Damnit, I was so excited for Pokémon GO a few months ago. A Pokémon game on cell phones where I could walk around in the real world and catch my very own Pocket Monsters? It felt like the stuff of dreams. Then, when the game finally released here in North America, I still felt submerged by the wish that I could just wake up from what unfortunately was not a dream.
Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, two black men, were killed by police officers on July 5th and 6th in separate incidents in separate parts of the country. Those events were unified by social media, where videos of the incidents swept the Internet (I’ve chosen not to post links here). Though none of the videos produced purely conclusive evidence about what happened, this reignited discourse about race in the United States and interactions between police and black people. Officer Nakia Jones posted a response to her viewing of Alton Sterling’s shooting. That response tipped me over the edge, and I spent the rest of the day reading articles, tweets, and posts.
All through the day, mixed in with posts about the shootings, I saw screenshots of Pokémon GO on Twitter and Facebook. I’ve never felt so conflicted about a game’s release in my life. I couldn’t find the momentum to write my own post, so I tweeted.
— Josh Boykin (@Wallstormer) July 7, 2016
On one hand, seeing so many people get excited about connecting with gaming, particularly some folks who aren’t regular “gamers,” feels amazing. Seeing people brought together by games thrills me most of the time, and the idea that people would have to get outside and walk around neighborhoods and parks to catch more Pokémon, maybe even meeting other people in the process? Fantastic.
But this close to these two shootings…as a black man, it just somehow felt irresponsible, irreverent to lose myself in childhood nostalgia. Each Pokémon GO post I saw also brought up a twinge of resentment, as if, for some, yesterday was just another day. It felt as if in some people’s minds, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile made the final, fast-paced journey from person to hashtag, making them roughly as important as leaks about the new Samsung Galaxy phone (maybe). A certain part of me resented the idea that there were people who could not take these shootings personally, that learning about the events and reading the reactions online didn’t make them feel less safe in the world.
I think plenty of people had a great time exploring the world in search of new Pokémon. I think many of those people used the game as a form of self-care, an escape from the whirlpool of anger and vitriol online. But, as I saw on Facebook, the quest to “catch ’em all” also reminded some people of exactly what they were trying to escape.
I escaped the online whirlpool by attending one of two marches here in Portland, a small gathering of roughly a hundred people at a park. It was good to be near both other POCs (people of color) and non-POC allies alike, seeing a physical gathering of people who were affected by the shootings and wanted to show support. I stood and talked to some friends, and looked over my left shoulder to see a guy on his phone, trying to shield view of his screen. He flicked his finger upwards from the bottom of the screen a couple of times, and I knew exactly what he was doing: throwing Pokéballs. There were the feelings of conflict all over again.
People made signs, shared words, and then marched for roughly a couple of miles. After the march, I went out to dinner with a couple of friends and we talked about the march, about the shootings, about whatever else we wanted. I thought I’d grabbed salmon cakes from the cooler and asked the deli people to warm them up, but didn’t fully process until finishing one of the two pieces that I’d gotten chicken breast. We laughed.
On the walk back to our cars, one of my friends got a text message from a friend of hers in Dallas: she was forced to drive through a police checkpoint. After checking Twitter, we learned about the attacks in Dallas, that three police officers were killed in what was supposedly a coordinated multi-sniper assault near a protest.
When I got home, I hopped back on social media to learn more. A fourth officer was dead in Dallas. My father sent me a link to a news story: someone pulled a gun at the other Portland protest, though no shots were fired and the gunman was arrested.
Also, a friend saw that their username in Pokémon GO had already been taken.
I downloaded Pokémon GO. My username was taken, too.
The sound glitched out on my phone, leaving the whole experience uncomfortably quiet. I talked to the new Professor, chose my character’s hair, clothes, skin tone. My character could likely be confused for Hispanic; there weren’t any darker options.
In my unlit bedroom, I saw a Squirtle near the door. I flicked my finger up and threw the Pokéball at it, grazing the left side of its head. The ball popped open and caught the small, turtle-like creature inside.
For a moment, I considered leaving my house, a midnight stroll in search of new Pokéfriends. Then I thought about it some more, and decided my bed the safer decision.
I woke up to a Pokémon GO server I couldn’t log in to and news that a fifth officer died in Dallas. Their names have been released: Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa, Michael Krol, Lorne Ahrens, Michael Smith. New gravestones next to Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, more senseless and heartbreaking violence.
Today I’m going to try to catch Pokémon. Those conflicted feelings aren’t going anywhere.
Photo: Gerry Lauzon/Creative Commons