Credit: Illustration by Ryan Smith

On a recent Sunday afternoon, a crowd only slightly smaller than the one a few miles west at the Pitchfork Music Festival formed around the Bean in Millennium Park for a Pokémon Go meet-up that made the days of Pac-Man fever resemble a mild cough. More than 9,000 people RSVP’d to the event’s Facebook invite, but on-the-ground estimates ranged from 3,000 to 5,000 fans, from teens to the middle-aged, some clad in bright yellow Pikachu hats and furry Pokémon-themed costumes. They roared at the sight of homemade color-coordinated banners representing the game’s three competitive teams and sang in unison to the anime cartoon’s theme song like a Wrigley Field crowd warbling along to “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”

The event’s organizers had dreamed up a Game of Thrones-lite version of the game in which three teams would battle for half of downtown (complete with a Pokémon-themed map of the Loop), an ambitious plan foiled when the overloaded online servers crashed ten minutes later. Attendees were stuck staring at error messages on their smartphones instead of tracking virtual animals. Still, many left inspired by the solidarity of what became essentially a Pokémon Go pep rally.

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For those already firmly on the bandwagon of the mobile-gaming juggernaut, events like Chicago’s massive meet-up represent a new social wrinkle to an already surprisingly communal experience. But to those outside the game’s augmented reality, the collective spectacle is just another sign of the Apokélypse. I spent the rest of the day at Pitchfork in Union Park, where my every mention of the earlier Pokémon Go meet-up was met with sanctimonious disgust: “Don’t people have better things to do with their time?” (A member of the band Twin Peaks who was bartending in the VIP section claimed total ignorance of the gaming sensation.) The common refrain of naysayers seems to be “Get a life.”

Certainly Pokémon Go can be an addictive distraction (take it from me—I’m level 18), and it’s more than a little annoying that corporations are leaping into the fray with Pokémon-themed marketing. But does this game really deserve the kind of fear and loathing usually reserved for the Donald Trump campaign?

A few thousand Pokémon Go players gathered at the Bean on July 17.
A few thousand Pokémon Go players gathered at the Bean on July 17.Credit: Ryan Smith

The backlash was perhaps inevitable. In the first week of its release in mid-July, Pokémon Go’s popularity exploded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, gaining more users than Tinder and Twitter respectively, an estimated 9.5 million daily. It’s uncharted territory for a game, a sweeping, society-consuming phenomenon that for technophobes must feel like Nintendo upending and reordering society at Super Mario’s whim.

The media certainly hasn’t helped us properly evaluate the Pokémon phenomenon. Within hours of the game’s release, the horror stories steamrolled social media feeds: Hordes of players taking over formerly tranquil public spaces that had been turned into PokeStops, players being lured into armed robberies or discovering corpses while hunting rare creatures like Jigglypuffs. Distracted players have crashed their cars, even fallen off bluffs.

“What the hell is this thing? I hear it’s not safe!” exclaimed a coworker when Pokémon Go came up in conversation.

All of the panicky pearl clutching makes Pokémon Go a classic example of a moral panic—irrational hysteria that tends to descend on some new cultural product popular with “the kids.” Moral crusaders and the media have fanned the flames of plenty of these panics over the last century: jazz, Elvis’s hips, marijuana, heavy metal, comic books, Dungeons & Dragons and—most closely related to Pokémon Go—violence in video games. “We need to treat violent video games the way we treat tobacco, alcohol, and pornography,” said Hillary Clinton in 2005 while promoting the Family Entertainment Protection Act, a bill the then-senator introduced that eventually died in committee.

In an era when high-minded moralizers now lament the decline of reading, it’s ironic that even the novel was a source of moral panic in the 18th century. The sudden spread of mass media in the form of written fiction had cultural commentators labeling them “fevers” that might lead readers to lose touch with reality and identify with characters to the point where they’d adopt their behavior. Goethe’s novel The Sorrows of Young Werther was blamed for a series of suicides.

Three centuries later, it’s a puffy yellow avatar instead of foppish young artist causing an uproar. Moral panics never die, they just change mediums.

A Pokémon fan at the July 17 meet-up in Millennium Park
A Pokémon fan at the July 17 meet-up in Millennium ParkCredit: Ryan Smith

It’s true that there’s something unsettling about how Pokémon Go invites people to see shared spaces—our parks, offices, barrooms—as virtual playgrounds. Millions of gamers glued to their PlayStations in their own living rooms is one thing. Masses of players shambling down sidewalks to collect cyber monsters on their phones is quite another. But in my three weeks playing the game, I’ve interacted with dozens of strangers I otherwise never would’ve met or chatted with. Pokémon Go is an oddly effective way to meet people—even if the conversation mostly hovers around egg-hatching tips and the best places in the city to find a Ponyta.

For all of the hand-wringing about the “augmented reality” of Pokémon Go, our reality was augmented long before the game premiered. A vast population already walks around gripping digital devices like talismans, white earbuds jammed into their heads. We’re constantly listening, watching, swiping. We’ve grown accustomed to the sight of people in public hunched over screens because it happened gradually over the course of a decade.

It’s the suddenness of Pokémon Go’s ubiquity that’s jarring. Bystanders not involved in the game suddenly feel like they’ve swallowed the red pill and have realized that a large portion of humanity is plugged into Nintendo’s version of the Matrix.

Sorry, Neo, it’s too late. We’re all trapped in the simulation. v