Animated Vs. Animals
- story by Ellis Anderson
Gigi is my guide.
She is nine and I am 59. I have since learned that is an age spread not unusual with players of Pokémon GO.
While I am a Pokémon novice, I’m in capable hands. Gigi Madden has captured and imprisoned dozens of the little cartoon creatures on her smart phone over the past several weeks, which is the object of this new game. She has kindly volunteered to teach me how to play.
She has brought me to the grounds of the historic depot in Bay St. Louis, a gathering spot for some of the rarest Pokémon creatures. The depot grounds are also bristling with places where players can restock the balls that they use to capture the digital beasties.
Screenshots of a few of the game's safety reminders
According to her, Pokémon exist all over the world, and there are 150 kinds of them. They look as if a mad scientist with a blender and lots of neon spray paint broke into Disney Studios one night. There are cats with horns and crabs with big ears. They have names like Squirtle and Weedle and Beedrill. The whole point is to capture as many different types as possible.
But Pokémon GO can only be played in the real world. You cannot sit at home and wait for the creatures to come to you. You must go hunt them down.
Gigi holds the phone up to me. “See us on the map?”
“Us” is our avatar. When we first started the game, Gigi helped me pick out her hairstyle (blonde, like Gigi, since I've always wanted to know what it feels like to be one) and the color of her outfit (a nice cranberry red). She’s a shapely size 2 with long legs. Although one can choose between several shades of skin color, there are no size 12 avatars, no short ones and none with glasses. They're all 17 years old.
We name her ShooflyBSL. She paces impatiently in place when we stop. She also breathes. Or appears to, her chest heaving at regular intervals. It’s weird. And a little creepy.
Back in the real world, Gigi leads us over to a carving of a heron, a rustic piece of public art. Apparently, it’s an important ball gathering spot. She flicks her finger and a small photo of the crane appears. She brushes her finger on the photo and it spins. Red and white balls pop out. She snags them and pulls them off to the side.
“When we see a Pokémon, we throw balls at it,” she says. “The ball opens up and captures it.” Which confuses me completely until I see it in action.
We’re walking around the duck pond, both trying to look at the phone. Our stylish avatar walks forward on the map. Suddenly Gigi springs into action. “There’s one right there! It’s a Charmander!”
I see a little colored dot behind our avatar and Gigi pokes at it with her finger. Immediately, the screen is filled with a plump orange lizard which begins to taunt us, making faces and wiggling around. Gigi flicks a finger up from the bottom of the screen. She’s too excited to continue her tutorial.
“Sometimes they break out,” Gigi says. She’s not celebrating yet. “If they do, there’s nothing you can do about it.”
In a moment the screen confirms the catch, and she cheers. We walk around the duck pond, while Gigi stockpiles more balls and catches cartoons. The depot drive is lined with parked cars. Moving vehicles are creeping along. With the exception of the occasional festival, I've never seen so many people in the park. Clusters of folks – families with little kids and pairs of friends, stroll around. All have their heads down.
Four teenagers sit on a bench facing the pond, which is glowing from the setting sun, as if it's magically lit from within. Almost like a phone screen. The ducks are swimming in front of kids, quacking loudly, hoping for handouts. The kids are unaware of the ducks. They are fixated on the cartoon creatures on their phones.
I catch several more and eventually our combined captures get us rated up to a level five (that’s good!, Gigi praises me), before the approach of a thunderstorm sends us heading for home.
We’re driving down Second Street when Gigi screeches. “Stop! Stop! It’s a Vulpix!” I can see how accidents happen. By the time I can brake and turn the car around, the pesky thing has vanished, much to Gigi’s dismay.
The next time I walk my dogs at the depot, I try playing again. I catch a few more Pokémon, but the game isn’t nearly as much fun without Gigi. I’ll probably dump the app soon. I don’t like the idea of game manufacturers being able to trace my every move, even if I'm identifying with a skinny blonde avatar. I'm especially suspicious because they give the app away for free and I know they've got to be making money somehow. I can't shake the feeling I'm being played for a patsy.
I’m guessing other people have moved past the craze now as well. The car count at the depot has dropped off considerably. The few pedestrians who walk the paths these days aren’t weaving like they've consumed too many adult beverages. Fewer of them are holding phones.
And yesterday, the ducks, which had been looking skinny of late, were quacking with satisfaction as a mother and a happily screeching toddler tossed them food.