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A Pokemon Too Far?

Our Curate, Jason, reflects on the Pokemon Go craze that has captured everyone's imagination and what we can learn from it as a church
20th Jul 2016

Crazes when I was a kid in the dim and distant late 70’s and early 80’s involved ‘sensible’ gadgets and toys – Matchstick Cars – you know those tiny replicas that evolved into Hot Wheels – football league sticker books and, of course, the unforgettable Rubik’s cube. Admittedly you had to wait a month of Saturdays in order to save enough pocket money to buy these, but the anticipation was all part of the fun.

Now Pokemon are go, a truly global craze that has captured the imagination of millions. What is it I hear you mutter in a ‘I don’t really want to know but in order to sound vaguely knowledgeable I better had’ kind of way?

It all began in Japan when Satoshi Tajori decided to transform his love of capturing insects in jars (could have been for either later dissection or consumption – we’re not told) for an experience for children everywhere. And so after several failed efforts to get it off the ground and a dire choice of initial name (‘capsule monsters’ anyone?) Satoshi realised that the new handheld gaming device – the Gameboy – would provide an ideal way of realising his ambition.

And so, eventually, Pokemon was born. The backstory of the game revolves around trainers capturing ‘Pocket monsters’ in the wild and coaching them to do battle with other trainer’s monsters. The Monsters – of varying size can be caught by throwing a Pokeball at them. It’s a spherical device that opens up on hitting a creature and zaps them into miniature whilst sucking them into the sphere (think of the traps used to capture rogue spirits in Ghostbusters). The trainer can then release them to fight other beasts in a bid to control battle grounds confusingly referred to as gyms. The Pokeballs are not in fact stored in pocket but in a knap sack. Still ‘Rucksack Beasts’ has little more going for it than ‘Capsule Monsters’.

Now the game, like the wee beasts that can become big beasts in Pokemon, has evolved to become the biggest augmented reality game the world has ever known Pokemon Go. It uses the navigation system on your phone to produce monsters in the world around you that can be captured by flicking one of your pokeballs at them.

So strange beasts can appear on your desk at work, in the park, on the bus etc. It’s a game that you don’t switch off, that you can play anywhere, any time. People are hunting high and low for Pokemon in the small hours, forming possies to track them down during their lunch breaks and taking a break from pumping iron in the gym to catch a Zubat or two.

And various businesses, shops, charities and churches have signed up to be Pokestops – places where you can replenish your stock of pokeballs and pick up extra items that help you forage for monsters.

So what do we make of this phenomenon?  We can harp on about it being just another escape from reality, a distraction that just ups the ante when it comes to our culture’s increasing love of trivial pursuits or we can look at why it’s so popular and learn a thing or two about what we want, what we really, really want as a society.

First up we want a better version of the now. That’s the digital age for you, give me better, give me brighter, give me eye candy and stimulate my bored brain. People want more than life has to offer and so the mix of fantasy and reality – being completely immersed in a story – has mass appeal.

Also we want to succeed, we want to accomplish things. That’s the way we’re wired, we love doing stuff, completing tasks that feed our ego so we can say ‘yes! I did that!’. Ever wondered why so many young people – lads in particular – are hooked on computer games? Real life might not be handing you any rewards but computer games always do. It might not appear to be ‘real’ work to us but our brains think otherwise. We win on a computer game, we get a high score, we evolve our pokemon monster then it’s a wee dopamine hit for the brain. Addictive stuff indeed.

Lessons for the Church? We’ve not just got a better version of reality to offer but the best version. We’re caught up in the greatest adventure the cosmos has ever known – helping the Father Almighty, the blessed Son and the Holy Spirit build an eternal empire. Trouble is we’re not always the best at exciting people about our story. Let’s change that.

And how can we help people accomplish more? Succeed more? Let’s not treat people as pew fodder, let’s get them in on the action, get them involved, let’s help write the story together and recognise how exciting it is to commit everything to following Jesus.

So we don’t need cheesy Christianised versions of Pokemon Go: ‘Ooh I’ve cornered the apostle Paul in the nappy aisle at Morrisons, let me just catch him with my prayer sphere!’ We just need to remember that reality doesn’t need augmenting. The all powerful, all beautiful, all wise creator of it all is inviting us to help him write the story of life right here, right now.