Two Totally Normal People Explain Why They’re Still Playing Pokémon Go

It’s been two years, but you still gotta catch ’em all.

Performers dressed as Pikachu march during a parade held as part of an event hosted by The Pokemon Co. on Aug. 14, 2017, in Yokohama, Kanagawa, Japan.
Performers dressed as Pikachu march during a parade held as part of an event hosted by The Pokemon Co. on Aug. 14 in Yokohama, Kanagawa, Japan. Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images

Marissa Martinelli: So, June, I understand that you are one of the freaks who is still playing Pokémon Go two whole years after its blockbuster launch. I’m glad to know I’m not alone! I was talking to one of our dear colleagues recently, and he was shocked—shocked—to hear that I, or anyone for that matter, still plays. Do you get similar reactions when people find out you are a Poképerson?

June Thomas: Absolutely! Other than you and a couple of Slate colleagues, everyone I know who is still playing is a middle-aged lesbian. (Then again, most people I know outside of Slate are middle-aged lesbians.) And while middle-aged lesbians are actually super-hip and happening (which is a term hip and happening people use all the time), we are not generally seen that way by people who are not themselves middle-aged lesbians. In other words, thanks for proving that young, hip, and happening people are still playing Pokémon. I am very glad that you are providing cover for us, Marissa.

Martinelli: Surely the game must be hip and happening, given that something like 5 million people are still playing daily! But unlike those first few months after the launch, when it felt like everyone you knew had their face buried in their phone, Pokémon Go now feels like an elusive little club—where only a select few are privy to this secret world where the local post office is actually a beacon for trainers, and tiny monsters roam the streets.

Or maybe I just feel that way because I quit the game when the hubbub died down and only returned to it about nine months ago. What about you—you’ve stuck with it from the beginning, right?

Thomas: Yes! I play every single day—and when I’m abroad and am too cheap to pay for data roaming, not wanting to break my bonus streak motivates me to search high and low for a data network I can connect to.

I guess this is where I should admit that I am a terrible Pokémon Go player. I refuse to fight, and I don’t have interest in taking part in raids. I Pokémon like I do everything else in life: I’m not the smartest or the best, but I am the most boring. I will wear down my battery scanning for pocket monsters every time I am out in public. I will capture low-value Pokémon and evolve them as soon as I have enough to justify the use of a Lucky Egg. I would rather spend a few bucks here and there than interact and collaborate with other humans. I do it for the same reason that I once entered thousands of first lines of books into a database for the sole reward of climbing up a leaderboard that only the other people on the leaderboard knew existed: because I’d started and I saw no reason to finish.

What brought you back to the game after a nine-month hiatus? And why did you sign up in the first place? Are you an OG Pokémoner?

Martinelli: You don’t sound like a terrible player to me. In fact, I was taking that same pacifist zoologist approach to Pokémon when I gave up on the game the first time around—although that might be why I got bored! I came back to it out of curiosity; I had some friends who were still playing and making actual progress, so I figured I’d give it another go, and I found that actually participating in raids and battling in gyms was pretty fun. I also have a long commute, and basically every train station I pass along the way is a Pokéstop, which is awfully convenient.

I started playing in the first place in summer 2016 because 1) I wanted to see what all the fuss was about, and 2) I wanted desperately to catch a Snorlax. I never collected Pokémon cards as a kid, but I did occasionally watch the show, and I had a stuffed Pikachu before I grew out of that phase. But I never outgrew the childhood dream of someday falling asleep on a Snorlax’s belly. It looks so comfortable! And so I explicitly made that my Pokémon Goal: I would play at least until I caught a Snorlax. But no matter how many 10km eggs I hatched, even at Level 28, I never managed it—until just days ago, when I finally caught one thanks to the “research” feature. All that toiling for Professor Willow has paid off at last.

Would it be impolite to ask what level you’ve reached?

