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  • Brian Oliu

Brian Oliu's Pokémon Go

Pokémon Go, at its core, is a game for me: I am of the generation that while less obsessed with the trading card/television show universe of Pokémon, I was an adamant player of Pokémon Red, even resurrecting a long dormant GameBoy to play the game. Pokémon gets at the heart of what I enjoy most about certain games: the ability to collect things, to level up, to work toward a goal where the game gets harder, but I get stronger. There is nothing more rewarding to me than coming across an enemy in a game that gave me fits ten hours of gameplay ago & vanquishing it in a single swoop. However, I'm also incredibly old-school in my gaming tendencies: I prefer games that I can play for a little while & then put down--beat a level, & then go about my day--it's part of the reason why a lot of modern games don't necessarily hold my attention--the massive sprawl of certain sandbox titles makes it feel like my quest is for naught--that my schedule causes the game to be too far-drawn out to keep my interest: my favorite game I've played recently is the DOOM reboot, partly because of the old-schoolness of it all, but mostly because it is a game that you can play on your own terms, as Susan Arendt expressed for Games Radar. Pokémon Go taps into this concept too: it is literally a game where you can play anywhere & anytime--it is one of the selling points of the game: if you have a phone, you can play. My main issue is that the game falls in this weird gap of being active & passive at the same time. I'm one of those people that when I want to play a video game, I want to "play a video game," which is why things like Wii Bowling/Kinect games are not for me. However, I also like apps where I am rewarded for doing things: new geotag filters on Snapchat, checking in on Foursquare, medals on MapMyRun, etc--to be gifted things for doing stuff that I was already going to do; the capitalism element of Pokémon Go is for a different essay, but I also assume that this is why I have hundreds of loyalty cards for businesses.

My main problem with Pokémon Go is that it needs to be open at all times in order to play it: most of my gaming experience has been going somewhere, opening up the app to see if there is anything new around, grabbing it, & closing the app, which is obviously not the goal of the game: it's more to explore, to walk around, get friends to go with you, to meet strangers & go hunting. But, as a result, it falls into that active/passive gap: when I am walking around I don't want to be playing a video game, the same way that when I am playing a video game, I don't want to be walking around. It's like Heidegger & the concept of worlding: when I am playing a game, I am occupying within that space, which means I cannot be within another space entirely--in fact, I create a new world that is a merging of the game-world & the non-game world, which is the goal of Pokémon Go. Pokémon Go wants you to be in TWO spaces at the same time: to exist in Johan Huizinga's "Magic Circle," a theory where anytime there is a game, it operates by its own set of rules: the common joke of "why don't they just pick up the ball & run with it" you hear during a soccer match. Huizinga claims that "all are temporary worlds within the ordinary world, dedicated to the performance of an act apart." Pokémon Go wants you to be within the "game arena" but to also be in a "non-game world," which is at the heart of a lot of the backlash, I feel (& my own discomfort with the game): we are making the world around us the world of the game, & therefore the world has new rules--so, playing at Arlington Cemetery, or the Holocaust Museum, or trespassing on private property is within the confines of the rules of the game, but entirely against the rules of the "non-game real world". In fact, the game encourages people to break the rules of society/the non-game world to succeed at the game, which, of course, taps into the fact that breaking the rules of the "non-game world" has entirely different consequences based on privilege, which is why non-white cisgender males have expressed concern embracing the wild, liberating free-for-all that the game promises.

Personally, my instinct to play the game is very passive: to check it while running errands on campus, or while eating lunch, but that is not a successful "gaming experience," which is frustrating because it is a "game"--which means that competition is inherent in its design, & therefore I am playing the game poorly with bad technique. It would be like running head-first into the first dungeon you see without grinding for gold in a game like Dragon Warrior, or, on an even more tangible level, holding the controller upside down. Instead, the proper way the game wishes to be played is through total immersion: to arrange with friends to go Pokémon hunting, to set aside a "gaming time" to go explore & dive deep into the magic circle, in hopes of permeating every aspect of the world; forcing a larger gaming world when there is none. It is telling that the game uses Augmented Reality; a technology that puts a "game layer" over the existing world, demonstrating that there is a world that exists that is simultaneously present & not there at all.


Brian Oliu is originally from New Jersey & currently lives & teaches in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. He is the author of two chapbooks & five full-length collections, ranging from Craigslist Missed Connections, to NBA Jam, to 8-bit videogames, to computer viruses. He is currently writing a memoir about translating his grandfather's book on long-distance running. Follow him on twitter @beoliu. Team Mystic, definitely.

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