Guest Column: Trainers Like Us

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It feels good to be in on it. Whatever “it” is doesn’t really matter, but that feeling of sharing “it” feeling drives so many facets of enthusiast communities. I’m not just talking about games and geek culture, because this feeling can find you through any number of ways. Whether you’re chatting with a stranger at the grocery store about your favorite tomato sauce recipe or grumbling with an acquaintance about a WWE storyline that’s rubbing you the wrong way, it’s instant kinship. It’s a handful of words or actions or observations that can spark some fractional closeness that wasn’t there before, that can catalyze a bond as much as act as one itself.

Have you been playing Pokémon Go? It seems like nearly everyone is, and they all have a story about running into someone, phones out and pokéballs poised. Even if you’re not among the masses of people playing Pokémon Go lately, there’s still a very high chance that you’ve heard these stories from people who are. They’ve permeated social media, circulating with more fervor and engagement than posts about the game alone. Jaded as I can get when the same type of content is circulating in my feed, I feel like I always have time to stop and read a story about neighbours banding together to locate a nearby Growlithe, or co-workers tossing lures out during their lunch-breaks. It’s nice to see people sharing something, especially when you can share it too.

These stories are the holy grail of enthusiast kinship. These encounters–the kind defying demographics of age, race, gender, and so on–are generally understood to be like unicorns. If one single person recognizes my BioWare jewelry out in the wild it practically makes my week, but this? This seems to be everywhere. And if the proliferation of tweets and articles about Pokémon Go encounters is any indication we don’t even need to experience it firsthand to feel good about it. We can still get a contact high from the experiences of others, still feel like we’re in on it from afar.

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Gaming can be an isolating hobby. Not because it’s inherently any more antisocial than huddling up in a chair and knitting, but rather because enthusiasm–the act of getting really into something–can exclude a lot of the folks around you who aren’t as into that thing as you. So it’s natural that there’s an appeal to hearing about strangers clustering together on street corners, passing tips about where they found their rarest and most powerful catches. It’s the feeling of having someone finally recognize the esoteric reference on your t-shirt, but magnified. It’s not just one person, one incident. It’s person after person, day after day. You get to feel like you’re in a cool new secret club while at the same time accepting that just about everyone else is too.

Except you’ve probably been in it for years now, and so have they.

Have you ever seen someone playing something on their phone on the bus and leaned over, only to notice that it was Candy Crush or something just as ubiquitous? Did you roll your eyes and lean back again? When you hear about Clash of Clans taking over schools, when you see high-budget, celebrity-stuffed Super Bowl ads for games you might only be vaguely aware of, do you sigh and shrug? Good on you if you don’t (seriously!), but many of us have had those moments. I certainly have. There’s an ugly natural impulse to look down on this kind of gaming for any number of reasons. Popularity, exploitative profit models, seeming lack of originality, they’re all marks against what is commonly understood as the present state of mobile gaming.

… Until we find something we like, that is.

Pokémon Go did not turn all of these people into gaming enthusiasts. They did not all suddenly join this club. Most of us know that mobile games are absurdly popular, spanning many demographics in our society. We can almost assume that nearly anyone with a smartphone or a tablet has at least one game on it. We see people playing games around us all the time, and people see us playing games on our own devices as well, and in that sense the broad range of folks popping out of the woodwork with Pokémon in hand shouldn’t be a surprise.

And even the fact that Niantic has unearthed this common language many of us didn’t realize we shared shouldn’t be quite as shocking as it is. Pokémon is big and it does very well, but beyond that the franchise is also currently celebrating its 20th anniversary–and 20 years is a long time for something to steep in culture at large. It’s had its peaks and its stagnant periods just like anything else, but it’s been around for a very long time.

Pokémon could be in college right now. It can legally vote.

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Pokémon Go is built on the original first generation designs (the PokéRap canon, if you will.) That probably wasn’t a random choice. The original 150 Pokémon have never left the series as others were added, meaning that newer fans still recognize them, but the fact that they were part of the original phenomenon means that they’re also recognizable to older fans–even people who are only aware of the series through cultural osmosis or late ‘90s news stories about that one Japanese cartoon show giving kids seizures.

What Pokémon Go is doing is unifying players in one pursuit by tapping into a language many of us already know, and then making those players more visible to each other through the nature of how the game is played. That’s it. Those players have always been there, far less visible and far less unified and consequently far easier to overlook. They have always been in the building, in the neighbourhood, in the office, around the corner, a few feet away on the train. They’ve always been 10 years younger or 10 years older. They’ve always been the guy with the well-polished vintage shoes or the lady with the really sweet dog or the kid with the Frozen backpack. And they’ve likely always known what a Pikachu is. All that’s changed is that you’re all on the same page for once, instead of only being on the same chapter.

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Please don’t mistake this as a plea to be more cynical about the Pokémon Go zeitgeist, as easy as it would surely be. Don’t mistake this as sour grapes or hipster indifference or even just the inevitable hottest-of-takes backlash that comes from many people openly and loudly and enthusiastically enjoying something. That sentiment alone is worth underscoring. Like the things you like. Like them alone or like them with others. But what Pokémon Go should really be is a reminder that this sense of community, this shared moment, this isn’t 100% built on the virtues of a single game, be that game good, bad or middling. Pokémon Go didn’t put phones in the hands of all of these people, it did not make them open to the idea of loading a game onto their device. The social structure upon which all of these great little moments shared between friends and total strangers was already here.

Whether it takes a week, a month or a year, the frenzy surrounding Pokémon Go will inevitably pass. But people around you will still be playing something, whether we’re all playing the same thing or not, whether you like what I’m playing or not. What Pokémon Go accomplishes better than anything else it’s set out to do is remind us that society is saturated with players. There are players like us and players unlike us, but they’re players all the same.

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