Strangers of the World: Stop Hitting on Me While I Play Pokémon Go
You can't catch 'em all.
I don’t like talking to strangers. I never have, and I don’t think I ever will. It’s not that I dislike people, or believe the worst in them, or anything. It’s just that I have social anxiety, so talking to strangers always feels more difficult for me than for other people. I’m better at it now than I was when I was younger, because of therapy and practice, but I still don’t enjoy it. If a stranger comes up to me on the street and strikes up a conversation with me, my fight-or-flight instincts go into overdrive.
Another fun fact about me? I love Pokémon.
Even though I don’t like talking to strangers, I still love the Pokémon anime and the world that it promised to us all. Wandering the world with nothing but a backpack, traveling to exciting new places and meeting new people, all while participating in a fantastical version of dog fighting that should probably be illegal? Sounds rad!! Okay, except for that last bit, and the whole “do they eat the Pokémon?” question. But, otherwise, the world of Pokémon seems charming, right?
For the past few days, anybody who owns a smartphone has had the opportunity to transform our world into the world of Pokémon. The Pokémon Go mobile game just came out, and although you can’t yet trade Pokémon with people or battle against other trainers yet, you can walk around your actual neighborhood and catch Pokémon in augmented reality. It’s an excuse to leave the house and go for a walk, and it’s also an excuse to check out landmarks nearby and learn to appreciate the wonders of the outdoors.
For the first 24 hours of playing the game, I saw nothing but upsides. I went to a party on Saturday night and we all broke out our phones and started trading tips with one another and comparing our lineups. After some snacks, we all went for an evening stroll together to catch some pocket monsters at the nearby Poké-stops and battle at a gym.
It felt like a dream come true. We all grew up with the anime and the games, but this version of the game felt like the best and most logical next step. We ended up at the nearest athletic field, where we saw both a real-life bunny and some virtual Pokémon.
Then two things happened in quick succession that made the entire outing a lot less fun for me: a guy in a hooded sweatshirt saw us from across the street, stared at us, walked over, and began to make his way around the track, slowly but surely. Then, the cops showed up.
When the guy in the sweatshirt showed up, a couple of the other girls in my group huddled up with me to whisper. Is he here because of Pokémon, we wondered? Or is he here to hit on us? Or … both?
“This is just like It Follows,” one of my friends whispered, then did a spooky imitation of the compulsive walk that the baddies do in that movie. We laughed, and I did my best to quiet my discomfort about the guy lurking in the shadows.
This guy was probably trying to muster up the nerve to become our friend, and I was the jerk who didn’t want to talk to a complete stranger in a dark field on a Saturday night. I mean, does that make me a jerk? In this post-Pokémon world, it’s hard to say! He must have sensed our discomfort, because he never did end up talking to us, but he hung out in the dark for a very long time.
Then, when the cop car pulled into the nearby parking lot, we all stopped short. Half of my friends started panicking out loud. Not all of us are white, and, well … you know how it is, right? I reassured my pals that this was a public park and that people go running on the track late at night all the time. I felt worried, but I put on a brave and relaxed face for my friends’ sake. If a cop walked up to us, I couldn’t be sure what would happen next. We walked around the track in silence for a few minutes. The cops sat in their car for a moment, watching us, then drove away. Maybe they had already hassled some Pokémon players earlier on in the evening and figured out what we were doing. Who’s to say?
Both stories ended in relieved smiles, and our entire late-night adventure resulted in everyone safe and sound back at home. But the following day, when I walked around various neighborhoods during daylight seeking pocket monsters, I reflected on the prior night’s events and started noticing some inherent problems with the game’s design. The biggest problem? Strangers kept walking up to me. Specifically, strange men kept doing it. No women interacted with me, although I did see plenty of women playing Pokémon. Hmmm!
I realize this is not seen as a problem by everyone. Indeed, strangers talking to one another about Pokémon is something that many people have cited as the game’s best possible side effect. I’m the unusual person who doesn’t like talking to strangers. I play games on my phone so that I can avoid talking to strangers. Still, I’ve enjoyed reading stories about strangers congregating around Poké-stops together, making small talk and finally getting to know their neighbors. But in my experience, it doesn’t play out quite like that.
So, I was just catching Pokémon while walking down the sidewalk, minding my own business. Then I noticed that guys (and, as I said, it was only guys) kept doubling back to look at my screen and then look me over appraisingly, a clear question in their eyes. One guy followed me for several feet, and as he looked over my shoulder to check if I was looking for Pokémon, I tabbed over to my email and pretended to be looking at that so that he would go away. He did, but not before making my heart-rate skyrocket by following way too close behind me.
