Nostalgia, networks, and nuance of Pokémon Go

Trying to stay awake

It feels like 1999 again. Aside from the email scandals against Hillary Clinton, the reboots of childhood franchises, and the bright colors of this website, the déjà vu makes everything feel all too familiar. And the wildly successful mobile app Pokémon Go rages on. Reminiscent of the days of trying to catch ’em all when we were younger, it’s less about finding the elusive Mewtwo and more about finding ourselves.

Much has been written already on Pokémon Go as the next big thing. In the video game and media franchise, players test their skills to find and capture creatures known as Pokémon. But what makes the franchise amazing is how well the Pokémon themselves are designed. Each Pokémon  has their own unique abilities. They have personalities and character. Charizard is a boastful, hotheaded dragon. Clefairy is a cute, friendly cuddly bear. And, as you train your Pokémon, they grow stronger. Some can evolve into (although it is more akin to metamorphosis rather than evolution) even more powerful Pokémon.

Back in the 90’s the Pokémon fad took over the nation by storm. Teenagers in my neighborhood were linking their Gameboy Colors to battle with their Gengar and Nidoking. I was sneakily trading my Geodude trading card with other students in my kindergarten class. My parents took me to see the movie at the local theatre. Unlike other shows and media, Pokémon set itself apart in the way it balanced the individual characteristics of a Pokémon with a larger sense of belonging. They formed networks in this sort of connectedness. Each Pokémon has a unique set of attacks, design, and strength, but some share the same type, lineage, or other relations to one another. Ekans, the snake Pokémon, routinely eats the eggs of Pidgey, a pigeon creature. They can play into each other’s strengths and weaknesses, such as the fire lizard Charmander’s advantage over a grass plant like Bulbasaur. This balance also shows in the way Pokémon relate to our real world. Koffing and Muk are, respectively, a sphere of nauseous gas and a puddle of slime. They reference our planet’s troubles with pollution. Farfetch’d, a duck wielding a leek, alludes to a popular Japanese saying.

This means children and adults can identify with Pokémon much more easily than they would, say, identify with the protagonist of a romance novel or a superhero movie. These balances and relationships give rise to complexity that we see in ourselves. Some of us have angry days when we rage like a Gyarados. Other times we can admire the beauty and serenity of Lapras. Pokémon themselves become much more than individual fighting pawns, but characters with the depth and substance that most video game characters struggle to achieve.  And, with these established relations in place, we can keep tabs on whatever new Pokémon we come across. Even the names of Pokémon themselves borrow from Japanese and Western roots with a creative voice in each of them (e.g., “Squirtle” as a play on “squirt” and “turtle.)

And, above else, Pokémon feeds our imagination of learning and exploring the world. The same way philosophers seek to analyze fundamental questions and biologists classify all species and organisms, a Pokémon trainer seeks to catch ’em all.

Though there is much potential in this sort of analysis, the daily trials of Pokémon Go might not be any of that. Our co-workers and significant others might be spend their time staring at their phones just because it’s fun and addicting. But, aside from the momentary satisfaction, the culture which we currently inhabit might help us see the entire phenomenon as a nostalgia trip to our playground days, except, instead of dial-up cyberspace we use social media. Instead of fearing AIDS and homosexuality, we fear terrorists and financial instability. Instead of tying our jackets around our waists, we tie our hair in man buns.

And Zubat still won’t leave me alone in dark places

Our country is experiencing a cultural shift in our individual sense of belonging. We’ve brought our own individual identities, race, sex, class, and everything else under scrutiny. We’re upset with elites and the establishment’s exercise of power. Our politics have become more about personal grievances and less about overarching policy. Rising sensitivity and suspicion have made us more partisan and fueled by animus outrage.

And maybe Pokémon Go hearkens back to the older days. The 90’s participatory culture of radio and cable TV is now ever-alert, yet detached smartphone trendiness. The previous generation’s rejections of grand narratives and categorization have manifested in today’s myopic, schizophrenic political discourse. The messiness that is our country’s conversations on controversial issues of race and gender that we’ve sought to erase has lingered with us today, and, in some ways, worsened tensions between races and other types of groups. And the retro gaming that has re-manifested itself in a smartphone app is another reminder.

Joseph Tobin, Professor of Education at the University of Georgia, studied the rise of Pokémon in the 90’s. On the way people found different pleasures in Pokémon, he commented:

Drawing on a concept of Michel de Certeau (1984), who makes a distinction between the strategies of the powerful (colonizing governments, invading armies, bosses) and the tactics of the weak (colonial subjects, resistance fighters, employees), we can see children as tacticians who use the means at hand to extract pleasure where and when they can find it. 

de Certeau’s examination of the producers and consumers isn’t entirely about a streamlined popular culture nor is its primary focus some sort of struggle against power. He looks at the way people walk from place to place. Drawing influence from Wittgenstein’s philosophy of ordinary language, de Certeau explains how our everyday actions are restricted by what is given by the powerful. By navigating between buildings and down roads, individual people choose their paths that have been established by the city architects. The producers of the city employ strategies for official purposes. The consumers of the city folk use tactics with limitation, yet still ultimately dictated by the powerful.

We can keep it in mind on our everyday walks with Pokémon Go.

The same way some of us play Pokémon for self-identification while others play the game to meticulously catch ’em all, we seek our own agency. We use our own tactics in the context of the strategies given by those in power. It puts the individual with the ability to choose and connects us with others. The connectedness of Pokémon only remind us of everything we desired. The balance between individualistic self-expression and a larger, more universal belonging parallel the world of Pokémon. These are the tactics we cling to.

Leave a Reply