Yesterday, a gorgeous, sunny, autumn Saturday, I walked around Capitol Lake in Olympia with my wife and it was teeming with ducks. We walk there regularly and normally see some, but yesterday, there were at least a thousand ducks on the lake. Mostly American Wigeons and Ring-necked Ducks, though I spied Buffleheads, Canvasbacks, and Western Grebes as well.
Also around the lake, as predictable as the Mallards and gulls, were people walking while staring at their cellular phones. Instead of texting or selecting a playlist for their walk, we could tell they were playing Pokemon Go. From what I understand, it is a virtual treasure hunt tied to actual locations where players “find” different make-believe creatures at different places.
I wonder if there is any substantial difference between me looking for my feathered treasures and them looking for their digital ones. The Pokemon seekers and I were both outside, enjoying the weather. We were walking around the same park. I was with my wife, and we saw at least one husband and wife with their son in pursuit of their digital goals.
I am tempted to feel smug and superior, though, because what I was seeking is real. Real birds living real lives. Birds that may be at this lake for a few hours or a few months. Birds that may have been hundreds of miles away last week.
It’s no surprise that birders quickly picked up the similarity between Pokemon Go and birding. Apparently the game has a life list called Pokedex, so now I will have an easier time explaining my life list to the millions who have downloaded the game. “It’s a like Pokedex for birds.”
In some ways Pokemon Go isn’t too dissimilar from geocaching, except that in geocaching you get get the added bonus of an old happy meal toy as a reward for your efforts. Our family geocached for a while and the kids enjoyed it when they were younger, but after one summer, the thrill of searching for surplus ammo cans in the woods wore off.
I have memories associated with birds and birding that I have a hard time imagining replicating within an augmented reality game. I’ve seen birds as sources of wonder, comfort, and blessing. Jesus told us to watch birds in Matthew 6:26, but he never said anything about Pokemon.
Pokemon Go may be getting people off the couch, but it doesn’t seem to be making them pay any more attention to anything off the edges of their screen. Distracted walking is real. I give players a wide berth as I’m walking, lest they run into me as I pass.
I also can’t imagine anyone playing Pokemon Go for decades. I’ve been birding to some degree for over 25 years and I still enjoy the common birds as well as the rare ones. Birds have natural attraction — beauty and song — and they are amazing because while they are real, they are unreal compared to us. I suspect with time, the Pokemon Go sensation will be remembered as just one more oddity of 2016.