When I walked by a Pokémon gym and considered battling there, I saw a group of twelve 20-somethings had gathered outside, all on their smartphones, socializing. I didn’t feel like talking to any strangers, so I kept walking, scanning the sidewalk for critters as I went. Soon after, a guy followed me down the street, then tapped my shoulder and gestured for me to remove my headphones. His opening line: “Are you playing Pokémon?” I nodded in silence. He smiled expectantly at me, clearly believing that a conversation should ensue between us. I put my headphones back on, and I walked away.
I’m okay with it if that guy thinks I am a jerk. There are probably other people who are interested in having a conversation with him on the street about Pokémon. I am not one of those people.
For the record, this guy was physically attractive and polite and my age and well-dressed and even had a nice smile.
But I was there to catch Pokémon, okay? I WAS THERE TO CATCH POKÉMON.
Pokémon Go has been reminding all of us, instantly, who does and doesn’t feel safe going outside and creating more unstructured openings for strangers to talk to them. It is reminding us that some people feel free to walk the streets without fear … but that not everyone interacts with the outside world in that way, for a variety of reasons.
For some people, Pokémon Go is a fun socializing tool. For me, it started out as a fun game that I could play with my friends, but pretty soon, I realized that it was a game that was going to require me to talk to a whole lot of strangers … and honestly, that’s not my thing. I also realized that my friends wouldn’t necessarily feel safe playing this game, either, and that’s even more upsetting.
Pokémon Go is also bringing up a lot of the questions that I had about the Pokémon anime at the time. There are a lot of problems with the fictional structure of the Pokémon trainer, like the questions I brought up earlier (e.g. “isn’t this animal abuse?” and “seriously, do they eat Pokémon?!”). My biggest question concerns the relative safety concerns of different Pokémon trainers. Apparently, in this fictional world, the worst thing that could happen to you out in the woods is that you’ll run into Team Rocket and they’ll try to steal your Pikachu. That’s not as scary, say, as running into actual police officers in our real world. And what about all the other strangers that you could run into on the street? It’s not always charming and fun to talk to strangers. It doesn’t always end well!
Does being a Pokémon trainer via Pokémon Go mean that you’re automatically demarcating yourself as socially available to approach? In the Pokémon anime, Ash and his friends couch-surfed with complete strangers, navigating a world with very few logistical concerns or struggles. All adults were safe and trustworthy, and even the Team Rocket teenagers barely posed a threat. But in our world, things are pretty damn different, and Pokémon Go doesn’t have any methodology for acknowledging that.
Maybe you’re like me and you just don’t want to talk to strangers even if they’re “nice.” Apparently, Pokémon Go downloads have outpaced downloads of the dating app Tinder. I expect “Are you playing Pokémon?” to become 2016’s most popular pick-up line at bus stops across the planet. How quickly do you expect that women will stop playing Pokémon if that behavior continues? Normally, when I’m outside looking at my phone, that means “I don’t want to talk to anybody.” But Pokémon Go just gave every guy on the street an excuse to break through my intentional barrier.
Ideally, a game like Pokémon Go would bring the whole world together in some sort of rainbows-and-sunshine version of reality where everyone is a Pokémon trainer and everyone gets along and blah blah. But it’s been three days and I’ve already had multiple interactions with strange men that I didn’t want to have, and at least one situation in which my friends got scared that the cops were going to arrest them (or worse). Also, this app requires you to provide a heck of a lot of location data, and let’s not forget that location data can be used in very unsavory ways (and it’s all legal).
I hate to rain on the Poké-parade, because as I’ve said, the game has a lot of upsides. It’s an excuse to leave the house, which helps stave off my depression and encourages me to see landmarks that I wouldn’t visit otherwise. It gamifies exercise and sight-seeing, and that isn’t a bad thing; it’s the reason why I want to keep on playing. It’s just too bad that the side effects might outweigh the advantages for me and for many other people.
So, fellow trainers, here’s my parting advice for you: if you see another person playing this game, don’t make it weird. Don’t follow them and stand too close trying to look at their screen. Don’t tap their shoulder and ask them to take out their headphones and try to talk to them. “Headphones” is, like, the universal symbol for “don’t talk to me,” okay?
If another trainer wants to talk to you, they’ll make eye contact and smile. And maybe that’ll result in a Poké-meet-cute, or a platonic friendship, or an arch rivalry. But maybe that other person is just playing Pokémon because they like Pokémon, not because they want to talk to strangers. Maybe they just want to play with other people that they know instead of with random people on the street. That has to be okay with you.
Oh, and also? Don’t stare at strangers while following them into an empty field when it’s late at night. And definitely don’t call the cops on them.
The world isn’t safe enough to facilitate a new revolution of virtual Pokémon trainers. But the Pokémon are already out there, waiting to be caught. I only wish the rest of the world would be okay with me and my pals catching them in peace.
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