Thomas: As of last week, I’m at Level 35. And since I need to collect 1,500,000 XP to get to Level 36, I’m guessing I’ll be here for a while. For a reason it would take a classically trained psychoanalyst years to pull out of me, reaching new levels is my main Pokémon motivation. I hate to skip a day’s Pokéstopping, hunting, and evolving because I want to reach the next level, even though at these heights in the Pokémonic stratosphere, reaching new levels doesn’t really do much for one—a few Ultra Balls, the occasional Lucky Egg, and some powders and potions that I throw away because I don’t fight and therefore don’t need them. So, essentially, I am playing for bragging rights, and yet … I am so embarrassed to admit that I still play (or have ever played) Pokémon Go that I hide my daily habit rather than “brag” about it.

Martinelli: The secret is out now, so brag away! I’m certainly impressed—I’m just short of having enough candy for a Gyarados, even though I’ve been walking a ridiculous-looking Magikarp for ages. Which Pokémon are you most proud of?

Thomas: My favorite Pokémon is Phanpy, just because it is outrageously cute: half-elephant, half-tapir, and a delightful shade of powder blue (with those cute red nose and ear markings).
But I am proudest of having evolved a Gyarados, an Altaria, and being just nine candies shy of evolving a Wailord. Those 400-candy evolutions are particularly irresistible for Pokémon Go grinders like me.

We’ve established that I’m a creature of habit, but why do you keep opening that app? And, tell me, do you ever frequent Pokémon Go websites to get tips and tricks?

Martinelli: You know, I never do, since I’m a more casual player. I mostly play to pass the time on the train, although I do get excited to catch whatever Pokémon is swarming on the monthly Community Day, to the point where I will plan my weekend with those three crucial hours in mind. As cheesy as it might sound to a Poké-loner like yourself, I do like the sense of camaraderie that comes with the game. Recently, as part of the new “research” feature, they announced an event where you could go to a particular gym at a certain time and battle a Mewtwo. When I got there, there were at least 15 other people—strangers! —gathered for the fight. It’s the same feeling as when I take over a gym and I see on my screen that another Team Mystic member is also battling nearby. I’ll sometimes try to peer around and see if I can figure out which of the other zoned out looking commuters is actually my teammate and comrade.

Honestly, the new “friends” feature is my favorite update so far, for this reason. It launched while I was on vacation. Every time you send a friend a gift, it comes with a little post card, and I got a kick out of sending bundles of Poké Balls and potions along with virtual postcards from Reykjavik. Definitely saved me the krona I would otherwise have had to pay on postage.

What about you: What keeps you coming back to the game?

Thomas: The social features do seem very smart—for one thing, I am now out as a Pokémoner to at least six more humans, and I’ve been genuinely grateful for some very well-timed gifts of balls and berries. Looking at my friends’ stats—how many battles they’ve won, how many kilometers they’ve walked, and how many pocket monsters they’ve caught—stirs up my competitiveness and makes me question my pacifist oath. (I still haven’t fought or raided, but it becomes more likely with every passing day!)

Mostly, though, Pokémon Go is a reason to leave the apartment and walk around a bit, something to look at on my phone instead of a news story that will cause my blood pressure to spike. Walking a buddy or taking advantage of special eggs really has caused me to be out in the world more. Once, when I had the flu and my girlfriend refused to go spin a Pokéstop for me (she has dignity), I changed out of my PJs and did it myself! The one thing she likes about PG is that I’m now willing to go to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden with her. Why would I not? It’s stuffed with Pokéstops and Pokémon!

At heart, though, I suspect that the reason I open the app every day is related to why I started in the first place. I signed up for Pokémon Go as I was walking home from the vet after saying goodbye to my 21-year-old cat. For weeks, maybe months, it was a much-needed distraction from thinking about Sooky, something to fixate on instead of the care and feeding of a very old animal whose needs shaped so much of the way our lives and apartment were organized. Maybe giving up the game would mean giving up Sooky—and even two years later, I can’t quite see myself doing that.

Martinelli: What a beautiful note to end this chat on. And, not to be rude, but there’s a Vaporeon at the park across the way with my name on it. I do, after all, want to be the very best!