Like a lot of 26-year-old Americans, Louis Park grew up with Pokémon. He watched the TV show and played the video games, and when a bunch of his friends downloaded Pokémon Go he naturally decided to try it himself. However, unlike most people enjoying Nintendo's latest smash hit, Park has an unusual day job: fighting ISIS alongside the Peshmerga in Iraq.
"Daesh, come challenge me to a pokémon battle."
This weekend, a Facebook post of Park's went viral as part of a frenzy of so-strange-it-must-be-scripted Pokémon Go news. The post included a screenshot from the game. There's a pokéball in hand, a Squirtle just out of reach, and, taking up most of the bottom of the screen, a machine gun resting on a box of ammo. "Just caught my first pokémon on the Mosul front line by Teleskuf," wrote Park. "Daesh, come challenge me to a pokémon battle. Mortars are for pussies."
Speaking to The Verge via Facebook Messenger's voice call feature, Park explained that he'd picked up Pokémon Go during a visit to the US last week. "I saw my friends playing it back home, so I just downloaded it," adding that he's a "huge fan" of the franchise. He's not had much chance to try it out yet (a combination of poor mobile phone signal and a lack of free time), but says the app seems to works just fine.
"On the front line I was only able to catch the starters," says Park, "but here in Dohuk they've got gyms and pokéstops and everything." Dohuk is in a town of approximately 350,000 in Kurdistan in northern Iraq. It's twinned with Gainesville, Florida and under an hour’s drive from the front line. When Park called, he was in a taxi heading back to his safe house after picking up supplies and unwinding a little in town. "I just caught a Zubat," he says — his second pokémon. "But it's very hot, so walking outside sort of sucks during the day."
this is a warzone — even if someone's playing pokémon
It's weird as hell to see something like Pokémon pop up in a place like Iraq — a location that's been associated with footage of unending war for years — but Park's post is a strange, unintentional reminder that as much as we shouldn’t ignore the suffering in the country, there's normal life as well as terror and horror. "Honestly," he says, "it’s really safe here in Dohuk, the war is in Teleksuf. It's like WWI. The Peshmerga and the police here, they do their job and keep everyone safe, and behind the front line people carry on with their lives."
Park says he's a former Marine and security contractor who decided to go back to Iraq as a volunteer to fight ISIS around late 2014. "I was one of the first twenty or so people to come out here," says Park. "I was just getting out of the service and I wanted to go do something." Everyone was "talking, but not doing anything," he says, so he decided to just go. He's part of what has become a sizable contingent of US citizens and veterans fighting ISIS, and although some of those visiting have questionable motives, Park seems to be one who joined up out of a sense of duty.
there aren't many pokémon on the front line, but plenty in the towns
But as with any war, Park says there's plenty of time sitting around doing nothing. "Most of the days are boring," he says. "You kind of sit there and you guard your post and stand by in case anything happens. [ISIS] shoot mortars just about every other day, but we've only had a couple of actual attacks." He doesn't know anyone else using the app on the front line, but says back in Dohuk he's already bumped into a few fellow players.
"There’s a guy at the market that I talked to that plays it. He speaks a little bit of English, and like, I say, 'There are pokéstops here' and everything." There are Wi-Fi hotspots all over town and he has a T-Mobile contract on his smartphone (an LG V10) that does the job the rest of the time. And although the game isn't common in Kurdistan, no one is a stranger to the franchise. "People know what it is around the world," says Park.
As for his first impressions, Park is happy with Pokémon Go, but says there's definitely room for improvement. He likes the familiarity, the teams and the in-jokes, but says it needs more stories and deeper game dynamics. Maybe even world events, "like a big pokémon that everyone could get together and battle. I'd like to be able to fight the world." His summary? "So far I like it. It gets you out — not that I have to worry about getting out."
Like many other viral Pokémon Go posts (catching a Pidgey while your wife gives birth, for example) Park's screenshot is partly an in-joke about the game's popularity and addictiveness. But it's also got a strange tang of the surreal to it. There's the superimposition of the familiar on the unfamiliar; a product of the game's augmented reality that means that this fictional world has now been layered, instantly, over our own. It’s recognizable and not at the same time. It's also, as we've seen from other social media posts from the conflict with ISIS, the reality of war in the 21st century.