I spot the wild doduo outside Reanimator in the early afternoon, its twin fuzzy heads bobbing stupidly on the screen of my phone. I had built up a small stable of them over the last couple days, but had amassed nowhere near enough candy to evolve one of them into… I don’t know… that thing doduos evolve into when you feed them 50 candies with the three heads. Dodrio. Yeah, that.
I’ve only known you can use these candies to evolve your Pokémon into better, tougher Pokémon for about a day — my 13-year-old son showed me a couple nights before, along with a few other tips gleaned from his years collecting the cards, watching the shows, playing the games and soaking up whatever other crap Nintendo dished out in what I always thought of as the most annoying anime franchise ever.
But now, god help me, I’m hooked.
It’s hot out. Super hot, and my hands are slick with sweat, the screen of my cell phone gummy with the midday humidity. I launch pokéballs at the doduo, one after the other: wide right, wide left, too short, too long. When I do land one, the doduo wriggles out of the ball’s grasp like a dog taking off a sweater. After maybe 10 shots, I hit my strike, but before the pokéball shivers to acknowledge my capture, my game freezes up. The contest plays out as an unseen algorithm — I’ll have to restart and check my pokédeck to see if I got him.
And that’s exactly what I do.
Looks like I missed him — a huge waste of pokéballs, so I load up at the pokéstop by the bike shop, commemorating a piece of art that is no longer there, and head west looking for trouble.
I loop behind Krankies on Fourth Street and pick up a weedle on the first toss, thank you very much, and a pokéstop at the downtown Winston-Salem Reynolds Building, now the Cardinal Kimpton Hotel, is good for three pokéballs and an ekans lurking near the corner. Resource-rich Fourth Street replenishes my virtual backpack with balls and potions, and while I’m walking, a rare omanyte, which is like a snail or a hermit crab or something, hatches from an egg I’ve been incubating for 10 kilometers.
I add another zubat to my deck, as well as a squirtle, a male nidoran and — squee! — an abra, which looks like a sleeping yellow kangaroo. I’ll have to ask my son about it when I get home, before we go on the evening hunt.
Yeah, okay, fine. I admit it: I’m one of those. I downloaded Pokémon Go just a few days after it broke on July 7. I love playing games on my phone, and I figured my kids would be into it. I had a small notion, that day, that something like a phenomenon was going on. The app had already hit 15 million downloads, though I had yet to understand what that meant.
I still can’t quite comprehend it.
Just one week in, Pokémon Go is the fastest-growing mobile game in history and expanding rapidly — 5 percent of Android users are on it every day, and more have downloaded it than Tinder, making it, by marketing standards, more popular than sex. It’s eating into Facebook’s user pool — Have you noticed things have been quiet there lately? — and sucking up bandwidth once devoted to Netflix and porn.
Everyone has noticed more people on the streets, wandering through neighborhoods and discovering landmarks that have been there for decades. They’re talking to each other — sure, they’re talking about ridiculous cartoon creatures and imaginary locations, but they’re talking to each other! Even my 16-year-old son, who spends so much time on the couch there’s a sweat imprint of his body on it, wandered out into the yard, rubbed his eyes against the sunlight and walked to the end of the block to see if there were any water Pokémon in the creek.
It’s the most exercise I’ve seen him get all summer.
The Summer of Pokémon could not have come at a better time, if you ask me.
Right now the real world is a huge drag. Concurrent with the game’s release have been two police shootings of young black men; two incidents of shootings against law enforcement, a terrorist attack in the south of France and a failed military coup in Turkey.
And in case anyone hasn’t noticed, there are two people running for president of the United States that everyone seems to hate.
Facebook and Twitter have devolved into political cesspools; everybody’s already finished the new episodes of “Orange is the New Black”; and football season doesn’t start for another seven weeks, unless you count pre-season, which I don’t.
And then there’s me.
Both personally and professionally, my life is a juggling act of stress and responsibilities; sometimes I get so deep into the grind I forget that anything else exists.
I have been using video games as a means of escape since I got my first home-version of Pong when I was 8 years old. By the time Space Invaders came out, I was dumping quarters into the machines at arcades, bowling alleys and pizza joints. Around 1979, two years after it launched, the Atari 2600 began heavily saturating the market. My parents had the same attitude about video games as their parents had about rock and roll: a trashy trend that would surely rot your brain, and they promised that I would never own one.
True story: I won my Atari 2600 in 1982 in a box of Cap’n Crunch. It was one of the best things that ever happened to me, and a total burn on my parents.
I’ve played them all: Intellivision, ColecoVision, Vectrex, Sega. I’m pretty sure I can still trap the koopa troopa shell and get a ton of free guys in Super Mario Brothers, and I am unbeatable at Tecmo Bowl.
I still try to log some hours on the PS4 when my boys aren’t using it — I like virtual pinball and superhero games — and I play video games on my phone, sometimes to the point of compulsion. That’s why I had to get rid of Candy Crush. But I’ve always got like 10 Words With Friends going, and I am a champion triple towers player.
My lifestyle and history make me part of a prime segment for Pokémon Go — even though I know next to nothing about the franchise, its characters or its lore. I was 25 when Pokémon came out in 1995, and can say for sure that it did not raise a blip on my radar. But anyone born between 1985 and 2005 is steeped in the canon — Pikachu and whatnot — and they’re out there now on the streets, playing it. So are their mothers and fathers, their roommates and boyfriends and girlfriends.
It’s tapping into sentiment for these characters, this Pokémon universe, yes. But what’s being mined is something much more.
So, channeling my inner 13-year-old, I downloaded the game and named my hunter HoofHearted13, which is funnier if you say it fast.
Every night last week I came home from work, grabbed my 13-year-old and went Pokémon hunting. Sometimes his brother or his sister came with us, sometimes my wife. On Monday and Tuesday we spun to the Pokémon stops at Barber Park in Greensboro along with a small family and a trio of college kids. On Wednesday we stopped through downtown and hit all the spots at Center City Park and along that stretch of Elm Street with dozens of other nerds. A driver headed south on Elm leaned out his window to shout that a rare kabuto had been spotted around the corner. Three separate groups of hunters peeled out of the park to chase it down.