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500 miles of tall grass: a Pokémon Go road trip

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We can’t stop here, this is Zubat country

Living in New York, I’m aware that I reside in a bustling Pokémon Go mecca. Its abundance of plaques, murals, and pocket parks mean you’ll find pokéstops practically every block, and its pokémon population can feel almost as dense as its human one. Blatantly jaywalking to catch one is not only permissible, but practically expected.

But after a few days navigating the city’s endless swarms of Zubats, I couldn’t help but feel that I was missing out. What mysterious creatures were lurking beyond Brooklyn and Manhattan? Soon, I got the chance to find out. For reasons I am told were only partly Pokémon-related, my colleagues Ross Miller and Tom Connors had planned a day-long road trip to Toronto, where the three of us were helping to organize a VR festival. Instead of a flight, I had a 500-mile stretch of new territory to explore — and an augmented overlay for all of it.

July 13th, 10AM

  • 502 miles to Toronto
  • 100 percent battery life
  • 62 pokémon

Tom picks me up at home in Brooklyn, my phone and a small battery pack ready for action. I spend the next half-hour doing the Pokémon equivalent of wardriving — hitting pokéstops and nabbing pokéman every time we stop at a red light. I catch my usual collection of Rattatas, Pidgeys, and Zubats, but that’s okay! Exotic upstate New York awaits.

When we pick up Ross in Astoria and start our trip in earnest, my hopes are realized. A brand new pokémon is right there, ready to join my collection. This is great, I think. Things cannot possibly go wrong.

11:30AM

  • Miles to Toronto unknown
  • 86 percent battery
  • 77 pokémon (+15)

Too late, I remember that large parts of the Palisades Parkway are cellular dead zones. So my Pokémon Go character awkwardly trots in place on a little strip of road in a big green wasteland, occasionally shooting several miles into another, nearly identical strip. Through this frustration, I still manage to add a few new species: my first Clefairy, and some kind of tiger-wolf-dog called a Growlithe, which is probably the first pokémon I would consider keeping as an actual pet.

I also remember that I get carsick. I briefly abandon my feeble attempts at actual work and stare into the distance, noting the depth and texture of the forest compared to Pokémon Go’s endless digital suburban lawns.

Things have gone wrong.

12:30PM

  • 429 miles to Toronto
  • 81 percent battery
  • 82 pokémon (+6)

I’m back online, but the game can barely triangulate my location, and my phone won’t last more than a couple of hours on precision GPS if I turn it on. One of the most revolutionary things about smartphones is how they’ve situated me in a larger world — I no longer think of places as vague islands connected by a line of asphalt, but as single points in Google Maps’ meticulously annotated Earth. Driving with Pokémon Go inverts this. There are no marked streets or landmarks, and you can’t zoom out to get the shape of a town — only the little grids around you as your character jumps huge distances to match your speed. For every layer it uses to augment your reality, it subtracts something else.

I see a pokémon. It gets away.

"This is a pokéwasteland," I write in my notes. "No pokémaps for these territories."

1:30PM

  • 364 miles to Toronto
  • 82 percent battery
  • 83 pokémon (+1)

Hope comes from an unexpected place: an isolated convenience store, where a Bellsprout appears in front of a row of gummy candy. The cashier looks over as I flick pokéballs at it.

"What did you catch?" she asks, because her daughter is apparently an avid Pokémon Go player. She says she’ll tell her about my find, and we share a moment of friendly conversation that I would normally find awkward and intimidating.

The encounter reminds me of why I’m playing Pokémon Go in the first place. The game is easy, and somewhat appropriate, to be cynical about: it’s a surveillance state’s dream, built on data from a corporate behemoth and a giant nostalgia-driven media franchise. There are many good objections to Pokémon Go, on both aesthetic and ethical levels. But that doesn’t erase the easy connections it draws between people — Tom compares it to sports talk for people who don’t watch sports, which seems apt.

The casual distaste for it feels rooted in a reflexive dislike of digital mass culture, not any concrete aspect of the game. Educational scavenger hunts, for example, have "gamified" exploration for decades. Picking up a hobby is standard advice for anyone who wants to make friends — until you add a screen, at which point it’s a dire sign that we’re losing touch with each other. Pokémon Go lays bare all the ways that systems can manipulate how we behave, but that doesn’t make the systems inherently bad.

