My secret shame: I am( still) addicted to Pokemon Go

Dominic Rushe has catch over 11,000 Pokmon, strolled 1,841 km in Pok-land, and doesnt plan to stop anytime soon

A thunderstorm is rolling towards Chicago’s Grant Park. The thousands of people gathered for the city’s third annual Pokemon Go Fest, already sodden after a day of drizzle and rain, are now being told to evacuate for dread of lightning ten-strikes. But I need to take a snapshot of a Gastly in the Spooky Woods if I’m going to complete this year’s celebration challenge and uncover a rare new Pokemon. And I don’t have a Gastly.

Risking death by lightning, I jog towards the Spooky Woods.

My name is Dominic. I’m 52. I have two twentysomething children and a part-share in a Pulitzer prize. I read philosophy and listen to Stockhausen for fun. And I love Pokemon Go. I also hate myself for it: my boyfriend rolls his eyes when I play, my children think it’s sad, and the colleagues who know about it probably secretly magistrate me.

It is my secret shame, but I am not alone.

‘ It is my secret shame, but I am not alone .’ Photograph: Lucy Hewett/ The Guardian

For those who have been hiding under a Bulbasaur, Pokemon Go is an augmented reality game where players, armed with their telephones, collect Pokemon in the real world. The cute little beings pop up on a map of your surrounds as you explore on foot, and you just have to catch them. At Pokestops dotted various regions of the world, you spin a disk( often tied to a local landmark) to receive the balls needed to catch Pokemon, as well as assorted presents( more balls, stardust, eggs that hatch into new beings ).

It’s a social game too- sort of. You can team up with other players to battle more powerful Pokemon at “gyms”, or swap Pokemon with your friends( that’s “friends” in the social media sense- in other words , not really your friends. Or are they? It’s complicated ).

Before the blizzard in Chicago descends, I knock against an attractive middle-aged couple catching Pokemon in the park. The pair would be examined more at home sipping smoothies after pilates than stalking digital beings with their telephones. When I get out my notebook, they exchange a look.

Pokemon Go is a social game- kind of. Photograph: Lucy Hewett/ The Guardian

By the end of 2016, everyone was doing it: the app had been dowloaded 500 m periods. Photograph: Lucy Hewett/ The Guardian

He is a sales director for a Fortune 500 company, and she operates a non-profit. They will only give me their Pokemon Go handles: Oceanna1 31450 and BeachBaby5 03. “We’re closeted,” she says.” Nobody at work knows I play .”

BeachBaby5 03 says their children got them into Pokemon Go when it launched in 2016. Their kids soon stopped playing, but they never have. They are both level 40, the highest level in video games( I am a 36.) Oceanna1 31450 hit 40 in year one and has walked 6,234 km in the game- approximately the distance between Chicago and Panama.” We’re very goal-oriented ,” he laughs.

I, too, have been playing Pokemon Go since the app was launched. In the beginning, I concealed my obsession in plain sight. Everyone was doing it: the app had been downloaded 500 m days by the end of the year. Celebrities had Pokemon fever, and even my co-workers were taking ironic snapshots of Pokemon at Trump rallies.

Then Hillary Clinton ruined it all, as she has so many things.” Pokemon Go to the polls !” she shouted at a rally in Ohio, ensuring Trump’s victory and aiming the golden dawn of the Pokemon age.

The fad faded. But not for me- I ran underground.

Three years on, I have walked 1,841 km in Poke-land, or 1,144 miles. That’s the distance between New York City and Orlando, Florida. I have caught more than 11,000 Pokemon, flicking balls at critters in Stockport, Greater Manchester, and in Tokyo, Mexico City, Miami and Jackson, Mississippi. If I’ve been there, I have Pokemoned.

‘ If I’ve been there, I have Pokemoned .’ Photograph: Lucy Hewett/ The Guardian

I often sneak out to battle in raids to win rare Pokemon on street corners with equally furtive-looking strangers. Many players are my age- give or take 20 years. It’s never kids, and it’s always a mixed mob: Latino construction workers, women in business suits, journalists. We gather on street corners, a secret society exchanging furtive nods and tips, waiting for the combat to begin.

” Psst. There are Snorlax in Bryant Park .”

” You wanna trade a shiny ?”

Then we hammer away at our phones for a few moments before scattering. Most often, we don’t exchange a word.

So what could explain this passion? It’s a question I’ve often asked myself, and I have theories.

First, there’s BF Skinner. Skinner, an American psychologist, developed the notions of” operant conditioning”, which shows how rewards and punishments modify behaviour. While Skinner had pigeons and rats pecking at buttons for food for his experiments, I am checking my phone for virtual rewards. A lot of the time I don’t get what I want, and this, it turns out, feeds my craving. Topics( pigeons, rats, me) tire of a task if they always get what they want. If it’s more hit and miss, they stay interested.

Skinner’s research helps explain why we still keep looking at Facebook, Instagram, our increasingly unmanageable emails. We are looking for that reach again amid all those yawn-inducing misses.

Operant conditioning, however, can’t take all the blame. I ought to have hooked on other apps: Words With Friends, Draw With Friends, Dots, all the way back to Snake. But in every instance, my devotion soon died. Why does Pokemon still have my heart?

