you are a user of the game, make sure you have enough self-awareness to set boundaries.

At the end of the day, cultural phenomenons like this give us the opportunity to turn the mirror on ourselves and ask some deep and challenging questions. If we’re willing to spend countless hours catching Pokémon or criticizing Pokémon users, I think we should also spend a few minutes learning how we can grow.

I guess what I’m trying to say is, the good things in life, like wisdom and love and hope, are a lot like Pokémon. If you search hard enough, you’ll eventually find them.


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2 Responses to What Can We Learn From Pokémon Go?

  1. Jim Woods July 13, 2016 at 10:40 am #

    Great thoughts Matt. It is amazing how quickly this game has taken over isn’t it! I think one thing you didn’t mention is that we all long for some form of adventure. I think that’s one of the real draws to it. And it’s an adventure you can do with your kids.

    That being said, I think this seems very addictive and there are no real levels to it so you could really spend more time doing it than you’d want.

  2. Bob Speakman July 15, 2016 at 7:30 am #

    Great read. Everything in life can be taken to an unhealthy extreme. Even something seemingly innocent can cause unhealthy behaviors. All of this “community” will not sustain itself once the newness wears off. Unfortunately, deep connections will rarely be made between people who are all staring at their phones playing a game.