Six days ago, I was deep in the middle of the desert, one quivering bar of cell phone service to my name.
Dusk and heat and vast expanses of nothing, save sweat and tiny moths fluttering through the dry air. I was failing to get even basic text messages to exit my phone and bounce off an AT&T satellite. In fact, I couldn’t even spot those satellites in the desert if I tried, as the Milky Way smeared itself across the darkness. Technology and starlight all looked breathtakingly the same. I gave up on my phone, and inhaled the clean air.
It was my annual time to disconnect.
Meanwhile, Pokémon Go was arriving on iPhones across the nation like the Second Coming of Christ.
What the fuck, man?
I consider myself a pretty in-the-know citizen, but this trend blindsided me. It took me three days, two tanks of gas, and one state line before I could even begin to witness the magnitude of this latest tech movement. Baffled (but thoroughly tan!!), I asked my friends: Are you playing Pokémon Go? What is this thing? I saw Chrissy Teigen tweet about it. Is it fun?
The replies I got were vague and troubling: massive time suck and my boyfriend caught a Pokemon in our bathroom and one girl found a dead body while playing Pokemon GO.
I decided to let this trend train pass me by, and not jump on — that is, until xoJane asked if I’d pop my Pokémon Go cherry, play the game, and write about it.
Seeing as how my Monday night plans consisted of live-tweeting this utterly garbage season of The Bachelorette until I couldn’t stand myself anymore and passed out, I thought, OK, yeah, sure. This is a productive use of my time. I downloaded the game.
Before I get into how I inadvertently got wasted while playing Pokémon Go in West Hollywood, some background: I’m not a video game connoisseur by any means, but in ’97, my younger brother and I cherished our Game Boys more than our parents. We played the OG Pokémon Red and Blue game with the intensity of kids deep in the time fog of elementary school summer break.
To us, it wasn’t a phenomena; it was just fun. I watched my Squirtle grow into Wartortle and then Blastoise. I hunted down Digletts and compared scores with my brother. My grayscale Game Boy ate double-A batteries like candy.
And then, well, I don’t know. School resumed and the Game Boys were put away and I discovered lip gloss and boys and long division and suddenly I’m 27, trying to undiscover very specific men, downloading Pokémon Go on my iPhone. Isn’t that how most things go? Full circle?
Back to the game.
Pokémon Go starts up, tells me to “be alert” and “stay aware” of my surroundings, which I initially interpret as a playful reminder of all the ~*dangerous Pokémon!!!*~ I’m going to encounter but later realize is a warning to not accidentally walk into traffic while staring at your phone. I’m introduced to the disturbingly handsome Professor Willow, whose jawline is the stuff of Hemsworth brothers. He asks me, “Did you know that this world is inhabited by creatures known as Pokémon?” and I’m immediately struck by how replacing the word “Pokémon” with “fuckboy” brings an even more realistic dimension to this game. Professor Willow continues, “Some run across the plains, others fly through the skies, some live in the mountains...”
So do fuckboys.
Anyway, Pokémon Go accesses my camera and within seconds I’ve caught, appropriately enough, a Squirtle in a dusty corner of my bedroom. But then, the game makes a demand of me that no moody writer who holes up at home for long stretches ever wants to hear: “Time to walk!”
God bless it. This involves activity.
Pokémon Go may be a better fitness app than most on the market today, as I had no plans of strolling through my neighborhood until I realized that my apartment is woefully short on Pokémon for me to catch. (Some people have even theorized that Pokémon Go is a massive clandestine operation to promote Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” campaign, proving that truthers will even fuck with your childhood video games to make a dubious case.) I have to go out tonight, I think as I once again fail to find any Pokémon in my kitchen. What a great excuse for me to wear this new bronzer! And catch more Pokémon!
Zero Pokémon in my Uber; instead, one driver who asks if I model (comethefuckon, dude), and plays me his personal “disco” CD as I try to refresh the game. “Our servers are experiencing issues,” the game reads at 7 p.m. My guess is that everyone is clocking out of their day job in Los Angeles and transitioning to their night gig of catching ‘em all, bruh.
As I wait for a friend at a bar, I realize I am discreetly angling my phone so no one sees it. Me, the chick who routinely reads at bars alone, has pressed up against her own limitation — opening the Pokémon Go app while by myself at a trendy venue. I assume the shame will eventually melt away — I’m doing “research,” after all, and make a point of saying that loudly everywhere I go — but then again, I’ll never really know if it was shame that melted away or alcohol that hit my bloodstream.
Either way: I got used to playing in public.
As I sip tequila, my friend greets me by promptly opening her Pokémon Go app and scrolling through the 100-plus Pokémon she’s captured. She informs me she’s “at Level 7” and I feel my first twinge of Pokémon Go envy, aggravated by the fact that she’s also looped her dad into the game, and I happen to communicate with my own father solely through scant emails he receives via dial-up internet. But before any daddy issues can be fanned into flames, a Nidoran reveals itself at the bar and I feed it some Don Julio before capturing its ass and ordering another round.
