While on my morning run, I almost collided with a pack of boys who had their phones pointed at the sidewalk directly in front of them. I knew they were playing Pokémon Go, because my 14-year-old daughter Molly, who has never been into video games, is obsessed with it and she’s not the only one. This free mobile app that uses your phone’s GPS to catch Pokémon, has already been downloaded by over 15 million people.
I run almost every day and I have never come across groups of kids playing together, especially not at seven am. And those boys really were playing together. They were laughing and talking as they ran around, and it made me nostalgic for the hours I spent playing freeze tag with my neighbors growing up.
As I saw more and more people playing the game over the next few days, I realized this may the first phone app to actually get kids and grownups to look up from their phones at each other and their environment. Yes, they are staring at their phones to track down Pokémon characters like the illusive Pikachu, but they are also taking in their surroundings.
Poké Stops, which are places where players can retrieve items like Pokémon eggs that can later be hatched, draw players in. If you see an area of your town with clumps of kids circling around it, you have stumbled upon a Poké Stop. It reminds me of the Where’s Waldo game my town coordinates every summer to bring kids and their families into the local stores. These Poké Stops attract people to retail establishments, green spaces and historical places they’ve never noticed before or forgotten about in the way we do when we walk past the same place over and over again. You can even read about the real life history behind each Poké Stop, something I can’t otherwise imagine kids doing unless assigned to for a school project.
My daughter Molly is an active teen who’s been running JV track since 7th grade. But one thing I’ve noticed about Molly and her other athletic friends is that they have two modes: competitive athlete and Netflix binger. That means running through an entire season of Grey’s Anatomy in a few days. Maybe it’s because we have over scheduled and burned out these kids with year round travel leagues and intense academic commitments, but they don’t have any motivation to play outside nor do they have an arsenal of outdoor games at their fingertips like their parents did growing up. Have you ever stumbled upon a game of tag in your neighborhood?
The other day, Molly took our dog for a walk on the local bike path to play Pokémon Go. When forty minutes passed and they weren’t home yet, I started to get worried. I called her and she said she would be home in twenty minutes when her incense was up. I wasn’t sure what the stuff people burned in college to cover the weed smell had to do with anything, but the same girl who usually moans and groans when I ask her to take the dog out, was actually voluntarily taking him for an hour-long walk. Later that day, Molly asked me how many miles a 5K is (please don’t tell her cross-country coach that she had to ask) because after she had walked that distance, she would able to hatch the eggs she had retrieved at the Poké Stop. If only adult fit bit users had incentives like this!
When I started writing this piece, I joined in on a Pokémon Go discussion with the staff and patrons at a restaurant. The cook told me he met a boy who had walked back and forth past the restaurant many times the day before in search of Pokémon. The boy bragged that he had walked nine miles that day while playing. Whether a kid is athletic or not, they can all use an excuse to get out of their room and be active.
Not only is this app getting kids to look up from their phones at the world around them, they are also interacting more with their peers. When Molly was out on that bike path, some older kids from her school who normally wouldn’t give her the time of day stopped her to ask what Pokémon she had found. She later went to the park, a place she doesn’t usually frequent, and talked to a lot of the other kids who were all playing the same game. Kids engaging with other kids during a game? That’s about as close as we’ve ever been to the freeze-tag of days past. I can’t help but think about how years from now this will be remembered as the summer of Pokémon Go, and that might not be such a bad thing.
Author’s Note: Like most work-at-home moms, I get my work done in between drop offs and pick-ups. I wrote this essay while staying in a small upstate town where my daughter attended a pole vault camp. I started writing in a coffee shop where all of the baristas and customers were talking about the best local Poké Stops. Then I wrote for a bit in a bar/restaurant, which was surprisingly a great place to get a vegan meal. The bartenders and customers were all talking about the app and how much pedestrian traffic it brought to the local Main Street. There was even talk about a local girl who was rumored to charge twenty bucks an hour to be a Pokémon Go tutor. I finished this essay in a park, a park that was empty at this time last year. This time it was filled with teens and kids and their parents looking for Pokémon. Writing in that environment which was permeated with Pokémon Go players helped shaped this essay.