Afterthoughts: Save Me, Pokémon GO

How to make obsession work for you.
Pokemon Go


So how about this Pokémon Go, right? Talk about a phenomenon.


In fact, it’s been inescapable. Even if you’re not playing it yourself, if you know any kids, or teenagers, or 20-somethings, or 30-somethings—you’ve heard about Pokémon Go. And if by some miracle you’ve avoided getting barraged with details by enthusiastic friends and family, all you need to do is go outside and you’ll find people on their smartphones, milling around in little crowds, staring intently at their screens.


The Nintendo/Niantic video game has been a boon for the media. There have been front-page Pokémon Go stories in the newspaper and a flurry of segments on local TV, reporting that distracted players are blocking Waikīkī traffic as they try to catch Pokémon without getting out of their cars, that they’re wandering into unsavory neighborhoods as well as inappropriate spaces including churches and cemeteries. I haven’t been as saturated by coverage of a fad since kendama was a thing.


But a few scare stories can’t outweigh the simple, amazing achievement of this game. Pokémon Go is doing what concerned parents, PE teachers and fitness coaches have been struggling to accomplish for years: Get people outside and exercising more. It’s a wholesome miracle!


Of course, this kind of thing has been happening for a while now—just without as much hype. There’s even a name for it: gamification. Linking a real-world activity, like exercise or diet, to a system of virtual rewards that make it fun and easy to achieve your goals (or at least someone’s goals). Like a Skinner box, only instead of pushing a lever for food, you’re jogging a mile for an achievement badge.


Humans, it turns out, are only ever one step away from complete addiction, and, if you point that urge in the right direction, you can really make things happen.


Want to learn a new language? Duolingo is an app that makes it into a fun game, complete with high scores and leveling up.


Want to find the best tacos near you? Yelp has turned regular citizens into restaurant-reviewing maniacs, chasing ever-better account stats and status markers that include an Elite
user designation.


Even business networking has become a game, thanks to LinkedIn’s “collect ’em all” approach to adding skills and connections. (Of course, LinkedIn connections seem to have as much
real-world benefit as Pokémon monsters do, but maybe I’m playing the game wrong.)


It doesn’t even take that much to trigger our competitive impulses. Pokémon Go offers a flashy augmented reality interface and cute, cuddly characters to lure players in, but anyone with a Fitbit, that little rubber wristband that tracks your daily steps, knows that even just a single number can become something to obsess over.


One of my favorite recent David Sedaris stories recounts how his Fitbit habit spiraled out of control—first 10,000 steps a day, then 25,000, then 60,000. He started picking up trash while he racked up steps walking the English countryside around his home, and, the next thing he knew, the local government had named a garbage truck in his honor for doing so much cleanup. Not bad for a little gadget that doesn’t even have a proper screen.


Could video games change my life? I say, bring it on. In fact, I can’t wait until my life is whipped into shape: I’m gonna exercise more and eat healthier, budget my money more wisely. My relationship will be even more caring, my friendships, stronger and better. My office desk will be immaculately organized, instead of the archeological dig of paperwork and notes it is now.


One problem, though. Pokémon Go failed me. I downloaded the game when it first came out, to see what it was about. The whole thing looks pretty cool—a map of Honolulu overlaid with a whole network of PokéStops, where you collect monsters, and Poké-gyms, where you fight them against other people. But, when it became clear that the game wanted me to literally walk three blocks—in real life—to advance in the game, and that, once there, I would probably have to awkwardly smile and nod at other Pokémon players, I thought, feh, and closed the app.


Maybe I’ll stick to Candy Crush.