Chasing Pokémon, a Baby Step Toward Virtual Reality


It was 69 degrees, a perfect summer evening. The app told me I was passing the place where the poet Robert Frost was born. A plaque marked the spot, which was a location in the game. Pokémon quoted Frost:

Such was life in the Golden Gate:

Gold dusted all we drank and ate,

And I was one of the children told,

“We all must eat our peck of gold.”

This was a promising omen, Pokémon telling me interesting things I never knew about a locale steps from my office. In the park, people spread languidly, smoking dope and playing with their dogs, not a care in the world. Slowly a group congregated near a statue of Miguel Hidalgo, the father of Mexican independence. It was nearly all young and overwhelmingly white. In other words, it looked like Silicon Valley — although with a greater female presence.

Everyone stared down at their phones, catching the creatures that the app superimposed on the landscape. Aaron Orcino was drinking a can of beer he had brought along. The appeal, he said, “was the randomness. You don’t know what is going to happen.”

But surely he had other excellent options for an evening’s entertainment?

“No, this is the best thing,” he said.

He was kidding, a bit. Mr. Orcino works at Facebook, and so at least some of his interest was professional. “I am studying it, learning the dynamics,” he said. “I want to see how long people can continue playing before Pokémon has to introduce a new game play element” — up the stakes, in other words.

Fifty years ago, the F.B.I., worried that the youth of America might foment revolution, would infiltrate San Francisco demonstrations. Now the tech companies are doing the monitoring, wondering if games like Pokémon represent a threat that must be neutralized or an opportunity to be exploited. That’s progress for you.

Photo

Members of a Pokémon Go pub crawl organized on Facebook gather in San Francisco.

Credit
Jason Henry for The New York Times

For what seemed like a long time, it wasn’t clear if anything would actually happen in the park. Television journalists did interviews. Haagen-Dazs distributed free ice cream. Less than three weeks old, Pokémon Go was fulfilling its destiny as a marketing and media opportunity.

Finally we set off, perhaps 200 of us. A larger and somewhat more diverse crowd, maybe 600 or so, departed from the opposite terminus, the Ferry Building, and marched in our direction. Like just about everything else involving new technology, the size of the projected crowd had been seriously overhyped.

We walked, collecting Pokémon along the way. Sergio Gonzalez was carrying a bottle of Veuve Cliquot Champagne, which he generously shared. “This is my childhood coming into fruition,” said Mr. Gonzalez, a sommelier who was 9 in 1996 when the original Pokémon debuted. “I’m reconnecting with my generation.”

He turned to the woman he was walking with. “If we’re going to hang out, let’s be formally introduced,” he said. “My name is Sergio.”

I read an email from Michael Saler, the author of “As If: Modern Enchantment and the Literary Prehistory of Virtual Reality” and an expert on the augmented life that technology companies are creating for us.

He was guardedly optimistic. “Pokémon Go is making everything new again,” he said. “It’s not just the enticement of the hunt, but coming across other people doing the same thing. These apps are going from pure fantasy games to helping us appreciate reality a bit more. It shows that nature and fantasy aren’t opposites, that they can come together.”

Mr. Saler added: “We always think of these innovations as a new heaven on Earth or the ninth level of hell. But it’s never one or the other, there are always disadvantages and advantages.”

Actually, reading over the voluminous online commentary about Pokémon Go, I saw little criticism beyond some privacy concerns. Denunciations about the infantilizing of American culture? Not found. The triumph of pop culture is so complete no one even notices it anymore.

Instead, there was widespread enthusiasm for getting people outdoors by any means possible. People on our trek agreed this was little short of a miracle.

“If you had told me a week ago I should go outside, I would have said, What?” said Anton, a programmer who declined to give his last name. He said he now played Pokémon Go for hours at a time, running in parks to collect the animals.

That’s one way to look at it. Another, of course, is that the game tethers people even more firmly to their devices in the one place they used to be able to at least partly escape from them: outdoors. On the Pokémon Crawl Survival Kit, posted on the Facebook page, among the items to bring was a “phone charger and portable charge.” Many did, their phone cables disappearing into their backpacks.

We passed the Pokémon throng heading for Dolores Park. Our destination, the Ferry Building, was in sight and the hour was growing late. I had captured a few Pokémons, and Apple (which sold me my Pokémon balls), Nintendo (which originally developed Pokémon), Google (which is an investor in Niantic, which developed Pokémon Go), all had captured a little more of my money and attention and data. Such is life in the Golden Gate.

“Interesting how one game can increase the stock price,” Anton observed in a heavy Russian accent. One analyst projected that Apple alone could take in $3 billion from downloads of Pokémon Go.

I tried to take the train home to the East Bay, but something was obstructing the track. BART, perpetually overcrowded and frequently overwhelmed, said there would be no trans-bay service, perhaps for hours. It recommended a trans-bay bus but, in the crowd-counting spirit of Silicon Valley, I’d estimate there were at least 9,000 people at the terminal.

There was nothing to do but summon Uber, which informed me that surge pricing was in effect and that normal fares would be somewhere between double and triple. My usual $5 trip home cost $76. Another peck of gold for Silicon Valley.

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