Pokémon Go or Pokémon No for Christians?

Pokémon Go was a Pokémon no-go in Japan recently as the game-maker worried that the hype generated by a leaked email might crash the system. With more than 30 million downloads in over 30 countries already, this app-based augmented reality game already has way more adherents than most Christian denominations in the U.S. That kind of popularity generates concerns, not the least of which is whether or not Pokémon Go is a good pastime for Christian young people. Some questions focus on children’s physical safety as they follow the game to unfamiliar locations. Others relate to economic risk, as users are prompted to spend real money buying online “lures” and other game elements. But from a religious perspective, the biggest question is about the spiritual value of Pokémon Go and other virtual reality experiences.

Dual Degree Student Rosy Robson demonstrates how Pokémon Go works on the quad of Union Presbyterian Seminary.

Christians have long endorsed the idea of envisioning the world differently than it is. In fact, all religions encourage their adherents to see the world through eyes governed by the stories of what could be told by their tradition. In a sense, to embrace a Christian identity in a predominantly secular world is to choose to participate in an augmented reality game in real time and space, much like the experience of chasing Pokémon around town. Everywhere they go, Christian young people are expected to see and act differently because they view life through Easter eyes. Playing Pokémon Go reinforces a way of being in the world that expects the unexpected to happen.

Christians historically have also been fans of pilgrimages. These spiritual journeys involve rituals and practices that help participants express commitments and make meaning in their lives. They require pilgrims to acknowledge that their destiny is shaped by God and thus not wholly within their control. Pokémon Go players are also on a quest, one that serves to reshape their experiences of life and is not fully theirs to define. Studies of gamers find that they are aware of the dissonance between being agents within their play and also bounded by the design and rules of the game. Perhaps playing Pokémon Go, then, is good training for daily Christian pilgrimage, where young people are called to “choose this day whom you will serve” (Joshua 24:15) and become reflective producers of a faithful life with God.

Let me be clear. Pokémon Go is not a Christian game and chasing Pokémon in and of itself will not make children and youth more faithful Christians. Playing Pokémon Go, however, can cultivate skills of imagination, attention, questing, awareness, and decision-making that can be transferred to Christian discipleship. Furthermore, the communal nature of the game, where young people band together to locate and catch Pokémon, reinforces another Christian value: community. The celebrations that arise during the chase echo the joy of Christian fellowship and, more faintly, the delight of Christian worship. For all these reasons, my response to the question of whether Christian young people should join this augmented reality sensation is “ Pokémon Go”!

Karen-Marie Yust is the Josiah P. and Anne Wilson Rowe Professor of Christian Education at Union Presbyterian Seminary