Exploration

Pokémon GO Vexes Me So

People are doing the same thing they always do, just this time on another platform involving giant cartoon characters.

<p>Daniel Sims/Getty Images</p>

This is what it boils down to, I think: crowds of people, everyone with their faces in their phones, milling this way and that with the flat expression of patient boredom, as if waiting for a buffer to clear.

Meanwhile the world is falling hotly into chaos and ruin. You know, that whole climate-change-extinction-war-poverty-racism-factory-farming-human-trafficking thing?

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Call me kooky, but when I see the reports and images -- like this one in Central Florida and this one in Sydney and this one in Vancouver and this one in New York -- of people meeting up to pursue imaginary cartoon monsters in real-life places, it kind of freaks me out.

Perhaps it's the identical tilts in the angles of players' heads. Perhaps its the ghastly disrespect for historical atrocities or the naive disregard for public safety. Perhaps it's the knowledge that to play the game, users must agree to hand over access to their phone's location, storage and cameras. Senator Al Franken of Minnesota is not happy about that part.

And am I really to believe that this augmented reality game, which requires players to walk around their neighborhoods with their phones, hunting down virtual Pokémon characters that pop up on the map-like app, is getting people to interact more with each other?

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"If we want to pass judgment on whether it's good or bad, we need to do it in the context of what it replaces," Dmitri Williams, president of Ninja Metrics and associate professor at USC's Annenberg School for Communication told me in an email. "If these people were previously staring at a screen indoors and by themselves, then this is a little more human. If they were all outside having a picnic and talking, then it's a little less. My guess is that we're looking more at the former."

Okay, point taken. Still, I'm bothered. But why? It's not like this is the first time some new-fangled gadget took the world by storm. Remember all of that hub-bub over television? Cabbage Patch Kids? Pong? Remember Wii? Remember how when I first moved to Boston in 1999, everyone on the Red Line had identical tilts to their heads, only they were reading books? There was a definite creep-factor to that silent sameness.

"People are doing the same thing they always do, but with a novel thing," Virginia Tech associate professor James Ivory he told me.

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That struck a chord.

Because I have this sense that some many people aren't aware of the problems our world faces or maybe they don't want to know or maybe they know but they want to forget. I don't really notice the apathy until some new gadget enters the fray to accentuate what people do care about. What they care a great deal about: imaginary monsters.

To be fair, there have been some crowds gathering recently to demonstrate concern for a cause. I wish I saw more of that.

"There's definitely great potential here," Ivory said.

Pokémon GO is a game-changer for augmented reality apps, he said, and what if we could leverage that kind of technology to get people more interested in community events? What if we could get more people to the farmer's market or to the local hearing on that new building going up or to the parade or the peace rally?

"What if someone developed an app that makes it just as exciting to vote?" asked Ivory.

Yes, what if.