To say that summer 2016 has been anything less than shit would be a callous understatement.
Our days in the sun this year have been punctuated by the murders of Christina Grimmie, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile; the massacre at Pulse in Orlando; the Istanbul airport attack; hundreds dead in Baghdad; and Brexit, all while two of the most polarizing candidates in the history of our country attempt to shout over the din of it all in their respective quests for the presidency. I’ve woken up too many mornings these past few months, only to check my phone and feel a wave of nausea wash over me as I scan my timelines. Another attack. Another murder. Another senseless tragedy.
To be connected to the world around you in 2016 is to be in pain. To have any sense of interest in or empathy for others lives, especially those unlike yours, means taking on a tremendous amount of suffering and sorrow at the way things currently operate in this world. Maybe things have always been this way? Maybe we’re only experiencing the sharp sting of realizing that everything always has, and probably always will be, kind of shitty everywhere?
But then a curious distraction—more than a distraction—bubbled up through the cultural zeitgeist, and rather quickly at that: Pokémon GO.
Full disclosure: I’ve been a die-hard Pokémon fan ever since I first picked up a copy of Red for my original Gameboy and leveled up my Dragonite, Starmie, Clefable, and Mewtwo each to level 100 (sans Rare Candies), logging in several hundred hours of gameplay in the process. Pokémon is hard-wired into my sense of nostalgia in a way that only Harry Potter and Britney Spears could ever dare compete with.
But Pokémon GO is something different. It goes far, far beyond a mere mainline dose of high-grade nostalgia. Beyond even being a game, really. Pokémon GO is a unifying, cultural experience unlike anything else we’ve seen in a very long time.
Growing up in the era of the original Pokémon games, I am of the subset of millennials who were born before the age of cell phones. We bought faceplates for our early Nokia phones at the mall, became experts at T9, and spent hours at middle school parties huddled around a computer while the girls tried talking to boys over AIM (my closeted gay preteen self was always living vicariously through the girls). My group of millennials feels uncomfortable even referring to ourselves as millennials, as we can quite literally remember ushering in the millennium (and watching a Backstreet Boys video premiere on MTV at midnight after the ball dropped).
Over the years, we watched as these face-plated accessories morphed into something else entirely: small, physical aggregations of our entire lives. Can you imagine living without your phone? I can’t. Not anymore. Maybe back in the era of T9, I could’ve happily left it at home for the day and not really even noticed, but today, in 2016, my phone is a limb, as vital and necessary to my daily life as any part of my physical body. If I walk out the door without it, I know it. Immediately.
Beyond being a shamefully integral part of my being, my phone, and the world I connect to via my phone, dominates more and more of my attention than the physical world around me, and I am not alone. Go to a party, a bus stop, a grocery store; hell, pull up next to someone at a stop light. We are all in there, at all times. And this is not a condemnation of our ever-connected culture, by any means, it’s just something that simply is.
For the most part, living in there has changed my life for the better in more ways than I can articulate. My boyfriend, my best friends, my editor, my business associates, all exist in my life because I met them through the internet somehow. As a recording artist, I’ve been able to release music independently and develop a passionate fanbase that supports me. Conversely, I’ve spent weeks in deep depression, hopelessly for searching for something that didn’t exist on Grindr, hating myself because my body and my life didn’t look like my Instagram feed, feeling ashamed that someone I adored was accomplishing something I hadn’t and I had allowed their tweets to fill me with envy. In all the ways living in there keeps us connected, it can also leave us feeling more isolated than we ever dreamed possible.
Ironically, this is where Pokémon GO becomes such a cultural milestone.
This past weekend, while my boyfriend was at work, I decided to go grab lunch by myself in North Hollywood. After I finished my meal, I fired up the game, waited to connect to the servers, and went outside. I walked to the nearest Pokestop, about a half a block down from the restaurant, and noticed several other people, buried in their phones.
“Hurry! There’s a Machop!” a girl yelled out toward me from the sidewalk. I was taken aback. How did she just know?
“What team are you?” she continued as I approached.
I told her I was still at level 4 and had yet to commit to a team.
“Anything but Instinct dude,” the guy next to her mumbled. We all laughed.
I caught the Machop, collected some Pokeballs, and walked across the street. A couple came running up to me, and we chatted. I walked with them to a group of people, all strangers, where we all spoke for a few minutes, laughing, sharing tips, and expressing our amazement that this was a real thing.
I found a Pokestop behind a local theater while the cast took a cigarette break before a matinee. Everyone was playing. Everyone catching the Ponyta that had appeared. Everyone was laughing.
A middle-aged white woman walked by, staring as we played. I expected a question, a joke, or judgment. Instead: “Go to Republic of Pie, I just caught a Charmander over there.”
I texted my boyfriend and told him he had to download this game. It wasn’t even about the game, it was about how much fun I was having walking around, by myself, on my phone, but instead of feeling totally, utterly alone, I hadn’t felt so truly connected in years.
In the days since, I’ve made an effort to take my phone out to larger public spaces and play. The effect is staggering, every time. People, everywhere, talking, laughing, playing with each other.
“There’s an Abra over here!” I shouted to a group of younger people on bikes last night in Culver City. They were looking at their phones. They had the look. I just knew.
They all looked at me.
“Dude, he said an Abra!”
They all pedaled over.
I joked on Twitter during my first day playing that Niantic Labs, the game’s developer, deserved the Nobel Peace Prize for creating something so uplifting, so powerfully unifying, during a period that feels downright bleak at times. But it isn’t really a joke. I can turn on Twitter, watch a video of Alton Sterling’s son breaking down in tears, mourn the lives of all 49 victims of the Pulse massacre last month, read passionate posts about why Black Lives Matter, digest an account of a Syrian refugee losing her children, and cry for, and with, them all.
Then I can do something as silly as load up a game, go for a walk, smile at a stranger, and feel a bit of comfort in knowing that, even in the darkest of times, hope is always there. In an era of confusing, isolating connectedness, there’s now an opportunity to go outside, meet people, and heal.
Simon Curtis is a recording artist, songwriter, and author. His debut novel, BOY ROBOT, will be released on October 25th, 2016 from Simon & Schuster.