‘ Why does Pokemon still have my heart ?’ Photograph: Lucy Hewett/ The Guardian
Enter Guy Debord, my favorite French Marxist theorist and founding member of the Situationist International. Debord’s most famous 1967 work,
Society of the Spectacle, saw a new epoch of capitalism where the masses would be appeased and confused by” the spectacle”- the reduction of our lives to a never-ending and all-consuming stream of media, images and messages. Sacre bleu ! Was he ever right.

To disrupt the spectacle, the Situationists had a tool called derive , a sort of unstructured urban stray that allowed people to reclaim the landscape for their own purposes.

Pokemon Go isn’t quite what Debord had in mind, but when I play in a shopping center, an airport, a museum, or in the line at the DMV, those landscapes are being repurposed. A new layer is imposed on top of the prescribed one, the map is redrawn, functions are subverted. I turn left when I should go right , north when I should go south, merely to explore a new part of the city. Pokemon gives me an excuse to wander.

Which is why, back at Chicago’s Pokemon Go Fest, I find myself in an area risking my life for a Gastly, hoping to find the true reason behind my Pokemon addiction.

‘ Those landscapes are being repurposed .’ Photograph: Lucy Hewett/ The Guardian

Over the three-day event, 60,000 people gathered in the magnificent surroundings of Grant Park, strolling 290,000 km and catching 15 m Pokemon. Pretty impressive for a fad that has supposedly fizzled.

The park was divided into zones. You can catch ice-type Pokemon in the Winter Forest( fitted out with snowfall machines and mini mountains ), ghost forms like my missing Gastly were in the Spooky Woods( where cobwebs hung from the trees ), while others were hiding in the Fairy Garden, or the Sandy Desert.

The crowd has to be the most mixed event group I have ever seen. There are children, but they don’t seem to be playing( it costs $25 to play at the event and they were just along for the ride ). There are black, white, Asian and Hispanic Pokemon hunters. Some of the older ones are in motorized wheelchairs. It’s about a 50 -5 0 split between men and women. Everyone is staring at their telephones, but when I interrupt them, they couldn’t be nicer. As the rain starts, I shelter under a tree.” Do you want a rain poncho? I brought spares ,” says the woman stand next to me.

A healthcare worker called Tyler Spence rushes over to help when he sees me taking a selfie.” You want me to take that ?” he asks. He drove seven hours from Minnesota to get here. When I ask him about Poke-shame, he gets it.” People laugh. They say you: can’t possibly still be playing that ?” he says. He doesn’t care. Spence has traveled the US stimulating new friends and playing Pokemon.” I enjoy it for me ,” he says.

‘ I enjoy it for me .’ Photograph: Lucy Hewett/ The Guardian

Arnulfo Guevara, 35, drove from Los Angeles with five friends. They took turns driving and only stopped for food and rest breaks, setting off at 7pm on Wednesday and arrived here 3am Friday.

‘ People are like: are you for real ?’ Photograph: Lucy Hewett/ The Guardian

With his triple-pierced lip and chic rainfall poncho, Guevara looks like he should be sipping organic yerba mate in some downtown hipster joint.” I get teased a lot ,” he says, tapping away at his phone with his beautifully manicured neon orange fingernails.” People are like, are you for real ?”

By the end of the day, my disgrace is ebbing. Pokemon people are lovely. Many( but far from all) seem shy and introverted. They are together but separate, their interactions mediated by the game, but their friendship and kindness are real.

Still, I can’t escape the feeling that all this is really, urgently, sad.

The night before my day at the Fest I was invited out for dinner by lesbian Pokemon friends who had already had their day in the park. There are a lot of homosexual people playing Pokemon. Over pad thai in Boystown, TylerandJohn2 tells me there are a load of the exclusive symbol-shaped Unowns in the park. Then he falls a bombshell. Apparently if you collect them all, he says, they spell:’ Wake up!

I can’t stop thinking about it. Whenever I insure an Unown, the doubt comes back again. The sight has me in its thrall. What the hell am I doing? I should have downloaded Duolingo and learned Spanish instead. Wake up!

The next day, my self-loathing has dissipated again. I am having fun strolling in the park, chatting, catching Pokemon. Oh look, a Pachirisu! A snowfall white and baby blue electric squirrel with a spiky tail. So cute!

Back at Spooky Woods, as the speaker system advises us all to leave or risk electrocution, I manage to bag a Gastly, take my snapshot and complete the next stage of my chore- allowing me to catch a rare Pokemon exclusively released at the Fest. When the storm passes, I finish the quest and am rewarded with a Jirachi, a flying “wish-making” Mythical Pokemon.

‘ I can’t escape the feeling that this is desperately sad .’ Photograph: Lucy Hewett/ The Guardian

Again, the self-doubt sneaks back. It stares at me with huge dead black eyes.

I sink back into self-loathing, so I slope off to the Art Institute of Chicago, hoping high culture will detox my brain. Twenty minutes later, I have the app open again. There are Pokestops all over the museum. There’s even one at Grant Wood’s American Gothic, one of America’s most sacred paintings.

I spin the image of their dour, judgey midwestern faces and Pokeballs come wheeling out. I actually LOL, IRL. Why beat myself up for having fun? You know what, American Gothic? YOU wake up! Poke 4 Life.

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