It doesn’t take long for my Pokémon Go research mission to earn me free alcohol as conversations light up about the game. While not everyone in the crowd plays Pokémon Go, water-cooler chat about the app out-muscled the typical where you from, what do you do cliches that dominate conversation in L.A. Beyond that, Pokémon Go also provides a welcome respite from the scorching dumpster fire that is this year’s election. Why talk Trump when you can talk Charizard? Sometimes a little distraction can be useful, and nothing distracts quite like our phones.
Off I go to another bar, trotting down Sunset Boulevard with a solid buzz and two Pokémon to my name. But where the fuck are they now? I see no Pokémon on the app, which lays out a video game version of the streets surrounding me. Right as I’m live-tweeting my discontent, a creature that’s a mixture of a cat, pig, and monkey (a Mankey) appears at the entrance of a bright H&M storefront. I dub it the Fashunz Pokémon as I aim my Poké Ball at it and throw.
The bartender at my next stop recognizes me and respects the shit out of my solo Pokémon Go mission, rewarding me with a pickleback shot I will love in that moment and hate in nine hours. Literally everyone around me at this bar is West Hollywood–beautiful and paired off on a date, whispering sweet nothings in a lover’s ear, caressing thighs under tables, foreplay beginning before the cab ride home.
Me? I’m catching a fucking Pidgeotto and Rhyhorn on a barstool and pounding Fortaleza on the rocks — and at this point, I don’t care who sees it.
I’ve transcended the shame and fully embraced my Poké-mission. My bartender friend tells me she has an “addictive personality” and loved Pokémon so much as a kid that she doesn’t want to risk falling deep into the game’s rabbit hole. I think, that’s nice, as I stare up at her from deep in the ground, light barely reaching me.
OK, so listen: By this portion of the evening, I’m drunk and Pokémon is no longer important. The tequila snuck up on me, and the rest of my night is an Uber ride home with the driver blasting Natalie Imbruglia (super tight), impulse-ordering Indian food on Postmates (super regret), watching National Treasure for absolutely no reason (super random), and passing out with my makeup on.
I sleep deeply. When I wake up a 5 a.m. to chug water, everything is quiet, still. I’d forgotten Pokémon Go exists.
In light of a hungover day, however, I find half-eaten takeout next to my bed and eyeliner smeared across my face, and I’m in need of both a large black coffee and a prayer. All in the name of Pokémon, I think to myself, wincing through the spins. At my local coffee shop, a perky patron who clearly had not drunk free tequila last night tells me he’s at Level 15 in Pokémon Go — Level 15!!! We chat about the game as we get our caffeine fix.
I couldn’t help but notice how a video game was stoking so much social interaction. My impression of gaming was still rooted in a sense of isolation — early versions of Pokémon played while sitting in a lump on the couch, Candy Crush destroying my life and rewiring my brain at a desk job in 2013.
Pokémon Go, however, is a different beast: massive crowds of young players gather at the Santa Monica Pier to play, and Pokémon Go is an easy way to meet strangers, a breezy conversational introduction.
Despite the connective quality, the explosion of Pokémon Go unsettled me in that Black Mirror kind of way. I knew going into the game that, by registering with my Gmail address, I’d be offering Pokémon Go “full access” to my account — a fine-print detail that most players did not realize in the first few days after the game’s release. (They say they've fixed this — too late for me, though.)
What did Pokémon Go learn about me while I used the app for one night? It had full access to my email; it tracked my movement through Los Angeles; it logged how often I used the app and any in-app communication; it gained access to my camera, and therefore visual access to my surroundings; it knows my birthday and will do nothing with that information, assholes. This is just scratching the surface. And with cyber warfare becoming a reality, all of this data-mining can take on a worrisome edge.
I think of this as we tap “allow access to camera” on our iPhones and catch Squirtles in the privacy of our homes. I think of this as I watch Nintendo’s market value grow by billions of dollars less than a week after Pokémon Go’s launch. I was worried about someone seeing me play Pokémon Go at a bar alone, not realizing that the true exposure lies within the app itself. If the release of a ‘90s nostalgia app can gain more users than Twitter in just days, if it can nudge us to allow full access to our emails in order to play Pokémon again, what’s next?
The Pokémon GO frenzy will undoubtedly fade soon, just as the original game did almost two decades ago. As for me, I deleted the app — I’m not one for keeping games on my phone. Plus, I figure if I’m going to hand over mountains of information to companies, I’d rather stick with Amazon, Uber and Apple — the devils I at least know and regularly use.
I get the Pokémon Go fixation, the fun of whipping out your iPhone or Android and spotting Pokémon “in the real world.” But unlike our Pokémon Game Boy days, we are no longer paying for these apps with our allowance money at a local video game store. The stakes are higher, even though the price tag in the app store reads “FREE.”
I paid for Pokémon Go not just with a hangover, but with my personal data that now lives somewhere far, far away. The data exited my phone, bounced off a satellite, and nestled itself in a server in some remote location. I couldn’t see the satellite above, even if I tried; the light pollution in busy Los Angeles is too much. But the satellite spots me, deleting the app, emailing an editor, worrying about the implications in an online essay.
It aims and captures that, too.