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Sunday, August 7, 2016

How Pokemon Go takes us back to the real world

This is weird, I thought to myself recently, while standing at the urinal. That still we must live inside these leaky bodies. Pissing feels so anachronistic, doesn’t it? The body is in decline, culturally speaking. We access the office, the theatre, the supermarket and even the university from chairs via screens. Bodies increasingly feel like a hangover from those dark days before Anno Internet, when we had to go out in search of nourishment, ideas, wonder and delight. Nowadays it all comes to us: via Just Eat, via Netflix, via Attenborough and, of course, via social media, with its endless stream of data that froths over our minds. We’re happy to become brains in jars – so long as the jar is Wi-Fi enabled.

Our species doesn’t get out as much as it used to, then, and video games have played their part. Why explore the world at great expense, discomfort and peril when you can tour exotic lands from the safety of a body-cradling couch? For Satoshi Tajiri, Pokémon, his debut game, was a way to capture the appeal of the great outdoors. As a young boy, Tajiri, now 50, spent much of his time exploring the fields near his home in Machida, on the outskirts of Tokyo. He’d hunt mini-beasts, cataloguing each one in a notepad. “There were rice paddies, rivers, forests,” he told Time in 1999, in one of the last interviews he gave. “It was full of nature. Then development started taking place and the insects were driven away.”

Tajiri, whom his friends nicknamed “Dr Bug”, hoped to become an entomologist. Instead he became a game-maker. Pokémon was a way to revisit a hobby lost to adulthood and urbanisation (in the Japanese version of the game, you play as a boy called Satoshi, chasing the game’s 151 different species). It was also a way to give other children a chance to experience the thrill of rural bug-hunting. From the off, the game sought to meld the virtual and the physical. Players could trade Pokémon using a data cable that linked two Game Boys. Tajiri once said he imagined the bugs crawling along the wire as they passed between games. More than 20bn Pokémon trading cards have been sold to date.

In the past few weeks, the gap between the digital and the physical has narrowed further with the launch of Pokémon Go, an unprecedented video game phenomenon. Players walk the streets, smartphone in hand, in search of Pokémon, whose presence is betrayed by a haptic buzz. The game perfectly captures Tajiri’s original vision. Our world is overlaid with his fiction. Libraries and art galleries become battle arenas. That blue plaque house where some forgotten second world war lieutenant grew up becomes a Pokéball dispenser. The local football field becomes a safari park packed with monsters. All the world becomes, in video game parlance, a stage.

Video games are, on the whole, indifferent to bodies. We may play using our hands (or mouths and feet, in the case of some disabled players), but they are mind games primarily, not sport. “We live among ideas much more than we live in nature,” said the author Saul Bellow. No doubt. Just look at our obsessions with borders, with sovereignty and with the EU: ideas, overlaid on nature.

Pokémon Go, in inspiring an exodus outdoors and in placing Pokémon inside the real world, has brought the physical realm and the realm of ideas a little closer and inspired a mini corporeal revival.

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