It was already after 11pm. My husband found me in our bathroom, where I was working to pull my hair up into a lazy French twist. I clipped the knot into place with a barrette.
“Are you getting dressed for Pokémon?” my husband asked me, bewildered.
I didn’t answer. Instead, I put on a necklace. My husband smirked at me. Then he looked at himself in the mirror. “I already look like a Pokémon trainer,” he said.
“Oh,” I laughed, “the hoodie?” I was wearing a hooded sweatshirt, too. With a necklace, though.
“Yeah,” he said, “and this bag.”
“Oh!” I said. “I need to get my bag.”
We left our apartment building through the front entrance—something I can’t remember ever having done before—and I stopped at a park bench and sighed happily. I checked my phone.
“Playground,” my smartphone’s screen read. The playground itself was, in actuality, dark, deserted, but someone had taken a photo of it earlier, during the day. I swiped on the daytime photo, and I was immediately gifted three Poké Balls.
The last time I ever went outside to play a videogame, it was late summer, 2003. The game was Boktai, for Game Boy Advance. Back then all “mobile” games were for GBA, and back then we used to alternate between calling those games “handheld” and “portable.”
By night, Boktai was a stealth game. But by the light of day, rather than running and hiding from enemies, you could charge up your “solar gun” and face adversaries head-on. The GBA cartridge itself had this weird protuberance with a tiny square set into it; that tiny square was the photo-sensor, and it could tell whether you, the player, were sitting in the sun. In turn, an onscreen “sunlight gauge” dictated how quickly you could charge your solar gun. Finding a sunny spot was imperative, especially for winning boss battles against vampires.
I remember reading a 2003 interview in which the game’s designer, Hideo Kojima, confessed he really just wanted kids to get outside and play.
And so, during the first several weeks of my senior year of college, I would pack my GBA and walk to the park. I’d choose a bench near the playground and sit in the least-shady spot I could find, and I would play Boktai.
It was well after 11pm by now, and my husband and I were strolling toward our next destination, as indicated on Pokémon Go’s onscreen map. It hadn’t rained, but the air felt as if it still might. I’d periodically look past my phone to make sure I wasn’t going to step on a snail.
“Oh,” I breathed, “this is amazing! I didn’t even realize this sculpture had a name.” I tapped on the sculpture’s photograph, and I collected three more Poké Balls.
Then I stopped in the middle of the sidewalk. I frowned in the dimness. I waved.
The young woman was the first to glance up from her smartphone. She froze in place, too, and then she clapped both hands over her mouth to stifle a giggle. The young man who was walking with her looked up, then, too, and he also stopped. The three of us stood in the sidewalk, frozen.
“Hey!” my husband called to them, as he puffed up to our bizarre, silent sidewalk standoff. “Are you guys playing Pokémon Go?”
The young woman nodded once, briskly, and laughed, and I was also laughing, and that was how we passed one another on the street: laughing deliriously. It wasn’t for another block that it suddenly occurred to me we ought to have introduced ourselves, have formed some sort of alliance, maybe?
“That was another grown-adult couple wearing hoodies,” I whispered to my husband.
We worked our way toward an intersection. Another pair of men in hoodies was coming toward us—seemingly concentrating on the ground, except that their phones were outstretched in front of them.
“Hey!” my husband greeted them. “How’s it going!”
One guy looked up. His smile broadened. “Well,” he said, “I just found a Bulbasaur.”
“Yeah, I found a few Bulbasaurs,” my husband replied coolly.
My husband is a few years younger than I am and, I don’t know, he can be very pleasantly competitive about things like Bulbasaurs.
We moved to this town in late March. It’s a town in the general Bay Area area, but it isn’t a very big town. I think I’ve only spoken at length, ever, to just one other resident from our building.
“Smoke with me!” she’d roared. “Or don’t! Either way, I’ll be sitting right over here.” She’d sat down, then patted the empty curb next to her.
I’d crossed the street nervously toward her.
“And what brings you to this fine community,” she’d said to me, gesturing toward our apartment building with her lit cigarette.
“Oh, you know,” I’d said, stealing a quick drag off my own cigarette and then plopping down next to her, “ah, uh, we just moved here from Austin, for my husband’s new job.”
She’d laughed throatily. “A job!” she’d said. “Ted has a job! It’s Ted and—hmm, what was your name again…?”
“Jenn,” I’d said shyly.
“And what does Jenn do.”
“I, uh, I work from home.”
She’d frowned, which made her look concerned. This made me shrug helplessly.
“Well, Jenn!” she’d said, suddenly brightening, “I’m about to go out of town for a few weeks, but I’ll see you when I get back.”
That was in April.
We took a right turn, following our smartphones to the next destination. We fell silent, wandering together in the mist—when a door to our right flew open, and three twentysomethings fell out of this warmly-illuminated entryway together. They were all holding smartphones, all giggling, and all wearing hooded sweatshirts.
“You’re kidding me,” I said to nobody in particular.
“Hey!” the one in front said to me.
I stood there, paralyzed.
“Hey!” my husband piped up. “Are you guys heading to the mall?” He nodded toward the strip mall across the way.
“Yeah, we are!” the one in charge replied. This was ridiculous: By now, it was midnight. The mall was closed, first of all.
“I want to go,” I complained anyway.
“Not until you’re level 5,” my husband reminded me.
“Oh,” the guy in charge suddenly said, turning to face me. “When you get a chance to choose teams, choose Red!” He smiled charismatically. “We’ve gotta take the mall!”
I started to verbalize my agreement, but my husband was already chortling. “I dun-nooo!” he said. “I think, from what I’ve heard, my friends are all Blue Team!”
For a moment, the ringleader looked crestfallen. I could see it now: the Lord of the Flies, right here in my own apartment complex, all because my husband wanted the conch shell.
“No way,” I said to my husband. I nodded to the ringleader reassuringly. “We have to stick together.”
He grinned again, waved to us, and took off across the street.
What was this, even? Were we all cosplaying as Pokémon trainers?
I remember, the last time I’d fallen into a deep depression here in the Bay Area, my friend Jason took me to the Jejune Institute. The Institute was the starting point of a long and intricate ARG, a game with its entire first “level” occurring right in the very neighborhood in which I, at that time, lived.
I was so amazed, I remember, as it dawned on me that the graffiti and chalk markings I had repeatedly stepped around on my daily walks to work—but had never really noticed, of course—were all part of a magical invisible city, one that had been grafted right on top of our own.
I don’t know.
I guess I could sit here and write something long and heady and aggravating, something about the average Pokémon Go player being a contemporary flâneur—something about urbanity, about the modern city as “playground”—but instead, I think it is enough to say that Pokémon Go is a collectible-card game, best enjoyed among fellow strangers.
My husband and I took another right turn back toward the apartment complex. I stopped in front of a fountain.
“According to this,” I said, looking down at my smartphone’s screen, “this place right here is actually called The Crossing.”
I collected three more Poké Balls. Then I smiled at my husband and linked my arm in his.
He smiled back at me.
“We should always do this,” he said, and I nodded, and we began the walk toward home.
Jenn Frank is Editor-at-Large for Paste’s games section.