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My friend, Chris Martin, captured this Eevee near Main Street in my hometown.

My friend, Chris Martin, captured this Eevee near Main Street in my hometown.

Pokémon Go has taken America by storm. If you’ve seen people on the streets of your neighborhood peering into their phones, you’ve witnessed their attempt to catch mythical creatures that appear in various places. Pokémon Go is a cross between geocaching and augmented reality games, and the results have been astounding.

As the Washington Post reports:

Pokémon Go has already been downloaded more times than the dating app Tinder, and it is rapidly encroaching on Twitter, which has been around for a full 10 years. Nintendo’s stock soared nearly 25 percent Monday because of the game — its biggest gain in more than 30 years.

It’s a mania, or it’s magical – depending on your take.

If you’re a parent who has questions about the game, check out this primer from Tony Kummer about what it is and how to avoid potential dangers (like, crossing the street without looking both ways!). Two friends of mine, Chris Martin and Aaron Earls, offer good advice for churches, as does Joshua Clayton of Southwestern Seminary. And there’s been some controversy regarding appropriate places to play. (Arlington Cemetery and the Holocaust Museum? Uh, no.)

It would be easy to wave off this game as just a silly fad, and certainly most people who have taken it up are just having a little fun. But perhaps we have an opportunity here to step back and ask a few questions.

  • Why is this game so popular?
  • Why is it popular right now?
  • What need does it momentarily meet?

The popularity of Pokémon Go tells us something about American life in the 21st century. Many people experience the world as flattened out and devoid of wonder, and they worry that our society seems to be fracturing. These feelings create pressure points in our culture, and Pokémon Go provides a fleeting sense of relief.

1. We live in a fractured world longing for community.

In the past few months, we’ve gone from bad news to worse. We’ve seen protests and riots, mass shootings and terrorist attacks. We are in the midst of a political realignment that has led to internal fracturing within our two-party system and an anti-establishment wave of populism that appeals to some of the darker impulses of the American populace. Meanwhile, our social media habits connect us to likeminded individuals, but further polarize our discourse and isolate us from the people in closest proximity to us.

But then, as if someone sprinkled fairy dust over the country, people of all ages decide to leave the loneliness of their homes and workplaces, go out into the streets, and catch mythical creatures through an app on their phone.

Police officers are playing the game with protestors. Many churches are sites for Pokémon gymnasiums. Kids who typically stay indoors during the summer are roaming the streets looking for Pidgeys and Eevees. As I walked the streets with my kids this week, neighbors came out to ask us what we’d caught and to give tips on finding where the rarest beasts lurk.

Here’s a report from downtown in a large city:

At one point someone yelled “THERE’S A RHYDON IN THE STREET!” and from my position I could see 50+ people all turn their cameras in the same direction to reveal the beast. For a moment there WAS a huge stony rhinoceros in the middle of downtown. It was real. For as silly as it was, I will never forget that moment. This game is unreal, it’s bringing people together.

Or consider this tweet from a veteran:

I’m a vet with PTSD. The last three years, leaving my yard was a chore. Today I took my kid to the park and talked to 20 random strangers. Thank you Nintendo.

The social aspect of this game is a big part of its appeal. In a world where we feel like people are pulling apart, a simple game provides a momentary feeling of togetherness.

2. We live in a flattened world longing for transcendence.

In a secular age, it is common for people to conceive of the world in terms of scientific cause and effect. We are less likely to be stunned by the magnificence of this world, and more likely to feel as if we are only cogs in a naturalistic machine. The secular mind, due to its rationalist foundation, must create meaning rather than discover it.

But suddenly, a game based on Japanese mythology invades the naturalistic machinery of the modern age. Pokémon envisions the world as if it were filled with kami that resemble the Greek gods of old. The creatures inhabit trees, rivers, and rocks, similar to the ancient Norse or Celtic myths that described a world teeming with fairies and elves. When you take the ancient myths that gave us fantastic animals such as centaurs and unicorns and place them within the animistic worldview of Shintoism, you start to see why the Eastern world of Pokémon feels both strange and familiar.

Part of Pokémon’s appeal goes back to childhood fascination with fairy tales, which we never fully outgrow. As G. K. Chesterton wrote:

“We all like astonishing tales because they touch the nerve of the ancient instinct of astonishment. When we are very young children we do not need fairy tales: we only need tales. Mere life is interesting enough.”

