Pokemon Go, Nostalgia, and Young Adults in the Church

Pokemon Go, Nostalgia, and Young Adults in the Church

If you have looked outside recently, you will have noticed that hoards of young people are walking aimlessly throughout the parks, streets, and even maybe your lawn, all over the city. This is a country-wide epidemic, in fact, stretching far beyond Austin and into even the furthest reaches of America’s beautiful lands. Though it may look like the zombie apocalypse has hit us, the reality is far more intriguing. Pokemon Go, a very simple app, has taken the 30-and-younger crowd by storm. Parent company Nintendo has gained 20 BILLION in revenue, and millions are playing this game every day. This is not just a fad game – this is a revolution of sorts.

Now, the game play itself is very minimal. Basically, the game uses your GPS data to place you in their virtual world, one which mirrors the real world. However, walking around, the game will allow you to happen upon Pokemon (the little monsters from the original mega-hit game that has spurred 75 total games over the past 20 years). These pokemon then open your camera, where you see them co-existing with the real world. Later in the game, you can use the pokemon you catch to fight for control of gyms, which is basically a massive game of virtual King of the Hill. For fans of the original game, where you controlled a boy walking around and running into these creatures, it’s a dream come true. Finding pokemon in the real world is re-imagining the original game with yourself as the main character, which many people spent an inordinate amount of time playing.

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Not surprisingly, given the Millennial generation’s obsession with nostalgia, this new game has taken off in a way that is simply unprecedented. Pokemon Go is already overtaking other major apps like Tinder and Twitter, based on daily app usage. Also importantly, this is one of the first truly popular games to incorporate augmented reality (adding in creatures to catch and fight to your daily trip to grab coffee). When you think about the future of technology, with the ways we already incorporate tech into walking (FitBits), traveling (Google Maps), education (tablets), communication (WhatsApp/twitter), news (Facebook), and so on and so forth, this game may be seen as a turning point in how we connect and integrate ourselves into entertainment.

Many people are writing about Pokemon Go, but I want to discuss a few things I’ve noticed about people who play it. For one, it seems that despite the perception that everyone is just staying on their phones all day (per usual), there is more of an openness and communicative element than is initially noticed. Walking around my neighborhood, I could count the number of spontaneous conversations with strangers that I’ve had on a closed fist. That is, until this game launched. Now, people with their phones out are greeted from afar with, “Pokemon?” “You playing?” or even boldly jumping in with “did you see that Jigglypuff over by the gas station? Oh, you aren’t playing? My bad.”

I had a conversation with a random student on campus for over an hour in which we talked about God, his faith upbringing, the issues with churches not having lots of ways to utilize the gifts of more technically-minded people (he was studying engineering, after all), and the concept of ‘being called to something.’ Again, this was a student whom I had never seen before, and had basically nothing in common with. But he stopped me because my phone was in my hand, and that perceived connection of playing the same game was enough for him to break the ice. People are itching to have honest conversations and be heard, but it’s hard. Having something in common makes it easier to test those waters. Thinking of the traditional objections that video games seem to garner (they take you out of reality, they teach us to be isolated and hyper-violent, they lead to a more sedated lifestyle), Pokemon Go is shattering these arguments. I’ve never seen so many strangers simply talking together without other pretense, and my running paths and parks are overflowing with people enjoying the weather.

Let me be clear – this game isn’t very good. It breaks all the time, it freezes, it’s repetitive, there’s no real plot or purpose; it’s frankly kind of bland. But the outcomes – the communication, the meeting new people, the moving around outside – these are the real perks of playing. It seems clear that if these things were not valued, this game would fall completely apart. But the success can maybe be proven by our generation’s hunger for true, earnest community and for our love of nature (despite not enjoying it in numbers that reflect that).

