Pokemon Go hearkens back to the fun, and danger, of summers past

Pokémon Go may be the perfect summer game.

In an industry geared around Christmas releases, the warm months are usually a dead zone. Yet Niantic and Nintendo have released a game that’s not only nostalgic in branding, the gameplay itself recalls childhood summers spent in the outdoors.

As I’ve walked around the past couple of days, I’ve been less interested in playing the game myself than watching others play. I saw adults hunting on their lunch hour, and teenage couples wandering, unhurried, toward PokéStops — but most of all I like seeing the kids. They rush around in groups, scanning their surroundings as a parent or older sibling tells them not to run. I can only imagine what it’s like in their own neighborhood, where they have free reign.

As I wander up and down the block, tossing pokéballs at Charmander, I find myself recalling games I played over long summers in the early 1990s — games that would only pause for sleep or trips to the pool. Building forts in the scrubland behind a friend’s house. Backyard campouts. Super Soaker wars by day, and flashlight-assisted Manhunt games at night. I can almost taste the ice cream sandwich, its richness given a sharp tinge by the pool chlorine still on my lips.

It’s not the Pokémon brand that brings this back — I was a teen when the first game released, and never really caught the wave — it’s how the game plays. Pairing up with friends and sallying out to find Pokémon brings back youthful excitement of a summer day. What will we discover? What will we see? It’s augmented reality combined with the old thrill of catching sand crabs or scooping tadpoles out of the stream.

That’s no accident, either. Satoshi Tajiri drew inspiration from his childhood insect collection when he created Pokémon — so summer afternoons are in the game’s blood.

Having said that, summer freedom wasn’t all ice cream and Hypercolor shirts. The “free range childhood” that people venerate now was considerably more dangerous than bloggers like to remember. We broke arms and knocked out teeth. My cousin and I lit part of the yard ablaze with firework tanks. We played with fireworks and flooded the house. The world was, frankly, as risky then as it was now. And for that reason, there were rules — a code that stipulated where we could go, where we couldn’t, and how we should act. The Summer Rules.

Yet as I see reports of Pokémon Go float into my news feed, I’m concerned that we’re gobbling up all the summer joy, but forgetting the summer rules. The stuff our parents, siblings, and grandparents told us before the screen door slammed weren’t empty platitudes, it was a rulebook for survival. When I see people catching Pokémon at the Holocaust Museum, jumping fences, or running into lampposts, I think we should call back to the rules that kept us alive in those long-ago summers…

Look Both Ways

There’s a reason Pokémon Go starts up with a warning about situational awareness. The game hadn’t been out long before players began talking about twisted ankles and minor contusions from strolling into trees.

I should state that injuries like these could’ve happened with any event that drives more people into the outdoors. And despite fake articles claiming otherwise, there hasn’t been a big Pokémon Go car accident yet — though there has been a fender-bender. But let’s be honest: this is nothing new. When there is a big accident, it won’t be the first time someone crashed a car while looking at their phone.

But there’s a simple way to from getting hurt: boost your situational awareness. Look both ways before you cross the street. Don’t catch Pokémon while driving. Make sure strange men aren’t following you. This is all pretty common-sense stuff, but when you spot a Golbat and get excited, it’s easy to forget. Do what we teach children to do when a ball rolls into the street: take a breath and wait. Assess if this really catch needs to happen right now. Don’t rush.

If that sounds condescending, I don’t mean it to be. Adults get excited and forget rules all the time, whether it’s a too-rough game of touch football or a shopping spree on Black Friday — it’s human nature.

Just remember that you don’t need to be staring at your phone all the time. If you do see a Pokémon, consider standing to the side or sitting down so you’re less of a hazard to those around you.

Put On Sunscreen, You Want to Burn to a Crisp?

One of the best things about Pokémon Go is how it gets players off the couch and outdoors — including some who aren’t used to exercise. That’s especially great for players with mental illness, since sunlight and physical activity are effective at fighting depression. Besides, what’s more of a summer activity than trail walks and enjoying the sunshine?

And sure, you could argue that hiking and walking is fun on its own, but I’d counter that not everyone finds exercise fun. If they did, we wouldn’t have a whole industry selling fitness games, group exercise classes, and sweat-proof ear buds. Hell, I’ve trekked the Himalayas, and I still need a cheap thriller novel if I’m going to spend an hour on the treadmill.

So if Pokémon Go gets you out in the UV, good for you.

But if you’re running around in this hot summer weather, don’t forget the basics. Wear sunscreen and a hat. Bring a water bottle. Maybe use some mosquito repellant, considering the recent Zika threat.

And if you haven’t hiked in a few years? That’s fantastic, welcome back to the great outdoors. There’s no better place to catch Pokémon than out in the woods or fields — and hiking trails tend to be rife with PokéStops.

But if you’re hitting the trail, remember that nature can be genuinely hazardous. Take time to check the weather beforehand, look at trail maps, and obey the signs. It’s okay to go a few feet off the path, but don’t crash off through the bush chasing a Gengar — that’s how people get lost.

