They are just some of the millions of Pokémon Go users. I am one of them. The profile screen of my character, Chips4Spells, indicates that I started playing exactly one month ago. Some began to condemn the thing a few days later. But as I recently discovered, to play PoGo is to explore the forgotten and understand the generation who embraces it.At the nearest rest stop, after pulling off Interstate 64, I wonder if there’s a Poke Stop here and decide to check my phone. Sure enough there is. I collect a couple Poke Balls and a Razz Berry from a state billboard showing all the highways and roads. As I walk back to the car, I hear someone shouting my name. I look up to see the wide-grinning, charismatic face of Stacey Evans, my former college instructor. “Small world!” she exclaims. I explain that I’m heading to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts to meet someone and also hope to catch better Pokémon than what I’d found here. And while I’d planned on seeing a couple new exhibitions while there, I never do. Yet, the random encounter seemed to be the first of many about to come.
Even the most visible places have a tendency to be overlooked. By utilizing Google Maps, PoGo redirects users to sites of interest once again. Art sculptures hold Poke Stops, neighborhood churches become Gyms for capture, and local business profit from Lures purchased to make the Pokémon bite. But not all places are what they seem.
Several miles north of Charlottesville, Va., I notice someone else at Holly Memorial Gardens [Cemetery] with me. The teen walks then pauses, then starts walking again. It’s just us, so I decide to approach.Joe Carson is 17, a sturdy kid with a bright face and gentle hazel eyes. He’s driven down from the neighboring county for the same thing I am here for: Poke Balls, Revives, Eggs, and stray Pokémon. For those who live in the rural countryside, this place is the best spot. We accompany each other to a few nearby statues with names like, “The Lord’s Prayer,” “The Praying Hands,” and “The Lord Watches Over You” and load up.
Suddenly, I hear the soft purring of an engine and see a black hatchback coming around the corner. It pulls to the side of the road and the door swings open. A short haired girl wearing cargo shorts and a baseball cap backwards steps out, staring at her phone too. It’s all too obvious now. Kay Baker is also from Greene County, but drives past here to work at JoAnn’s. Today is her day off. I find out that she’s only been playing a few days before me, but already she outranks me and comments that she’s joined the local Pokémon Go group on Facebook. There’s some technical stuff I still don’t quite understand and she fills me in on all the newest details.I ask them if they think a cemetery is a weird place for this. “Nah,” Kay quickly replies. “You just have to be respectful about it.” It’s hard for me not to wonder with the white sandstone Jesus glaring at us. “Well, I’m going to walk around some more,” says Joe, and we all decide to go our respective ways. But before I leave, I stop by the keeper’s office and inform her about why so many young people seem to be visiting a resting place for the otherwise old. “Yeah, I have the app too,” she laughs, acutely aware of the reason. She comments that visitors are welcome and hands me a packet that says, PERSONAL PLANNING GUIDE. “It’s never too early,” she adds. I shrug and then head for the car. Scanning the epitaph-filled lawnscape one last time, I notice two women and a young girl bending over the ground, their soft sobs within earshot. Later, I found out that their sister and mother had been killed in a car accident the week prior. Kay was right: respect your surroundings. I left that place not only carrying Potions and Lucky Eggs in my digital Poké bag, but with the added knowledge to be more observant. So, from still mornings on nature trails to late night PoGo-themed bar crawls, I discovered a new perspective of exploring. I even started coming to work thirty minutes early with the added prospect of finding rare types of Pokémon across the street. But as interesting as these new places could be, it was the people, like me, who made the journey more fulfilling.
Peace looks like this: On a warm Saturday afternoon, next to the rapidly flowing and shimmering James River, people have gathered on the pebbled walkways of Brown’s Island to play.
On a hillside, some sit cross-legged and chat about the latest ‘Where To’ and ‘Where Not’. I overhear one couple who seems to be carrying the conversation. They’re both young but their casual posture and frizzled brown hair makes them appear tired.For the past two weeks, Brittany and Chris have spent much of their free time catching Pokémon. Both have full time jobs and evenings are the only chance they get to play. “It gets us out [and] doing something, even though we spend time together at home,” says Brittany with a flick of her cigarette. “That was the good thing that came out of it.” But it actually isn’t. While the PoGo app counts her steps to hatch a 5 km Egg, she also keep a second charity app open that does the same for a benefit or cause. She’s been telling other users about it during her outings. “Might as well,” she laughs.
As other critters begin to spawn, we decide to move on and I thank them. Sweat begins to dampen the headband of my Stetson and I decide to go inside. I stop in the American Civil War Museum at Tredegar Iron Works. They’re about to shoot-off the replica cannon for the daily show, so fortunately no one is around when I attempt to interview the Visitor Services rep. She’s reluctant to chat at first, but then agrees.Liz Ale is a longtime employee of the museum, a sharp-dressed chick with a Sunbeam cut that fades down the sides. She finally catches a break and we escape to the quiet break room. “Usually I would be reading Science News or doing nothing to fill up the time,” she explains. “But with this, I can do something I enjoy in the down time.” Of course, on a busy day like today, that’s not possible at all. She prefers to play alone and unhindered by the company of other players. But she points out a rewarding moment a few days ago when she helped someone locate a rare Eggexcutor in nearby Monroe Park. “I was able to show him where it was, then he showed more people, and they were all like, running toward it,” she eagerly reports. “That was pretty cool.” She’s a real gamer though. And from the way she weighs the pros and cons of PoGo, it’s obvious that she believes mobile gaming will change the way users interact.
Preparing to brave the heat once more, I notice on my PoGo radar that someone on my team (Valor) is attacking a nearby Gym and I rush over to help. My strides rattle the uneven wood boards of an iron trestle bridge that spans over the murky canal below. Once across, I look around, attempting to see who the culprit may be, when a voice shouts out, “Come help me attack it!” That is how I meet Andrew.
Peering around the corner, I see him awkwardly curled up in a ball under the shadow of some low hanging ferns, but he’s much too big. I throw out my best Pokies to join him in the fight nonetheless. “Goddamn Snorlax,” I mutter minutes later, after tapping my screen enough that it leaves behind sticky fingerprints and droplets of sweat. Team Mystic still had claim over here. That gives me a little more time to chat anyhow.Andrew Arias is a student at VCU, his stubbly face is small, but his sleeveless t-shirt reveals his athletic build. It, ironically enough, says, “Victory is mine.” He works part time in a dental clinic during the week, but now he’s about to meet a friend. It’s not long before we cross over the bridge again and we prepare to leave each other. “Keep fighting for [Team] Valor, man!” he beams, giving me a low-five before going on his way.
It’s strange to see how sincere, yet brief, our moment in time is.