A personal essay about fear, politics, and augmented reality
Last summer, when Pokémon Go debuted, the world around me appeared to go crazy, at least according to local media. Reports of people wandering into traffic, car crashes, armed robbery, even people falling off cliffs in attempts to capture tiny cartoon “pocket monsters” appearing in the physical space around us, abounded (though I never witnessed these events personally).
What I did see was my suburban town of Schaumburg, IL transform from a place I liked living to a place I simply loved. I couldn’t wait to go outside, to the PokéStop-rich town square, not just to catch Pokémon, but to see, walk, and interact with neighbors I’d never met—who seemed to have been in hiding since I was a little girl.
I grew up in the next town over, Elk Grove Village. If that sounds familiar, there are a few unsavory reasons. My hometown made national news the morning of September 29, 1982 when a 12-year-old girl died after taking Tylenol. More deaths, more fear, followed—all surrounding the possibility of sabotage or a serial killer tampering and poisoning bottles on supermarket shelves. I was three-years-old, too young to remember any details. My knowledge comes from history. But the emotion—the fear of someone I couldn’t picture, a stranger (“stranger danger”) lived on and plagued this town, shaping my early memories and trust of others.
I grew up trained in the practicality of suspicion, questioning anything offered to me. My Halloween candy was thoroughly inspected, sometimes by police. When I went off to college and a supermarket cashier tried some light-hearted banter, I was immediately apprehensive.
Many years later this specific air of fear has faded, replaced by other fears—fears that are associated with faces, and specific races and religions. I became a high school teacher the year after the Columbine High School shooting. I watched the World Trade Towers fall and my country slowly assign a whole new color to fear. And so many other shootings, protests, labels, oppressions, and hurts. Far too many.
What drew me to Pokémon Go was not nostalgia, but instead the behavioral changes it drew out of swarms of people. For a season, this past summer, everyone in my town came out of their homes and walked to the town square, their faces too buried in the glow of an electronic device to see the color of the person standing next to them. I happily handed my phone to my son, where the only thing I had to protect him from was tripping on the concrete steps. We walked in agreeable circles around a man-made pond as local businesses bought lures to attract more people to PokéStops and therefore to their businesses.
And the people came. No one minded the wait at local restaurants or long lines at the ice cream parlors—there were PokéStops to spin, cartoon monsters to be caught, and people to talk to about CP, stardust, local nests, teams, and gym strategies. A grown man wearing cargo shorts and shouting “SQUIRTLE” in the center of town as hundreds (yes, hundreds) of people of all ages ran towards him, wasn’t odd or threatening, but a friendly and welcoming gesture worthy of smiles and hive-fives from strangers.
I can’t think of another app that has brought so many people together unintentionally.
By Fall 2016, though, things changed once again. The air turned cold and people returned to their houses. To the surprise of many, we elected Donald Trump, and a host of other hidden fears are now apparent. In the Schaumburg town square now, the “I voted” stickers once proudly displayed sit stuck, decaying on the empty paths filled by Pokémon Goers just months before.
Atop a stone pillar in the same town square, graffitied in permanent ink, are the words: “Trump 2016.”
A few days ago, I walked the town square—not alone—but with a handful of loyal others. We didn’t talk though—just smiled slightly as we passed each other, spinning PokéStops. I passed on catching anything, though. Instead, I looked at the PokéStops.
Each PokéStop is chosen for a reason. Usually, a PokéStop is art or a historical spot or marker—a piece of beauty or history or both. This game takes each of us on a walk to a location and asks us to look and interact with a part of culture that most of us just ignore or forget or have never really seen.
In my go-to Pokémon space is a sculpture called Heart of the Basket Maker by Cliff Fragua, dedicated November 9, 2008. The plaque in front reads:
Most indigenous cultures in the Americas have developed skills in the art of basketry. This sculpture honors the skills and people who developed the art. The star motifs represented on the tablita, or headpiece, are symbols from many different cultures representing their connection to the universe.
This sculpture sits outside the Trickster Art Gallery: Native American Arts, a local shop that has been here as long as I have lived in Schaumburg though I’ve never really before paid much attention to it or gone inside—that is until Pokémon Go.
As our country prepares for Thanksgiving, I can’t help but think of those protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline, fighting so hard to protect what’s left of a culture long ignored and forgotten, in danger of extinction.
And now, as the country falls once again into fear, and more and more people who see me spinning PokéStops ask, “Isn’t that game dead?”, I write this with one tiny bit of hope, spinning PokéStops, praying that what I loved about this past summer does not fully go extinct too.