How Pokémon Go Gave Me Quality of Life

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I have a problem saying no. It’s neurotic and complex, the product of the Protestant Ethic, Tiger Parents and lots of other baggage. The result is that I treat my time like real estate: Every half-hour block is filled from 9am to 10pm, and I don’t even like half the things I’m doing.

Worse still, I’ve been doing this for years, using, as an excuse, the fact that I need to build a financial safety cushion, build my network, and stay present, because who knows…?

Further exacerbating this problem is my role as an online journalist. I feel pressure to be available to anybody, even people who harass me across platforms constantly, all the time. I have to be nice. Give them a fair hearing. Or show that even if I’m not in the US, I can still stay up to date, American-style. NOTHING GETS PAST ME.

(Unless it does. Then I hate myself.)

And while I’m giving a passel of strangers a “fair hearing,” I’m on social networks, being bombarded by news that makes me anxious: Global warming is killing us. (Do you feel how hot it is today?) A cop just shot another unarmed black guy. Somebody else just conducted another mass shooting. Trump hates the Muslims, and he wants to kick all the Filipinos out of the country.

Also, I live in Paris. So anytime a terrorist attack happens anywhere in France, I get the anxious messages, my mom filling my feed with panic and passing it to other people, like the flu: Is Angela okay? Who’s heard from her? She’s not answering my Facebook messages! CAN SOMEBODY CONFIRM ANGELA’S OKAY.

I am stressed, I am tired, and I don’t sleep anymore.

You’re probably a lot like this, too. And we do it all for our gods, right? Our gods of power—money and influence, say—or of values, like openness, productivity, fair judgment, fair hearing, a pressure to know what’s happening, to be informed, to inform others.

It’s a fucking lot. And however much I convince myself that my last Facebook share won’t change the world, a nagging sense of social guilt fuels my compulsion, like that weird uncle who’s always sending chain letters, or your religious friend who keeps reposting that “IF YOU’RE NOT ASHAMED OF JESUS THEN SHARE THIS” meme.

Which brings me to Pokémon Go.

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When Pokémon Go went live, I was at a wedding. No social media. I forgot Trump existed. It was a nice reprieve. Then this game launched, and I was flung backward into my childhood. How badly I’d wanted to be a Pokémon trainer! And it’s so basic, so easy to learn, so responsive to nostalgia: You walk around. You stock up on Pokéballs. You hunt down Pokémon, you level up.

So simple. Like early Foursquare—leveling up, grabbing badges, a nice starter high.

After that weekend, we went home. And the thing was, I didn’t stop. I carved out time to go on Pokéwalks. I went running more often. I avoided public transport; I wanted to stay above ground. I even drank more water.

And I discovered things about my city I’d never seen—like a park, hidden inside the Jardin des Plantes, or the statue of the Romanian poet Mihai Eminescu, clutching books.

Hi-hi, Mihai

I revisited the Arena for the first time since the year of my arrival in Paris and stood where the Romans played their death games, surrounded by soccer players, and caught an Eevee.

I reconnected with the city I’ve lived in for over seven years, a city whose beauty I’ve forgotten and whose merits I miss because I’m rushing from one place to the next.

That kept me playing. I got addicted—not just to the game, but to the sense of adventure it carried. I was exploring, like Ash, Misty and Brock!

I suddenly had a life outside the computer, one that engaged me with the world again—even if its purpose, for the time being, was almost exclusively catching pocket monsters and goddamnit to find a Pikachu.

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The park workers grinned at me, asked for my score, gave me good spots. When I battled, people I’d normally never look at met eyes with me and smiled.

“Did you get Seaking?” one asked me one day.

“Of course,” I answered. He nodded respectfully. We looked back down—but a connection was made.

Pokéwalks—an investment in any game, really—take time. Remember what I said earlier, about how I have none of that stuff? Well, I started to make some.

The thing about an obsession is that it becomes important, even if it doesn’t make you money. The first thing I noticed was that I wasn’t checking Facebook that often anymore. In fact, I deleted it from my phone entirely. Days went by, followed by weeks, when I didn’t accidentally see the name “Trump.” I started to feel my perpetually tense shoulders relax.

But something else happened, too: I started saying no to stuff I didn’t want to do. This included jobs—little things here and there, carving out whole swathes of time. After two weeks, I realised I’d cut my workload down by over 40 percent, I had oodles more free time, and I wasn’t in any financial danger.

Also, I wasn’t compulsively shopping anymore. I compulsively shop to eat free time and out of a sense of rebellion: What’s all this money for, anyway? But you know the result—none of that stuff really matters. None of it makes you happy.

Suddenly I didn’t care about that. The stress that made me anxiously shop was gone, and I just didn’t feel the need. I could catch Pokémon—for free!