Besides, Pokémon aren’t the only thing that lives in the tall grass.

And this is very important: don’t get within six feet of a ledge. Cliff sides are often unstable, and it’s common for them to crumble or slide. The one time I forgot this rule, it nearly killed me. I was inching up to a cliff edge to take a picture when the soil crumbled and my feet slid over the edge. Luckily, a friend grabbed my backpack and hauled me to safety.

Lesson: don’t get excited and forget the rules — that’s what I did.

Don’t Go Near Old Mr. Smith’s Place

Pokémon Go promises to turn the outside world into your playscape — but even in my childhood roving days, there were places I couldn’t go. There was always that weird neighbor or abandoned house you’re told to avoid. As a general rule, you came home once the streetlights came on. And even as an adult, there are places you shouldn’t play, no matter how many Pokémon frolic there.

Use common sense. When you see a fence, it means you’re not supposed to be in there. That sounds obvious, but a colleague who works at a museum had to roust a wannabe-Pokémon trainer from a restricted area just the other day. Similarly, a police station in Washington had to remind people that, particularly with the events of the last week, creeping around outside a police station at night is a really bad idea.

There are also places that frown upon people waving smartphones around — airport security checkpoints, for instance, or customs desks. The same goes for military bases, especially in foreign countries.

Oh, you laugh, but let me tell you — I saw people doing exactly this at an airport two days ago. And Pokémon Go’s precursor game, Ingress, got banned from a military base after a visiting player tried to capture a point on the grounds. Similarly, with so many Pokémon popping up at public parks, it’s conceivable that a 30-something man might find himself wandering into a kids’ playground and pointing his camera everywhere.

Do. Not. Do. That.

And, unfortunately, some of these dangerous spaces could even be in your own neighborhood. Don’t stroll into a neighbor’s yard without permission, particularly if you live in a well-armed state like Texas. And remember that even safe places may not be so secure after dark. Wandering around strange neighborhoods at night — even on sidewalks — can be deadly.

Back when I lived in Austin, I went for a night run in the neighborhood adjacent to mine. Running at night isn’t unusual in Texas, but one of the neighborhood residents apparently thought I was a threat. He proceeded to shadow me for several blocks in a battleship-sized Ford truck, only breaking off when I exited the area.

And I’m not just white, but increased-risk-of-skin-cancer white. Imagine what could’ve happened if I wasn’t.

The different, often threatening, experiences people of color have playing augmented reality games is already a topic of discussion, and I expect to hear a lot more about it in the coming years. This isn’t the game’s fault, but a part of broader issues surrounding race and the outdoors, where people of color face challenges whites don’t recognize.

Be safe. Assess the situation. Don’t chase Pokémon down dark alleys.

Never Play Tag in Church

Have you seen the Washington Post article about players catching Pokémon at the Holocaust Museum? Or seen the PokéStops in graveyards, at plague memorials, and murals memorializing slain children? Should we really be playing a game there?

Look, Pokémon Go developer Niantic transferred these locations over from their near-identical, earlier location-based game, Ingress. Players originally nominated the locations themselves, so some are a little offbeat. These somber or frightening spots made sense in the world of Ingress, a conspiracy-filled world where invisible portals appear at sites of cultural or historic significance. In the original game, the implication was “something significant happened here,” but that nuanced tone doesn’t translate to the carefree universe of Pokémon.

While I think organizations and individuals should have some form recourse if they’re unhappy about being a PokéStop, this incident is ultimately a behavior problem. There are museums where it’s appropriate to chase Pokémon — some museums are encouraging it — but in others like the Holocaust Museum, visitors need to focus exclusively on the experience. Once again, it’s the old childhood concept of where it is, and isn’t, appropriate to play. Tag might be permitted on the church lawn, but not in the sanctuary. You can’t read comic books at the dinner table. Pokémon-catching might be fine at a discovery museum, but inappropriate at a massacre site.

And let’s remember that museum visitors, especially kids, have always needed reminders to respect a solemn place. Growing up in Hawaii, I watched tourists — and classmates — act rowdy in the USS Arizona Memorial. In college, I witnessed Japanese school kids run screaming through the Hiroshima Peace Museum. Let’s remember how many parks and museums have banned the Selfie Stick — it’s the distraction, not the behavior, that’s new.

That being said, this is also part of the larger conversation about how cell phones violate sacred spaces like museums, theaters, memorials, and places of worship. These are all places where we gather to take part in a collective experience, and expect every visitor to focus on — and not distract from — the transcendent experience of art, religion, mourning, or knowledge. We’re all familiar with the spike of anger that meets a cell phone ringing in a movie, or a teenager bobbing his head to an iPod at a genocide museum; it’s more than distraction, it’s desecration — a break in our collective wish to see a story or honor the dead.

So use your common sense — think about your surroundings, and what message you’re sending, before breaking out the pokéballs.

After all, we can relive our childhoods without acting like children.

Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher based in Hong Kong. His articles have appeared in Zam, Vice, The Escapist, Playboy and Slate. You can follow his exploits at RobWritesPulp.com or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp