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It’s OK to play Pokemon Go while the world is burning

Molly Wood Jul 17, 2016
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Millions have downloaded the Pokemon Go app since its launch, making it one of the most popular mobile games of all time.
JOSEP LAGO/AFP/Getty Images

Last night there was a near-riot in Central Park.

I know that as you read those words, your heart may be sinking as you imagine angry shouts, conflict, police officers bristling with lethal force, shouting protesters, and typical images of fire, violence, running and fighting.

But it wasn’t that kind of gathering.

Throngs of people ran gleefully through Central Park and the streets around it, blocking traffic and tearing through the trees because an ultra-rare Pokemon had virtually appeared on their smartphone screens. These excited folks were on the hunt for a Vaporeon.

I’ve seen a lot of reactions to this event. After all, it occurs in the midst of a maelstrom of horrible news, and simultaneously with the awful aftermath of the Nice Bastille Day attack; the deaths and arrests and instability resulting from an attempted coup in Turkey; a high-profile honor killing in Pakistan in which a woman was strangled by her own brother; and any number of other distressing headlines (including Sunday morning’s horrible news about police officers being shot in Baton Rouge, Louisiana).

A common theme is this: The world is falling apart, and you’re all trying to catch a Pokemon? What’s wrong with you?

And yeah, part of me gets it. It’s trivial, in the extreme. It’s easy to wish that we Americans were putting half the energy into substantive social and political change that we’re putting into chasing virtual cartoon characters into parks and backyards and national cemeteries. And there are plenty of negative stories emerging about Pokemon Go, too (you had to see that coming). A Florida man shot at two kids playing outside his house, thinking they were burglars. There have been several robberies; two unfortunate fellows walked themselves off a cliff (thankfully, they survived); and several writers have pointed out the sad-but-too-true dangers of playing Pokemon while black.

And it’s true. Pokemon Go hasn’t made the world’s problems go away. It hasn’t erased racism or violence or fear. But it’s had some good effects, too.

Parents of autistic children report that their kids are socializing more and in some cases, leaving the house more than they have all summer long. My Twitter feed is full of people marveling at the heretofore hidden gems in their own towns as they actually go out and explore them in detail. Political groups and the Hillary Clinton campaign are using the game to register people to vote.

And my friends and many writers said they’ve been delighted by the sense of community they’re encountering while they’re out there hunting virtual critters—it’s common ground; a reason to engage; it lets you find a friend amidst the strangers because instead of staring at your phone immersed in your own personal virtual universe that’s utterly separate from the world around you, just this one time, you’re all doing the same thing.

And we need that.

We need anything, right now, that will remind us that we’re not so different after all. And we need a break from unrelenting sadness. It doesn’t diminish the seriousness of the issues all around us, or at least it shouldn’t. But most people simply need to choose joy when they’re overwhelmed by the dark. We can’t give in to grimly staying inside and watching the news and wringing our hands over the desperate state of it all. And let’s be honest: Most people feel utterly powerless to make even a dent in the grand horrors that are besieging us almost every day.

Pokemon Go is fun. It’s not perfect, and anything on a very large scale will lead to Bad Things Happening. But I don’t agree that people should put down their Pokemon and set to the serious task of saving the world. Most people aren’t equipped to do that. But network effects matter in the real world, too—most social problems can only be solved by love, empathy, interaction and community.

So if strangers meet and engage and laugh and play together in a park at night instead of shouting and shooting and screaming at each other, I call that a tiny victory against the forces of hate, division and sorrow. Pokemon, go.

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