I was eight years old when the first generation of Pokémon debuted in North America, which put me in roughly the same age group as its protagonist. In the real world, sending a preteen boy away from home to journey across the continent by his lonesome would get a person jail time, but Pokémon was set in a universe without consequences. Every conflict was resolved by arranging fights between monsters that could only ever “faint”, so the worst fate that could befall me was for all of my pets to doze off. A pre-adolescent boy probably could survive in a world like this, and eight-year-old me often fantasized about leaving home at a young age and training Pokémon for real.
Pokémon Go, a new mobile game from Niantic, attempts to make that dream come true, to the extent that modern technology so far allows. It uses a phone’s GPS signal to superimpose interactive Pokémon atop the real world. I open the app and I see wild Pokémon wandering the world around me. As of this writing, the game is literally more popular than porn, so I don’t imagine that further explanation is necessary. It incorporates the mainline series’ collection into the real world, so its appeal is universal among millions of Pokémon fans.
While Pokémon Go‘s effect has mostly been positive so far, a handful of ghastly stories have already emerged in the days since the app’s launch. A woman in Wyoming came across a dead body while searching for a Pokéstop (a beacon where trainers check in for free items, usually near monuments or notable buildings) and armed robbers in Missouri staked out locations where they knew Pokémon Go players would show up. And while a recent report of the game causing a major highway accident appears to be fake, I have no doubt that such an event is inevitable.
Pokémon Go requires a great deal of moving about; in addition to hunting for Pokémon, refreshing items at Pokéstops is a necessity, as is challenging local gyms. This may not be an issue for people who live in densely-packed metropolitan areas, but I’m situated across the street from an Amish farm. A gas station and a bowling alley are the only public places within walking distance. To get anywhere else I need my car, and since making progress in Pokémon Go requires physical travel, my only real option is to play the game while driving… which is an absolutely dreadful idea.
Cell phone use causes hundreds of thousands of auto accidents every year, plenty of them fatal. Texting is the big one. There’s an ad campaign called “It Can Wait” which encourages drivers to hold off of typing messages until they’re off the road, but maybe Pokémon Go can’t wait? Maybe I’m capable of casually scanning the nearby area for all-important Pokéstops without killing myself. And what if a rare Pokémon shows up by the side of the road and I’ve only got a split second to battle it? I may have to engage in a mini-game where I’ve actually got to point my camera at the creature and physically fling a Pokéball in its direction — a difficult enough activity when I’m not also trying to steer a fast-moving vehicle clear of things that could instantly total it.
I’ve already done this numerous times, because I am a stubborn, careless human being more concerned with leveling up my Drowzee than with the safety of myself and those around me. What else can I do? I can’t walk anywhere and I damn well can’t stop playing it — any Pokémon diehard can attest to the inescapable pull of catching ’em all. Making it even more irresistible, Pokémon in Go are evolved by collecting points specific to that species, accumulated by catching multiples. No matter how many damn Weedles I stumble upon, I always need more, because otherwise my Kakuna will never know life as a Beedrill. So here I go, waving my phone around and swiping at imaginary caterpillars when I should be focusing on not putting stop signs through my windshield.
Pokémon Go is new and hot, and for all I know, it’ll only stay that way for the next week. But, given both its widespread popularity and the great danger I know I’ve put myself in while playing it, I have a hard time believing that Pokémon Go won’t horribly kill at least one person while playing it – it might even be me. We could all play it safe and swear off putting ourselves at risk to make progress in a silly children’s augmented reality game, but then that one guy at work will go on feeling smug about being the only person he knows with a Cubone, and that just won’t stand.