Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The "Pokémon Go" Phenomenon: Friend, Not Foe

I was one of those ministers in the early 90s who was adamantly opposed to Pokémon and I strongly felt that no Christian should engage in it, and further, that parents (& churches) should protect their kids from it. I had just come out of Bible college, was in some of my first youth ministry assignments, and although Pokémon was all the rage then, I did my research and concluded that it was a doorway to alternative (Eastern) spirituality. In hindsight looking back, it's hard to believe that trading cards could lead people into demonic possession, but we had some pretty convincing information back then (albeit a bit overhyped and exaggerated), and when I saw a few episodes of the cartoon show later, my worst fears were realized because they DID portray some clearly Eastern religious themes which contradicted Christianity. However, as a student of semiotics & future studies (a Biblically-informed trendwatcher) with many geek friends these days, I've been really watching this Pokémon Go phenomenon from its earliest announcement, and to be honest, I prepared for the worst. Instead, I've found that it's not at all what I imagined (or feared). I have been playing it with my 14-year old son as a way to not only engage with him but also find out why it's so popular and determine whether there's any concern. As an active player, I HAVE YET TO FIND A SINGLE SPIRITUAL CONCERN. We're now 9th level (of some 20+), already have a few "rares" (higher level characters), and have played around with "evolving" a few characters into more powerful ones, and I simply cannot find a single thing in the entire game/app to criticize or condemn, and nothing which suggests an agenda of alternative spirituality. If Niantic (the American company which developed the app in coordination with Nintendo and The Pokémon Company) had ulterior motives in releasing it, I certainly can't find evidence of that. On the contrary, it's just fun! It IS quite addicting because you want to collect them all, and like all games and activities, it does raise time management issues. I've also read some accounts of people doing stupid things while playing the game (driving, walking off a cliff, mobs chasing a rare appearance, etc.). But the game itself isn't the problem here; it's people not using common sense, failing to balance work & leisure, and/or doing stupid things because they've allowed themselves to get caught up in something without proper boundaries. People do that in all sorts of areas of life, and much of our ministry deals with the fallout from that kind of stuff. Beyond that, however, I see lots of positives. It has forced millions of kids and young adults (& even middle-aged adults) to get out from in front of the TV, Netflix, Xbox, and computer and WALK (we have, too), and since most of the PokéStops and gyms are churches, community buildings, and civic interest features, it is quite informational. I have walked alot in this game and found all kinds of neat historic markers and information about my town's heritage, things I never would have discovered if I hadn't been trying to chase down an elusive virtual Pokémon character who was missing from my Pokédex (collection). It's positively transformative on a community, too. I used to avoid my town's downtown square at night because of the several bars which surround its perimeter, but now it's a happening place overrun by Pokémon Go players! (the last few nights, I've counted well over 50 players of all ages, including entire families and groups of teens playing together). I've met and talked with more people on the square and in local parks this last week while playing the game than I have met in the last 2 months combined! We're total strangers, but we immediately have something in common to talk about. I can understand the hesitation to embrace the unfamiliar (especially if you grew up in the 80s or early 90s and know its checkered past). But past misperceptions don't equate to present realities, so I encourage you to look beyond those. I can't help but think that God can use this for Kingdom potential and that a wise ministry leader would look for opportunities to engage! (the pic here is what our downtown courthouse square & vicinity look like within the game)