Pokémon Go and Racial Integration

At 1:00am, a 19-year-old was walking through his neighborhood park, when suddenly, a figure in the darkness came from out of nowhere and approached.

Concern about this stranger’s intentions was lowered when he asked the young man, “Are you looking for scyther?”

It all kinda sounds like a drug deal. But it was actually two strangers connecting while out on a wild goose chase, chasing “pocket monsters” (poké-mon), by way of the new smash hit smartphone game Pokémon Go.

We tend to associate video games with isolation—the stereotype of young men playing in their parents’ basement. Even online gaming, where you can speak to other players via headsets, hasn’t changed this idea. But because of Pokémon Go, released on July 6, thousands upon thousands of children and young adults across the country are outside this summer and meeting new people—of all backgrounds and identities.

A video game is doing more than I ever thought possible to enable intercultural relations.

Pokémon Go is just the latest in a long line of video games, books, and an animated television series about a world where people collect cute, little Pokémon who battle one another.

The breakthrough of this latest video game is that it leverages GPS technology. So when the player moves in real life, his or her character moves on their phone screen. Plus, the game is connected to Google Maps, so it places little Pokémon to capture in real-life public locations. This is why when I left work four days ago, there was a handful of people congregated around the nearby church:

The two on the right are brother and sister; the two on the left are colleagues of mine at the school we work at.

When I found out this congregation wasn’t an isolated incident, I decided to investigate this phenomenon. Parks were a good place to start.

The following night, nearing dusk, I saw a couple of young guys on their phones walking around Lake Phalen in St. Paul. Of course they were playing Pokémon Go.

Andrew and Zazong are two area high schoolers who confirmed the game’s popularity.

“How many of your friends play Pokémon Go?” I asked them.

“More than half.” “Most of them.” They each said.

What about meeting new people playing this game?

Andrew said they’ve met “a lot of people,” with Zazong adding that when encountering other players, “They will open conversation with us or we start one with them.”

The boys pointed me in the direction of a nearby bridge, where several players were gathered. But another player came to us.

Dan, 17, approached while walking his dog.

He, too, was on his phone yet stopped to talk to us about the game. Then he shared how it has encouraged his outdoor activity.

“I wouldn’t be walking my dog now if it wasn’t for Pokémon Go,” he said.

Then he recommended that if I wanted to see a lot of players, I should go to Como Park.

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Andrew  (left), Zazong, and Dan (right) at Lake Phalen, St. Paul

The following afternoon, I approached the steps of the Como Park Conservatory in St. Paul, where dozens of players were sitting on the stone steps and along the outdoor patio. Included in this gathering were Andrew, 18, and Kaleb, 25.

These guys said they see a lot of the same people each day in these community areas playing Pokémon Go. As such, they’ve established a closeness with the group not unlike acquaintances one makes at their place of work.

Andrew and Kaleb and "Go" players in the background
Andrew and Kaleb and “Go” players in the background; “I’ve been more active, because I’ve been playing this game only,” said Kaleb (right). Otherwise, he said he would be playing the video game Call of Duty at his home.

My colleague Amado, 37, also said Pokémon Go is bringing his neighborhood closer.

“It’s the one time people interact with their neighbors,” he said, indicating the modern trend bemoaned by anyone over 35—that people don’t know who are neighbors are anymore. But that’s changing for this shy, Filipino resident of St. Paul’s Lowertown.

“’Caught anything good lately?’” Amado said he’ll now say to his neighbors, using classic Minnesota lingo in a whole new context.

With Andrew and Kaleb, I broached the topic of race. Seen at the conservatory and elsewhere has been a rainbow of players.

“Gaming all around is like that,” said Andrew. “It doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re from.”

My colleague Amado also pointed out the diversity of the players.

“It crosses racial barriers,” he said.

Then the man from the Philippines specified what he meant. Because of his “background and history,” Amado said he’s sometimes been shy to interact with people of another ethnicity.

But watching a Pokémon Go player, he said, “instantly transforms” that person who would ordinarily have intimated him.

“It’s awesome,” said Amado. “With Pokémon Go, it’s amazing seeing stereotypes being broken.”

Revelations of stereotypes aside, we should also point out the downsides made evident by this game: perhaps the shortcomings of the Millennial Generation, of which one player stated that without Pokémon Go, “there’s nothing else to do [outside].” There have been robberies committed using the game to lure players into unsuspecting situations. And players have wandered aimlessly into traffic and have driven while playing.

But every technology has a downside, because people—who use the capability—have downsides. And just like our upside as a species outweighs our bad, so too does our embrace of technologies evidence their good outweighing their bad.

Fancying himself a gamer, and having played a previous version of this game, Amado wonders whether the Pokémon Go trend will last. He gives it about a month.

But even when the game’s popularity does dwindle, it’s already done a lot of good. And if not Pokémon Go, then it will be the next game utilizing this technology.

For now, we can see how many are enjoying this technological-social phenomenon: Pokémon Go meet ups, Pokémon Go pub crawls, Pokémon Go attractions at restaurants. They’re all happening. It seems the beginning of a new era of techno-social interactivity—one that includes Americans of all colors.

Pokémon player and my colleague MiNtshis said, “Thank you, Pokémon,” when I asked her about its social role. “Because with all this crappy stuff happening with racism and brutality, it’s bringing people together.”


One comment

  1. Again, how nicely you weave your pondering about the human condition, within and through culture, Brandon! Nicely done!

    “But every technology has a downside, because people—who use the capability—have downsides…’

    True! A lot like social media too.

    Thanks for the great read. I learned a lot. – DDM

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