When my kids and I followed Pokémon tracks around the neighborhood in search for these mythical creatures, we noticed we were more aware of our surroundings. The bird that swooshed past us and alighted in a tree was more glorious than any Pidgey we found on the phone. I noticed three butterflies of different colors on my walk yesterday – insects I would have failed to marvel at had my senses not been heightened thanks to Pokémon Go.

The effect of fairy tales, Chesterton wrote, is to remind us that “this world is a wild and startling place, which might have been quite different, but which is quite delightful…”

“Fairyland is nothing but the sunny country of common sense… Old nurses do not tell children about the grass, but about the fairies that dance on the grass; and the old Greeks could not see the trees for the dryads.”

The Longings and Limits of a Game

Pokémon Go taps into our longing for unity in a fractured world. For a moment, we are together, sharing the same physical space and playing the same game.

Pokémon Go also taps into our longing for something beyond the flattened, rationalist society of our age. For a moment, we feel the magic of the old mythologies and long for something beyond this present world.

Of course, this is all just a game, and like all fads, its appeal will soon wear off. These myths do not reflect the biblical worldview. They give us a few moments of fun, but no promise for the future. No game can provide lasting community or eternal significance; only the gospel can do that.

But as missionaries in this time and place, we should have eyes wide open to the pressures people feel in this fractured and flattened world, so that we can better tell the better Story, which, in the words of C. S. Lewis, is “the myth that became fact.”


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Comments:


17 thoughts on “Pokémon Go in a Fractured and Flattened world”

  1. Ecoughlin says:

    Ok, so I’m getting a little tired of the Pokemon Go bashing. For years, people have been decrying video and computer games because they cause kids to stop exercising and going outside. Now they come up with a game that gets kids outside in the fresh air and oh my, that’s bad, too. We all need to lighten up and applaud Nintendo and Niantic’s initiative and genius, frankly.

    1. Mark says:

      How does this article bash Pokemon Go? Trevin even said he and his kids played the game together and it helped them become more aware of their surroundings. As Christians, we should use things like Pokemon Go with wisdom, which doesn’t mean we reject it outright, but which also doesn’t mean we accept it blindly without thinking through its effects.

      1. Jere says:

        Do what?

        The game isn’t saying, “Burn the Bible and bow to Satan!” Heck, the game isn’t saying anything. Not any more than a deck of cards does. There’s nothing to think through on this. There’s no deep, theological wisdom needing to be provided here. You just download the app and play the game.

        When was the last time you worried about Christians not blindly accepting Go Fish “without thinking through its effects”?

        1. Mark says:

          Jere,

          No one is saying the game is evil, or that it’s saying anything akin to “Burn the Bible and bow to Satan!” I get that you’re being tongue-in-cheek, but my point was simply addressing the previous commenter who seemed to say this article was bashing Pokemon Go, which I don’t think it is.

          Paul says whether we eat or drink or whatever we do, we are to do all for the glory of God. Obviously, this doesn’t mean we should hyper-spiritualize everything, but it does mean we should take time to think through things (even as common as eating and drinking!). It also means we should approach everything from a Christian perspective. Once virtual reality becomes widely available and people begin plugging in, should Christians think through the potential effects of virtual reality? No? Just use it without thinking? Nothing to think through on that? Maybe you think so, but I think there’s wisdom in taking time to reflect on why we’re doing something. I’m not saying a Christian needs to pray before downloading Pokemon Go. I’m just saying the original article was thinking through Pokemon Go’s popularity and trying to understand it from a Christian perspective. It wasn’t bashing the game. I for one don’t see any problem with playing Pokemon Go as a Christian, but articles like this help me see that all of creation belongs to God and that all things point to him in some way or another.

  2. John Trowbridge says:

    I agree with some of the other comments. I feel as if (lately) every time there is a huge phenomenon in our culture – such as a new game or Star Wars – it’s because there’s something wrong with us. Can’t it be because we’re able to recognize innovation and imagination? Can’t be because it’s fun and we enjoy exercising a part of our humanity that society typically doesn’t value? Does it always have to be because some deeply and profoundly depressing narrative about how we’re all just searching for God in pitiful broken things? I’m sure it can be both, but I feel that most of the TGC articles I read about culture tend to be at best, neutral, and at worst, depressing and ignoring the positive and enjoyable aspect of it. People don’t like Pokemon Go because the world we live in now is depressingly fractured and broken. We like Pokemon Go because it is a reflection of creativity and imagination that we were gifted with. Narnia isn’t popular because we’re coping but because it’s a good set of stories.

