I was only dimly aware of the Pokemon phenomenon the first time it hit. It was what everyone around me was doing during break. The words "pokeball" and "pikachu" floated dimly at the edge of my consciousness in the same way that the OJ Simpson trial did. I figured that if I missed one pop culture phenomenon in the ‘90s, I would not spend the rest of my life having it aggressively flung at me.
That just shows what I knew. This week I looked up from O. J. Simpson: Making A Murderer to find that Pokemon Go was taking the country by storm. It now boasts more daily users than Twitter and more engagement than Facebook.
But now I have dived into the Pokemon Go phenomenon seriously, to the detriment of my friendships, health and relationships, and I have to ask: Is this seriously what everyone around me was doing this whole time? This is Pokemon?
The gist of the game is that you walk around your city - stop me if you’ve heard this - and you capture these magical creatures who dwell on land and sea and train them to fight, like some sort of a Roman emperor. WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE, CALIGULA?
"Gotta catch ‘em all," they tell you, because not only are you a hunter, you are a compulsive, obsessed, Captain Ahab-level hunter.
These creatures are all named like store-brand knockoffs of regular animals, as though Rattata is worried about being sued by actual Rats. "No," Pokemon Go says, "this is not a purple rat. This is a rattata, a totally different and unrelated concept."
"No, no, this isn’t a sparrow. It’s a spearow. Not the same thing AT ALL."
I have the same feeling about most of these Pokemon that I used to have when confronted with Ewoks in the Star Wars trilogy. They aren't bears. They remind me of bears, but they're not bears. But they're enough like bears to make me think of bears and wish they were bears.
There are whole classes of Pokemon who look like nothing so much as daffodils who have been in industrial accidents, or drug-addled goldfish, or like if you described a cat to a sketch artist and the sketch artist only retained one thing of everything you said.
Then you "evolve" them into bigger, better versions of themselves. This is another problem with this game: It gives you erroneous notions of evolution. This is Lamarckian - at best. You get excited about growing your rats into larger rats. (I did this in my home once and I did not get excited about it at all. In fact quite the contrary.)
To get rid of a Pokemon you no longer want, you "transfer" it to "the professor." Sure you do. Just like your parents transferred your dog to your aunty's farm. This is just something you tell yourself so that you can feel better about what you have done. The professor gives you a rare candy that you can feed to other pokemon of the same type to increase their strength. Soylent Green, anyone? WAKE UP, SHEEPLE! ZUBAT CANDY IS ZUBATS!
Pokemon Go’s innovation is that instead of going indoors to play video games, you have to go outdoors to play video games, but we are already getting around it by having people volunteer to drive you around in their cars and do away with any fitness value the game might have had. Usually, if someone approaches you and says, "Hey, get into my car, and we might catch an imaginary knockoff dragon!" you phone the police. Now you get in - and you pay them. On the bright side, this does continue 2016’s theme of Being Exactly The Year That A Time Traveler From The Past Would Come To And Think, "Yeah, Seems About Right."
This all seems like something the protagonist in The Collector would do for fun to relax. Pokemon Go is also terrific if you enjoy having your workday constantly interrupted by imaginary bats, like Hunter S. Thompson. It's like a game for people who want to experience all the symptoms of delirium tremens. You can waste a whole afternoon muttering to yourself and capturing electronic bugs.
Don’t get me wrong, I love any excuse to bump into things while walking around staring at my phone, and Pokemon Go really delivers there. But this is a seriously deranged concept. Also, it is a truth pretty universally acknowledged that as soon as we have a nice thing on the Internet, it becomes just another tasteless thing to do at funerals and the Holocaust Museum. And to this rule, Pokemon Go has been no exception.
"I am going to the park to capture imaginary birds" is something that an 18th century eccentric would say. But go to any park, right now, and there you will find dozens of people clustered around whatever random landmark has been selected as a stop for pokemon, all staring intently into their phones and murmuring occasionally with dismay or delight.
I have not slept. Scheduled to have dinner with my boyfriend, I sent him an apologetic message at 11 the same night, explaining that I was now a level 16 master and I could not leave the pokestop.
People are praising Pokemon Go as a rare activity that gets you to talk to strangers and go outdoors. Well, we used to have hobbies like that, before video games.