Most online spaces feel like gems of community embedded in a smoldering ball of hate. Even with all the injuries and robberies and other issues that have accompanied it, Pokémon Go reminds us that in the right context, we can like each other. Whatever else it does, that’s an achievement.

I don’t even care that my game froze when I caught the Bellsprout.

2:30PM

  • 308 miles to Toronto
  • 70 percent battery
  • 91 pokémon (+8)

The beauty of upstate New York makes me feel bad about being annoyed at its lack of pokémon — it deserves someone who has time to get out of the car, walk around, and appreciate it. As my inventory dwindles with no pokéstops, I get a clearer picture of how different the game would be outside a city. Rural America: underserved by broadband providers, media outlets, school systems, and geolocated video game animals.

3:30PM

  • 242 miles to Toronto
  • 53 percent battery
  • 92 pokémon (+1)

We pass Syracuse, the biggest city on our way to Toronto. Suddenly, I have options: pokéstops, gyms, new pokémon. Every single one passes by before I can get a lock on it. Every time I waste a pokéball, I wonder if I’ll somehow run out of before I find the next outpost, because not even video games are exempt from my anxiety at leaving a city where you can find almost anything whenever you need it. I’m fairly certain this makes me part of a Pokémon coastal elite. Either way, David Brooks is probably going to write a book about it.

4:30PM

  • 200 miles to Toronto
  • 47 percent battery
  • 95 pokémon (+3)

Somewhere past Syracuse, there is a plaque celebrating the Finger Lakes of New York. Stopping there is by far the best thing we’ve done in nearly 50 miles, because Niantic has decided that this plaque is worth commemorating with a pokéstop.

If you want to make fun of me for playing this game, now would be the time.

5:30PM

  • 129 miles to Toronto
  • 55 percent battery
  • 95 pokémon (+0)

This is the video game equivalent of someone’s parents forcing them to smoke a whole pack of cigarettes to scare them away from tobacco. It is aversion therapy. My will is broken. I have not seen a single pokémon.

6:30PM

  • 89 miles to Toronto
  • 59 percent battery
  • 96 pokémon (+1)

After eight and a half hours, we’re nearing the Canadian border, where my cell service ends. I put my phone away with relief, free from the responsibility of Pokémon hunting. I finish Jo Walton’s The Just City, which is a book about gods and time travelers founding a real-life version of Plato’s Republic. (It’s more exciting than it sounds.)

In a science fiction novel, you could take over the world with this game

In a science fiction novel, where any new technology can radically override normal human behavior nearly overnight, Niantic would probably rule the world with Pokémon Go. The obvious, boring conclusion is that it would build a hyper-capitalist hell, but it’s more fun to imagine the game developers as Le Corbusier-style social architects, quietly engineering their own Pokémon-based vision of utopia. Want more pokéstops in your hometown? Tell your local government to build more parks. Want to play on your commute? Have them improve public transit, because pokémon cluster on train platforms. Want to get rare pokémon that only appear on an ecologically unfriendly freeway, and inexplicably flee if you’re in a car? Lobby to tear down the road.

Everyone can agree to hate gauche augmented reality consumerism, but what happens if a patronizingly benevolent technocrat picks a utopia for us, and we don’t even notice?

I may have spent too much time thinking about Pokémon.

8:30PM

Long after I’ve given up my quest, we pull up to our Toronto Airbnb. Famished, we ask the owner for some dinner recommendations. She suggests a place around the corner, which turns out to have great poutine and burgers.

I swear, we do not pick it because it also has two pokéstops.

But it does, so we all refill our inventories and start exploring the strange new world of Canadian pokémon. We’re split between two different teams, but after dinner, we head over to a gym and unite against our common enemy, Team Valor. I’m still a low-level trainer, so it’s the first time I’ve managed to win a match. In the spirit of fairness, we take turns putting our Team Instinct and Team Mystic pokémon in charge of the gym. And although someone else wins it back about five minutes later, the accomplishment is no less real.


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