The first time I was aware of Pokémon Go–my daughter had downloaded it to her phone and was showing it to me–I had a moment of existential crisis.The AR (augmented reality) was turned on by default. The phone screen showed a Rattata standing in my living room, but when I looked at the same area off screen I of course saw nothing. As a lifelong speculative fiction fan and a witch I was awash in questions about the nature of the seen and unseen worlds, parallel dimensions, and technology. It was natural to consider the idea that the Pokémon was really existing in my living room, and I only knew about it because of the game’s programming. To be honest, I found the idea disconcerting.
Eventually, I installed the game on my phone, although I turned off the AR. For a year I played with my kids on occasion. We’d walk around and throw digital balls at digital monsters. It was a fun family activity. And when my kids moved on to other games, I stopped playing.
In the last few weeks I’ve gotten back into the game as a way to get exercise. I prefer walking to any other kind of exhortation, and as someone with a multi-tasking addiction, I like to feel like I’m doing more than just rambling through my neighborhood. I’ve also found I will walk more when presented with Pokéstops just a couple blocks farther, or when I need just a half a kilometer more to hatch an egg. Pairing the game with walks has kept me motivated and I’ve gone out even on days when I hadn’t immediately felt like it.
That existential question still pops up though. On my walks, when I’m not trying to catch a Pickachu, I’m paying attention to my surroundings. I note the flowers and trees and bushes. I am always looking out for squirrels and rabbits and birds. I’m also opening up to the genus loci, greeting those subtle shifts in mood and feeling that I encounter in certain places. I call out greetings to those spirits I sense behind petals and rocks, the ones that hang from the branches of trees or that lay in patches of clover.
The Pokémon who show up on my phone screen are like those spirits in a way. They are hidden from the naked human eye, requiring a special way of looking so see them. For Pokémon that’s the game app; for local spirits, that’s a shift in consciousness.
In making this connection I’m not saying that Pokémon are real or that spirits are not real. My point is that the world around us is so much more than what we see, and yet we are often quick to ignore the presence of spirits because we often don’t see them. Playing the game is a daily reminder to be aware of that knowledge. How one uses that awareness is another matter entirely.