Last weekend I went to Minnesota. We arrived late Thursday night and my sister told me I had to meet her at Rice Park in St. Paul after 10 p.m. to play Pokémon Go because "that’s when the magic happens."
As I drove into downtown St. Paul to meet my sister and her friend, I was amazed at what I was seeing. Coming from Macomb, where Pokémon Go is popular but we are also in a very rural area, what I witnessed in St. Paul was fascinating.
There were hundreds of people in a park the size of one city block and in the surrounding area. There were parents with their children, teens, students, and older adults. People were talking to each other, some were sitting and others walking through the park. There were large groups of people standing on the corners. They were everywhere.
I have never been in a crowd this size that was so peaceful where people were all attempting to “get” something. No one was running out blocking traffic. People weren’t pushing their way to the front of the crowd or blocking other’s way. They weren’t trying to stop others from getting in front of them or weaving through the crowd.
Instead, people were talking. They were sharing their Pokémon stories. When a rare Pokémon would appear, people would start yelling what they found and everyone would flock to that place. Together, hundreds of people would catch the same Pokémon and talk about how easy it was or become frustrated at how many Pokéballs it took them to catch it.
If someone wanted to know where to find a Pokémon near the park, others around them would point them in the right direction or answer questions they had about Pokémon or the game. No one was robbed. No one was hurt. Even the police officers patrolling the area were playing with the crowd.
At one point we went with a large crowd in search of an Aerodactyl (a rare fighting and rock type Pokémon). Everyone followed the players who had it tracked. They talked as they headed in the direction. As we walked, people asked others what they were looking for and joined in. Once we got to the location, everyone stood around in a large crowd and tried to capture the Aerodactyl.
I watched versions of this scene play out over and over again that night. As we walked around downtown St. Paul I thought of the places we walked by that I’d visited when I was younger and some of the places I’d like to go back to. We stood in front of the Landmark Center and the beautiful public library downtown and just enjoyed the night.
I’ve been playing Pokémon Go since it was released in early July. I have a ten year-old who, long before Pokémon Go came out was teaching me all about Pokémon. I learned about the different types, how to play Pokémon, and I even have my own Pokémon deck built around Fairy and Grass Pokémon.
I know there is a great deal of complaining about Pokémon Go and what people are doing because of it, and that we must be aware of those issues. But even with all the reasons to hate the game, I also want people to recognize how Pokémon Go is a success.
Pokémon Go is a game that gets people out of their houses. Many of us play games on our phones—from collecting candy to building a farm—but the majority of these games are solitary. We do them at home, alone.
Pokémon Go changes that. I have seen more people out and about in Macomb since Pokémon Go came along. Players are exploring their community and finding all the places in Macomb they might not have visited before. They have to walk in order to hatch eggs and get more Pokémon. Sure, they’re sitting outside the post office setting up lures, but they are also visiting smaller parks, and churches, and the Rocky statues all over town. They are learning of some of the ways in which even a small town like Macomb has landmarks and more inviting public spaces than we many times give it credit for having.
Due to the nature of the game and how it is structured, Pokémon Go is more collaborative than it is competitive. Sure people want to level up and catch as many Pokémon as possible. And, yes you do battle for control of gyms in the area, but Pokémon Go is set up in such a way that everyone you are with or everyone in an area where there are Pokémon or Pokéstops can catch Pokémon and gather supplies. There is no shortage of Pokémon for people as they play together. If I find a Pokémon in the area, so will everyone else.
Pokémon Go is creating communities and relationships in new ways. Even throughout Macomb, when I see groups of young people at a Pokéstop as I ride by on my bike, I can ask them if they’ve caught any Pokémon and they let me know if there’s anything appearing. I can ask my students what Pokémon they’ve caught or where to find the best Pokémon on campus and we can create a community. I can go on a walk with my kids and we can talk and catch Pokémon and my son can teach me about all the Pokémon we catch.
People are always complaining about how we’re always on our phones, not looking at the world around us but instead glued to a screen. Yet, we sometimes don’t stop to think about the ways in which participating in virtual activities allow us to learn more and explore the world around us.
Pokémon Go may have its faults. It is hard not to judge people when they choose to participate in activities you might see as a waste of time, but the next time you see someone walking around looking for a Pikachu, instead of a Facebook post about how they are wasting their time, take a minute to think about how they are out of their house, exploring your town, and creating community.
Rebekah Buchanan is an Assistant Professor of English at Western Illinois University.
The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the University or Tri States Public Radio. Diverse viewpoints are welcome and encouraged.