Pokemon Go and Mental Health

[Content Note: discussion of mental illness]

Pokemon Go is the only reason I left the house today.

That’s not an exaggeration or an excuse. Even though I had planned to go to the library to do some translation work, because I can’t focus at home, I didn’t want to. This is part of what I’ve been struggling with for the past few months, the constant need to get work done and the overwhelming apathy and dislike of leaving my comfort zone battling each other, and usually apathy and comfort win. Even though it stresses me out more in the long run to not get my work done, I’d still rather not leave my house and deal with the outside world on any given day, unless I have to. I will go to work or class, usually with a minimum of grumbling, and do my work diligently (if not excitedly), but on days when I have no set schedule, I prefer to become an unresponsive lump lying on my couch, playing on my Nintendo DS or watching Netflix.

So where does Pokemon Go figure into this equation? Well, it’s pretty simple, really. I love Pokemon. I’ve played the Pokemon games for years, only excepting a couple years during and after college when I couldn’t afford to get a new handheld game system and thus had to make do without. I still have my Blue, Red, and Yellow Gameboy cartridges, the original Pokemon games that were first released way back when. I’ve only beaten the various games a couple times, and I’ve never filled out the Pokedex, but that doesn’t really bother me. I enjoy them, I enjoy the battles and the stories and the cute little creatures I can catch and nurture. So, like all the other avid Pokemon fans, I’ve been eagerly awaiting the Augmented Reality app game that would make it possible for me to catch Pokemon in the real world (so to speak). And, like other avid fans, I’ve been frustrated as hell since the release on Wednesday, since getting logged into the server is often futile. And since I hate the heat and it’s summer, I haven’t spent much time outside since it came out. And I’ve also had other things on my mind (I attended a vigil on Friday for Alton Sterling and Philando Castile), so although I’ve caught a few Pokemon in and around my apartment (Friday after the vigil I went out with friends, but my phone’s battery died so I just had to watch them run around and catch stuff), today was the first day I’ve actually been outside and working to catch Pokemon. It’s a bit cooler today, and overcast, so I’m not too hot and not too worried about sunburn. I parked further from the library than necessary so I could walk across campus and catch Pokemon, but I stuck to my path and didn’t wander around, so I missed out on a couple. And when I got to the library, which is a PokeStop (place where you get free items like PokeBalls and healing items), I caught a bunch of things and then settled in to work. Every fifteen minutes or so I check my phone, catch anything that’s come around, get my free items (the PokeStops refresh after a certain amount of time, so if you sit at one for a while you can basically get unlimited items), and then get back to work. And it’s great.

When I got out of the shower this morning and contemplated going out, I made all the usual excuses. “Well, it’s already 2 pm and the library is only open until 5 on Sundays, so it really wouldn’t be worth it.” “I could easily get my work done here and not leave.” “I just don’t feel like going anywhere.” And while I’d opened the app, my phone was having trouble connecting to the server, so I sat there with my excuses rolling around in my head. But then, it connected. There was my little avatar, and a couple common Pokemon (Rattatas and Pidgeys, mostly) that I quickly caught and traded for items, and I was ready to go. I swiftly gathered my laptop and wallet into my messenger bag and went out to my car, carefully keeping an eye on my phone in case anything else popped up. I drove to the parking lot at the student union, not too far from the library but a nice walk, and held my phone out to see what I could see. I quickly caught an Eevee and a Nidoran male, then went on my merry way to the library, catching several other Pokemon (although nothing exciting) along the way.

Since I’ve been here, I’ve caught multiple Weedles, which I traded in so I almost have enough to evolve my Kakuna into a Beedrill. I also caught a Shellder and a Growlithe. I’ve used the PokeStop multiple times and now have 8 eggs (I only had one this morning) as well as plenty of PokeBalls and several Potions and Revives. I’ve leveled up twice. And, although slightly less exciting, I’ve translated over a page of text. I’m not translating any slower than normal, since I usually take multiple breaks to check social media or rest my brain (every few paragraphs, basically), and the most important thing is that I’m getting it done.

The number of people I’ve talked to in just the last few days has been staggeringly high for me, and it was almost all because of Pokemon Go. After the vigil on Friday, when I went out with my friends, we saw roaming groups of people, all with their phones out, excitedly tracking Pokemon and sharing their joy and camaraderie over successful catches or rare finds. People I didn’t know would come up and say “I just caught an Eevee over there!” or “Hey, did you know you can get Pikachu by that landmark?” Because any Pokemon that pops up on the map can be caught by everyone in the vicinity, it inspires cooperation with others, rather than competition. In fact, although there are battles and Gyms in the game, you don’t battle any other player directly, instead you battle against Pokemon that various players have assigned to the Gym, and so even though there’s a fun element of competition (you can choose one of three teams. and teams can take over unclaimed gyms to make their team stronger), it’s more against the game than any other player. The amount of joy and cooperation I felt whenever a big group would congregate (usually multiple small groups converging on a PokeStop or a Pokemon everyone wanted) cannot be overstated. I felt like part of a real, physical community, for the first time in a very long time. I’m not someone who usually feels welcome in most places. I shy away from a lot of communities I can choose to join simply because I fear rejection or dislike various aspects of that community. I don’t spend much time in fandom communities because there’s almost always an unpleasant aspect or subgroup that I find spoils the community as a whole. But so far, the only thing I’ve felt from other people playing Pokemon Go is joy, and friendship, and acceptance. It’s possible that could change, as the newness wears off. It’s possible that people will get tired of it and stop playing and it’ll become commonplace and not exciting anymore. But for right now, for me and all the other people I know who are playing, it’s joyful and new and friendly, and for a lot of people who struggle with mental illness, it’s a reason to go outside. It’s a reason to join our community, even if only briefly, to catch a Pikachu or Squirtle, to see the sunshine, to feel like we belong in this world.

Sometimes, it’s a beautiful world.