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.”