“So … catch any good Pokémon around here?”
A group of teenagers looks up from their smartphones when I speak and immediately nod. “Yeah, if you hike up towards the reservoir, someone placed a lure that’s attracting a bunch of them,” says one young man. He pauses for a moment. “We’re heading up there now, if you want to come.”
For a moment I’m not sure how I ended up here on a Saturday afternoon, plotting with kids half my age about how to catch imaginary digital monsters in a local park. Such are the strange and serendipitous moments facilitated by Pokémon Go, a mobile game that is enticing legions of video game fans to leave their living rooms and walk outside to seek adventure, blending digital fantasy and tangible reality in exciting—and sometimes dangerous—ways.
By using location data from your phone, Pokémon Go locates your character on a digital map that mirrors the streets and locations around your physical location, populating it with Pokémon characters that crop up at random as you walk. It also displays “Pokéstops” and “gyms” that are attached to specific places such as stores and parks, which yield power-ups if you come into range. These can sometimes feel like breadcrumbs, inviting you further out into the world as you spot them in the distance.
To call Pokémon Go popular is something of an understatement. It’s currently the most popular app in Apple’s app store, and on Android it’s about to surpass Twitter in active daily users. Its success has sent Nintendo’s market value soaring. Players report throngs of people congregating at Pokémon Go hotspots in cities, waving their smartphones to capture imaginary monsters as puzzled onlookers pass by.
Businesses are already strategizing about how to leverage their Pokéstop status for bigger profits, and the phenomenon has gone global to even the most unlikely of places; one man fighting against ISIS in Iraq reported catching a Pokémon on the front lines in Mosul. “Daesh, come challenge me to a Pokémon battle,” he joked.
One obvious benefit of the game is that it’s turning a traditionally sedentary pastime into an active one—a longtime interest for Nintendo. “I went to the park twice in the last 2 days, which I haven’t done in years. This phenomenon is crazy,” one user tweeted to me. “Spent 10 years trying to make my husband exercise more. Pokémon Go did it in one day,” wrote another.
Although not particularly revolutionary when it comes to either augmented reality or gamifying exercise, the iconic lure of Pokémon is potent for a generation that grew up in the thrall of the franchise. Searching for rare creatures has always been an integral part of the experience, and rather than sending an avatar to wander in the digital wilderness of a video game, Pokémon Go fulfills a longtime fantasy for many players by turning their entire city into one big scavenger hunt for their favorite characters.
Drawing Xs on a map of the real world and sending people off to hunt for treasure also comes with its share of dangers, however. A player in Wyoming discovered a corpse while wandering outdoors in search of Pokémon. In an even more sinister incident, a band of men allegedly robbed numerous people by using digital lures to attract more Pokémon to specific locations—which in turn lured their victims in as well. For disabled players, the impetus to set off toward the horizon might mean they don’t get to play at all, or at least not as fully; a hotspot located at the top of a long flight of stairs may not be an option for someone in a wheelchair, for example. And of course, walking around with your eyes on your phone rather than traffic is a great way to get hit by a car.
Encouraging people to venture outside and explore the world around them can be a risky proposition in some cases, and this reflects a sadder and more pernicious truth: Not all people get to move through the world as safely or easily as others. While plenty of concerns have been raised about the way virtual reality leaves your body vulnerable while immersing you in a digital world, augmented reality does something different: It pushes you out in the real world where the dangers you face aren’t just cars but also how vulnerable our society at large makes you to violence.
In an article titled “Pokémon Go Could Be a Death Sentence for a Black Man,” writer Omari Akil notes that given the suspicion he faces simply for being a black man—and the disproportionate violence black people experience at the hands of police—wandering into spaces where white people might perceive him as threatening and call the cops could be a lethal choice.
“The premise of Pokémon Go asks me to put my life in danger if I choose to play it as it is intended and with enthusiasm,” he writes. “Let’s just go ahead and add Pokémon Go to the extremely long list of things white people can do without fear of being killed.”
Indeed, a 40-year-old white man shared a story on Reddit about finding an unexpected camaderie with two young black men when they realized they were all out searching for Pokémon in the middle of the night. They started sharing tips about the game—only to be interrupted by a cop who suspected the black men were selling drugs.
Walking around unfamiliar places can also be a particularly dicey proposition for women, not only because of the potential for Pokémon Go to be used by sexual predators as well as thieves but also because harassment and abuse are endemic problems that women often face whenever they move through public spaces. While Pokémon Go has spurred social interaction and sparked unlikely friendships for many players, some women are understandably wary about being approached by strange men, particularly at night or while alone.
In an article at the Mary Sue, writer Maddy Myers describes how playing Pokémon Go seems to encourage more men to walk up to her on the street, and how anxious it has made her. “One guy followed me for several feet, and as he looked over my shoulder to check if I was looking for Pokémon, I tabbed over to my email and pretended to be looking at that so that he would go away. He did, but not before making my heart-rate skyrocket by following way too close behind me,” she writes. “Pokémon Go has been reminding all of us, instantly, who does and doesn’t feel safe going outside.”
Racism and sexism aren’t new problems, of course, and Pokémon Go didn’t create them; they’re simply realities that are often invisible to those who don’t experience them. As Pokémon Go has already demonstrated poignantly, projecting a layer of fantasy on top of reality doesn’t mean that everyone gets to escape the ugly inequities of that reality—indeed, it may leave some people more exposed. Although alternate reality games can allow us to imagine that a more magical world lies just below the surface of our own, they can’t change the fact that the world itself is disproportionately dangerous for some people to traverse—even as they beckon people to walk forward.