To evaluate elements of popular culture from a theological or theoretical perspective sets you up to sound like a jerk. It’s unavoidable. It’s hard to be critical and not sound uptight.
But what is the alternative? Should we close our eyes and fail to see that every new form of media presents a mixture of advantages and disadvantages? Automobiles allow us to travel faster and longer. But they have come with a cost to our natural environment in congested highways and air pollution. Smart phones provide instant access to a universe of information. And they also monopolize our attention such that we now impulsively check social media and find it difficult to sustain rigorous thought.
Technology gives, and it takes away.
Concerning this tendency, I once heard a lecture by Neil Postman in which he explained how each and every technology involves a particular philosophy—an underlying set of assumptions and aims, which influence the way people understand their own identity, think about life’s purpose, and relate to others in the world.
This notion is basically what Marshal McLuhan meant when he famously declared “the medium is the message.”
What is Pokémon GO?
If you’re not familiar with Pokémon GO, you should be (that is, assuming you want to relate to people in contemporary culture). It is now everywhere. In fact, as I write this sentence, I am looking through my window at a construction worker who appears to be playing. How do I know? I suppose he could be searching for a lost chipmunk, but he’s walking with a smart phone in front of his face. Chances are that he is trying to capture a Pokémon. If you are unfamiliar with Pokémon Go, there are instructions for how to play. Assuming you’re up to speed, I will proceed to offer a few observations.
To start with, we should recognize some of the positive features of Pokémon GO. For one, unlike most electronic games, it requires players to spend a lot of time walking outside. According to a Washington Post report, it has already led to an increase in exercise in the U.S. This is especially good news for children struggling with obesity.
The game also presents opportunity to meet people in your community. Tony Kummer, in his piece on what parents should know about the game, describes what such interaction may look like. Of course, there are also liabilities, such as the possibility of being lured into a dangerous area, walking off a cliff (which happened in California), or accidentally stepping into traffic.
How does Pokémon GO shape a player’s outlook on life? This technology shapes our identity, our life’s purpose, and our relationship to others.
How Pokémon GO Shapes Us
What does Pokémon GO tell us about ourselves?
It shapes our identity.
In short, we are to see ourselves as zealous consumers. As the Pokémon franchise’s motto puts it, “Gotta catch ‘em all!” Here is how Time Magazine describes it:
But there is a problem: the key principle of the Pokeocracy is acquisitiveness. The more Pokemon you have, the greater power you possess (the slogan is GOTTA CATCH ‘EM ALL). And never underestimate a child’s ability to master the Pokearcana required to accumulate such power.
Scripture explains this dilemma most clearly in the tenth commandment concerning covetousness. We know the problem too well. We’ve lived with it our entire lives. We gotta catch ‘em all! At age one-and-a-half my son has a limited vocabulary; but he is quite good at saying the word “more.” I want to blame it on his mother, but I know better.
Our calling, however, is to suppress covetousness.
It shapes our life’s purpose.
In addition to fostering a certain identity, Pokémon GO also teaches users about purpose. What is the purpose of catching all those Pokémon? Simply put, it is so you can employ them in battle. To engage this combat, you have to go to a “gym,” which you’ll see on your map represented by a tower with a Pokemon sitting on top. That elevated creature is the current champion of that gym, the one whom you are to defeat.
With regard to purpose, Henry David Thoreau famously said, “Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end….’
In other words, you may have technologically sophisticated mechanisms, but if the end toward which these devices strive is misguided, you’ve done little more than create a pretty distraction. In this instance, purpose falls short of eternal significance.
It shapes our relationship to others.
The final lens through which to consider Pokémon GO is the way it leads users to relate to other people. Reviews of the game often make this point, highlighting the way it draws you into “community” among other players.
It seems to me, however, that this is strange form of community. The face to which players look is that of the Pokémon whom you are seeking to capture. You only see other people through your peripheral vision as they face their Pokémons.
This is a far cry from the relational warmth of a personal community.
By relating to one another peripherally, humans will never realize the communion for which we were created. Such individualization profoundly diminishes community life. Moreover, from a biblical point of view, it fails to grasp the heart of community, which is not founded on our common interests, but is rather grounded in a person, the crucified and risen Savior.
The reality of his good news guides our relationship to others, proclaiming the grace of this Christ to those in need and celebrating it among those who share a common faith. This union is the ultimate expression of community.
The Eternal Parody
As Pokémon GO takes the medium of “augmented reality” into the mainstream, we observe some interesting ironies.
- Players walk by sight following imaginary creatures; followers of Christ walk by faith, following a living Creator.
- Players operate as individuals among other players; the church is a Body, fellow members of one another.
- Players define success by capturing creatures; the church is called to take every thought captive to obey Christ.
- Players are fundamentally consumers, zealous to accumulate bigger prizes; Christians have been crucified with Christ, and are called to present themselves as living sacrifices to God.
In short, Pokémon GO is the parody of which the kingdom of Christ is the reality.