  3. Aaron says:

    Tbh, I felt the article was balanced. In enjoying God’s gifts, there is always the temptation to make the means, the end. Therefore, proper warning is in place. However, if gifts can be made to serve the Giver, then all power to that!

  4. James says:

    Or maybe people just like pokémon.

  5. Tim says:

    Thanks for this insightful view, Trevin. In the midst of much controversy, I admire your bravery to take a stand on the social and spiritual outlook of the world.

    Romans 12:2 says “Do not be conformed to this world,[a] but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

    My prayer for us is that we would be able to discern the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

    P.S. I would encourage those who see this post as “bashing” to not be so easily offended. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion.

  6. Caleb says:

    So the author says that these myths and by extension the game do not reflect a biblical worldview but yet seems to play the game. First I don’t really see how it runs counter to a biblical worldview but if it truly does should we be playing it?

  7. Jay says:

    As a church planter in Japan, Pokemon and other Japanese mythology that use the word “kami” provide us with an interesting challenge regarding evangelism. It is hard to have people take you seriously when you tell them “Kami so loved the world that he sent his Son…” when Pokemon and the gods of Japanese mythology are also called “kami.” Pokemon Go didn’t invent this challenge. It’s been causing problems since the Gospel and Japan collided over 500 years ago. Pokemon Go just adds more zeal to the prayer, “Father, sanctify you name.”

    1. Lun Jiang says:

      Maybe it’s just the translation? If Kami is so broad a word maybe it’s time to use other words? In Chinese it is Shen2, which also correlates to all kinds of Spirit or heavenly being. But Yeshua, or Jesus, is never having any double meaning. Maybe Jesus is the name that we should use to access His name anyway.

  8. Eddie Williams says:

    “These myths do not reflect the biblical worldview. They give us a few moments of fun, but no promise for the future.”

    Gee, what a bummer. I don’t play this game, but if this is the logic, why do anything? “This ice cream is tasty, but it gives me no promise of the future.” Bummer. Might be thinking too deep on this one

  9. Travis Lockey says:

    I’m not understanding the negative reactions to the article. It seemed to me like Trevin’s piece was a pretty positive take on the game. At no point did it sound like he was bashing, being suspicious of, or giving any kind of warning about playing Pokemon GO.

    He wrote about:
    1) how it is bringing people together in this very fractured cultural moment.
    2) how it is uncovering the longing for something beyond the naturalistic/rationalistic worldview that is the world’s default.

    And he made a brief note at the end about the fact that it’s a fad that will soon wear off, but that it is touching on these parts of human nature to which the gospel is the exciting true answer!

    How does any of this constitute a negative stance on the game? Are people not reading? Do they just head straight to the comment section?

  10. Justin Matthews says:

    With all due respect to the author, do we really need a TGC opinion on every conceivable topic? I personally am not playing the game, but that’s because I’m not that into video games; not because I believe Pokemon embodies a worldview that is foreign and inimical to my Christian faith. Mr. Wax is a fine author, but this piece seems like much ado about nothing.

  11. Brett says:

    As an avid player, I won’t bash your article, because it’s one of the more balanced I’ve seen. But you left out one of the biggest factors: nostalgia and youthfulness. Tons of people in their 20s and younger grew up playing Pokemon. Now they can do it for free without a social stigma (for the most part). Not only that, but many people like to venture into fantasy to feel young again. It seems that the older we get, the more society tells us it’s wrong to dream. PoGo let’s you dream again.

    1. Trevin Wax says:

      Great point, Brett! That’s a factor, for sure.

  12. Karl Heitman says:

    Your 2nd point is very insightful and thought-provoking. “The secular mind, due to its rationalist foundation, must create meaning rather than discover it.” Amen. While we believers meditate and wonder of the reality of Heaven, seeing Christ face-to-face, the depraved mind must concoct a version of fantasy to replace the innate longing for the other worldly. Ecc. 3:11. Maranatha.

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Trevin Wax


​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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