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Suddenly, it’s a Pokémon Go world, and we’re just living in it

A Pokémon Go screenshot.
A Pokémon Go screenshot. Abby Ohlheiser

At a minimum, Pokémon Go makes walking the dog more interesting.

This morning, Hazel and I caught Kakuna in my alley, Pidgey in front of the nearby comic book store. I was told I don’t have enough skill level yet to visit the Pokémon Gym, which is apparently where you go to test battle skills, and which is located at the town pool.

Oh, and I failed to immediately notice when Hazel went No. 2, the ostensible purpose of our walk, because I was busy scanning the horizon for other Pokémon characters I might capture and add to my menagerie. “Scanning the horizon,” in the strange, instantly addictive new world of Pokémon Go, means staring into your smartphone, at the screen summoned up by the app.

On Thursday, Nintendo, the company behind the longstanding Japanese RPG and trading card universe of Pokémon, released Pokémon Go, developed as a game by Niantic, a Google offshoot. It became an instant sensation. It is, reports have it, already bigger than Tinder, already on more than 5 percent of Android phones.

There is a report of the app being used to lure Missouri teens into a robbery trap, and I imagine it won’t be long before there are cautionary tales about Pokémon Go and driving. The app has been an undeniable phenomenon.

Around Oak Park, Ill., where I live, teams of mostly adolescent boys spent the weekend scouring the town for the characters, which use the phone’s GPS settings and camera to show up in your surroundings. One boy, I have it on reliable authority, bicycled gently into a parked car while Pokémon Go-ing. Not for nothing does the app open by warning, “Remember to be alert at all times. Stay aware of your surroundings.”

In Milwaukee, where I spent Sunday with my wife, we overheard a 20-something couple at brunch complaining/celebrating that this new app had taken up their whole weekend. And on the lakefront there we saw another passel of young adults walking around in the instantly characteristic Pokémon Go pose: Eyes down at the phone screen, phones held mostly in front like some kind of divining rod. And then, sometimes, there is an odd kind of lurching around as the player maneuvers himself into position to capture the character, accomplished by swiping an on-screen ball in its general direction.

It’s an ingenious combination of the actual and the virtual, an overlay of a fantasy world onto the real one. And it is to be applauded for its cleverness and instant success, yes, and for knocking Nintendo out of the doldrums as its stock has soared. (The game is free to play, but players can make in-app purchases to enhance the experience, and there is reportedly an adjunct device coming.)

But mostly I cheer Pokémon Go for reintroducing the outside world to a generation that has been seduced by PlayStation and Netflix.

How many times have you heard modern parents wishing that kids would do what the parents used to, just wander around the neighborhood, finding things to do (while those same parents simultaneously fret that it’s too dangerous for kids to be wandering around, but that’s a different column). Pokémon Go is a big, swift kick off the couch and into the out of doors.

Just, please, do not walk into the street or off of a stair edge while playing.

It is ingenious, too, because it’s an instant nostalgia play for anybody under, say, 30. Most of that generation grew up with Pokémon. Some knew it in its original form, as a role-playing game on Nintendo’s Game Boy handheld device. Many collected, seemingly, thousands of Pokémon trading cards, which have come in and out of fashion, but when they have hit, they have usually hit very big.

My own kids, now high schoolers, went through a Pokémon card phase back when. My nephew in grammar school in northern Indiana has collected cards avidly in more recent years. Pokémon has been a boy version of American Girl dolls, but one that doesn’t require a trip to a downtown store or a home-equity loan.

Pokémon is, I think those of us on the outside can admit, a confounding world of elfin and animal creatures possessing mysterious powers. I remember trying very hard not to let my eyes glaze over as our older son, probably at 5 or 6 at the time, explained in exacting (excruciating?) detail the capabilities of one Pokémon character or another. And I wonder if that was the moment he realized Mommy and Daddy sometimes feign enthusiasm for their kids’ enthusiasms.

But, hey, it kept them occupied, and it probably taught them about systems and rules and maybe even about imagination.

And now it is back in a pretty compelling form, sucking down young people’s phone batteries, yes, but also making them move more enthusiastically than any Park District class ever has. If kids wore Fitbits, this would be the magic bullet for getting them to their daily 10,000-step quota.

Except for purposes of experiment, I don’t see myself continuing to play the game, even if it does amplify the dog-walking experience.

And I have to wonder if, after such a white-hot start, it will last. One of my sons just headed off to YMCA camp expecting, he said, that his peers will have moved on when he returns home in two weeks.

I don’t know enough yet about the intricacies of the game that’s been devised to know whether it is capable of holding interest in the long term. And as a non-native of the Pokémon world I accept that I will probably never find out.

Still, even if Pokémon Go does end up only a fad, it’s a pretty entrancing one, especially as a signal of what may be coming as more people devise ways to mix imagined universes with the real one. How long before people are dodging “Harry Potter’s” Dementors, or, I don’t know, seeing their backyards rendered as dragon keeps?

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