Also, that whirling mill in my head—the one that tells me I’m wasting time and need to be more productive—her voice got smaller and smaller. A gaming addiction is cool that way: I just didn’t pay her any mind. And as she shut the fuck up, I stopped feeling like I was constantly failing at something.

Networking dates with people I don’t know, let alone like? Gone. Long afternoon walks under the heat make me less inclined to go out unless I really care about the person. (And when face to face with an actual friend, I gush about Pokémon for a few minutes, then put the phone down. Our moments together have become social reprieve instead of social obligation—precious again.)

My outings have been reduced to one, maybe two, a week—and the rest of that time is for me, my husband, our leisure activities, or just Netflix.

So I suddenly had the life I always wanted: I was working just a couple hours a day. Enjoying my city. Getting a lot of exercise. Meeting new people. Discovering new things. Not reading the news. Hanging out on a streetside café, sipping an iced coffee while doing a gym battle.

And leveling up. Leveling up, leveling up.

The simple gateway mechanics of Pokémon aren’t sufficient to keep a person interested for long. What do you do once you’ve caught them all, or just enough Rattatas to garner frustration? Who cares if you win or lose one more gym battle?

This leads to another interesting thing about Pokémon, something you don’t learn until you need to: It has whole layers of complexity.

You know why Foursquare failed? It was short-term addiction with no deeper meaning. All you do is check in. What do you do with all those points you win?

Nothing. There’s nothing to do with all those points you win.

At first glance, that’s what Pokémon looks like. But it’s actually layered with benchmarks, depending on how deeply you want to engage:

  • You can catch ’em all. That’s hard, actually—some Pokémon are only available in certain countries.
  • You can get really good at evolving Pokémon.
  • You can garner lots of stardust and keep levelling up, or improving the Pokémon who are worth the trouble.
  • You can get strong at battle, and compete for gyms.
  • You can work at the math behind making the strongest Pokémon possible, which involves mastering Pokémon IVs and movesets. (This is where I am now.)
  • You can just get really into grabbing and hatching eggs—which means you have to walk, or run, a lot.

For somebody who’s compulsively obsessed with benchmarks, but also wants a way to separate her life from career-based KPIs, Pokémon Go is perfect: A way to geek out, share with friends, advance however you want and give your everyday pressures the finger.

Our street is great for playing Pokémon Go. It’s slathered with Pokéstops. And my husband is one of those people who gets really annoyed by the enormous groups of people who gather around a lure, heads down, focused on their game, getting in the way of neighbourhood regulars just trying to walk their dogs or buy groceries.

I get that. That’s annoying.

But as a player, I also love it. These are my people now. They rove in groups or alone, backpacks full of gear (mobile chargers and water obliged), hitting up one gym after another—the Paris Mosque. The Notre Dame. The Gare d’Austerlitz. They’re all ages, all genders, all income brackets, all ethnicities—it doesn’t matter. We’re bound by competition and commonality.

Pokémon Go players clustered around three invisible Pokéstops, all of which are Lured.

In a city that, since Charlie Hebdo and the November 13 terrorist attacks, has been bathed in tension and stifled by strikes and floods, that outright glee to be present, visible and exploring is contagious.

It’s brought back optimism. It’s made me love my city again, and reminded me I didn’t move across the Atlantic to sit in the dark, count coins, eat news and fear death.

There’s obviously a lot in this that is negative — you can shirk your responsibilities into unemployment. You can get hit by a car (as my friends never stop telling me). Your obsession will undoubtedly irritate people, who may write you off as somebody who’s frivolous and disconnected from the Real Things that Matter in the World.

But my overall experience—as somebody who’s overworked, and who cares, entirely too much, about all of that negative shit anyway—has been a positive one. I don’t just feel like a kid again; I have quality of life.

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Not to mention what Pokémon Go means for gaming in the future: It’s increasing the implicit demand for a technology that’s more flexible, that enables us to walk around and stay connected without having to hold something in front of us and keep our heads down. It puts more pressure on battery life.

And as augmented reality gaming develops—with this big boost and motivator—these are going to become growing market priorities. So as more people bind themselves to this game (or games like it) and recognise where both software and hardware can improve to facilitate the addiction, we’re going to encounter an interesting kind of disruption, the kind that will free us from tech you have to hold.

There’s a freedom in that—coupled with all its inevitable constraints, but we’ll obsess over all that when it happens anyway. We do it every time we win a new measure of freedom.

So I’m excited about what’s coming. And for once, the setbacks don’t matter.

I don’t care. I don’t care what you think, I’m not jumping for that extra dollar, and I’m opting out of Adulting.

I’m busy trying to be the best … that no one ever was.

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