Steinberg: Now that I’ve caught Rattata, what do I do with him?

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You can walk the dog and capture Weedle at the same time. | Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

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The entertainment is so all-encompassing, you forget you’re outside. People are killed blundering in front of trains. Legislators fret.

“It’s really getting out of hand,” said a councilman in Newport, Rhode Island, promoting a ban on something with the “potential to remove a person from the confines of reality.”

No, not Pokemon Go, the cellphone game that has millions wandering around in a kind of global electronic walkabout. The above is from 34 years ago, referring to a previous high-tech menace: the Walkman, Sony’s personal tape recorder, which also put people in their own little bubble of oblivion.

The most amazing statistic about Pokemon Go is not the tens of millions of users, but this: 7/7/16. The thing debuted July 7, meaning we’ve had it for five weeks. The Northbrook police have already held their own Pokemon Go event. The Walkman was around for years before government grew alarmed.

I learned about Pokemon Go in the quaintest, most low-tech way possible. My wife noticed two young ladies walking up our driveway, phones in hand.

“Can I help you?” she asked.

“We’re playing a game,” one explained. They were looking for Pokemon — the name is a contraction of “Pocket Monsters” — a menagerie of cartoon creatures. In the late 1990s, Pokemon was a video game with an ancillary world of picture cards. My boys — all boys, I suppose — vigorously traded them. The creatures have been reborn as a game that uses GPS, mapping and camera technology to place the creatures in the living world.


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Research seemed unavoidable. Downloading the app to my phone, I actually read the boilerplate. There was this warning, which should be printed on cards and posted so everyone can recite it every morning:

“You will not inflict emotional distress on other people, will not humiliate other people (publicly or otherwise).”

A cartoon character identifying himself as Professor Willow showed up next.

“Will you help me with my research?” he said. Pokemon Go is a perfect metaphor for academia: an army of unpaid research assistants doing the footwork for a few stars.

The game isn’t complicated. You see a map of your general environment — you can even be inside — where a floating cube directs you toward various landmarks. In front of my house, I came face-to-face with Bulbasaur — imagine a smiling green frog with a garlic bulb on its back. I flicked a red-and-white Pokeball at him and he was captured. The game is part bird watching, part big-game hunting.

There’s more to it — battles and levels and such — but I’ll spare you the rest. Pokemon Go is the perfect time sink for adolescents who must find a way to get through the years between now and where they hope to be someday. At 56, that isn’t an issue for me — I want to delay what’s coming, not distract myself until it arrives.

Don’t mistake lack of personal interest for opposition. I like Pokemon Go. I’ll always remember the summer of 2016 for the kids suddenly wandering up and down our block, as in a dream; the conversations I’ve had with my boys’ childhood friends, with strangers; the pleasant sight of knots of young people outdoors. I’d prefer them to be singing in close harmony rather than staring at their palms, but you can’t have everything.

Anything unfamiliar is held to an impossible standard, while we offload our fears — especially our bottomless concern for total safety — upon the newcomer. No matter how many kids are mugged playing Pokemon Go, it won’t approach those hurt, oh, playing baseball. But baseball is part of quotidian reality, so we don’t even notice. Almost everything young people adopt is seized by their parents with an anxious shriek and examined for thorns. Not just Walkmans, but, at one point, cellphones themselves, computers, TV, comic books and, if you go far enough back, bicycles, which were also dangerous, also spelled doom for society. But unfamiliarity always passes, and society somehow endures.

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