The Church has to see this. We can’t simply try and play the game in hopes of appearing ‘cool.’ No one plays this game because it is ‘cool.’ No, the Church needs to recognize that our cities are hungry for real communication, real interaction, real enjoyment of what is around them. And they are willing to go out and do it, they just need a reason. Pokemon Go saw that and capitalized on it. Will the Church? It’s also important to note that the age range for this game is decidedly older than what one might expect. It’s a game that’s very kid-friendly, it offers no intriguing logic puzzles, violence, dark themes, or adult-centric concepts that might entice people with real jobs and loan payments and degrees to feel comfortable playing. And yet, a 25-year old is at least as likely to be playing as a 15-year old. Why?

I might be so bold as to venture a guess. My generation lived through one of the most economically-stable periods in American history. Our country, by most metrics, was at or near the top of every category (including international sports – the Dream Team and Kerri Strug jump out immediately), and that made its way into our subconscious minds. We remember the 90’s, not so much for the economic realities, but for the feelings of safety and contentment that flowed from it. We find Millennials dipping into 90’s culture all the time, even streaming 90’s cartoon shows on Netflix and drinking 20-year-old drinks (I know people who would give a kidney for a case of Surge). I suspect that it isn’t so much that we actually love those things for what they are, but for the feeling of security that comes with them. Other generations have similar senses, but the children born in the mid-80’s to mid-90’s enjoyed high levels of disposable income, rapid development of technology, and easier access to cultural elements across the country. Things spread like wildfire for us.

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Pokemon (released in America in 1998), is one of those cultural markers. I remember it distinctly being banned from my elementary school (the card game was very popular), but bookstores would host events for it. Everyone I knew played, boys, girls, popular kids, nerds, whatever. That’s what’s being linked for those of us in our 20’s and early 30’s. And while the newest game is… eh, just alright, the sense of being back in elementary, without cares and worries, without adult pressures, without a subconscious sense of dread looming over our economy and our job situation, that feeling is almost intoxicating.

Bear in mind, we are the generation that got pulled out of school on 9/11. I was in 7th grade – just the right time for childhood to be pulled out from underneath me. The hyper-vigilant, hyper-patriotic response only served to highlight a fragility that we didn’t know was always there. And the threat of terrorism, despite the lack of actual plots, has stayed around us like a rain cloud that always threatens, but never starts. Add in the economic collapse of 2008 (and the rhetoric which refuses to acknowledge that our economy is back above pre-2008 levels), mounting student loan debt, a dearth of jobs, and the increasing division over politics and race, and it is no wonder that today’s 20-somethings are looking for an escape.

The nostalgia of my generation is perhaps rooted first and foremost in escapism. Reality is hard, and we learned it from the extremes of our collective childhood. For as much flak as Millennials often get from the media, we are also the most generous generation, the most ecologically-minded generation, and the most concerned about social justice. That doesn’t surprise me – we saw that war, fear, hate, and division don’t work as responses to a cultural change like what 9/11 brought about. We are far more about collaboration than competition, at least in comparison to the past. The world is turning increasingly more isolated thanks to technology and an over-abundance of news sites that conveniently tell us that we already agree with the right side, but Pokemon Go has poked a giant hole in the system. It tore down a bit of the fabric that holds up our everyday world and let us peer into what we secretly wish we could get back to.

The Church doesn’t need to respond to Pokemon Go, or any other game, for that matter. The Church does, however, need to respond to what we can learn about this new generation taking power. We have to recognize that there is a sense of loss that comes from having grown up in the 90’s, and that the world of today is quite at odds with what we feel it could be. This is not at odds with the Church’s message, but rather explores it in a new light. It’s time for the Church to bring in the young adults, seeking ways to breathe new hope into collective childhood wounds while learning how to better live into what could be. Isn’t this the message of the Kingdom? That abundant life, our promise in Christ, can be lived into here and now, on Earth as it is in Heaven? If young adults are perhaps the best at seeing the discrepancy between what is and what could be, what might it mean for the direction of the Church to give more authority and voice to our young adults?

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