pokemon1I am 41 years old and I just captured three Pokémons on the way to the Administration Building at Concordia University, my place of employment.

On rare occasions, you see the future right before your eyes. You witness a phenomenon that sends fireworks off in your brain and convinces you, on the spot, to say something like, ‘There will be no going back after this.’ Maybe that’s how the Founding Fathers felt in Philadelphia on July 3, 1776. I know that’s how I felt when I wore my first Nike Airs in 1987. It’s the Macintosh, the forward pass, the quesalupa, and Wikipedia.

Yesterday, my friend Jeff buzzed me with an email essentially saying, ‘Joel…you have to take a look at this. It’s a game changer.’ The ‘it’s’ in question was a recently released game for mobile devices, Pokémon Go. Me being me, I thought, ‘Pokémon is the dumbest thing ever.’ Then, me being me (again), I thought, ‘Wait, you have to do what?! I want to play!’

The game is this: You are a trainer (read: Japanese anime character that looks nothing like you) of Pokémons (read: a zootopia of little creatures injected with marshmallows). You must capture them (read: throw balls at their head) in order for them to fight other people’s Pokémons in ‘gyms’ (read: enslaved marshmallow creatures fight to the death for sport). Getting past the questionable morality of the whole master-slave motif, the game is played on mobile devices that are linked to your GPS and camera. Using a knock-off of googlemaps, you lead your avatar around your neighborhood or town to find these embedded characters. Thing is, you must do the walking—everything happens in real-time in real locations—and you must spot them with your camera, otherwise they are (of course) invisible.

Pokémon Go isn’t a particularly good game, as games go. Its menus are wonky, the reward system feels contrived, and the syncing between characters and your camera is, well, chipmunky. But make no mistake, this will be the game that other really, really terrific games in the future will point back to a say Pokémon Go changed how we think about the gaming experience. It’s akin to what Joey Ramone did for U2.

Where Pokémon gets things right:pokemon2

  • No one simply plays the game. They must enter into a world. They have to buy into the story that Pokémons exist; one just has to find them.
  • To enter into this fantasy-imbibed world, a device is not enough. You must make the commitment to leave the safety of your home and venture forth.
  • Everyone loves Geocaches and treasure hunts, so Pokémon Go has transcended age by giving adults and kids alike the chance to search for hidden treasure.

What Pokémon is telling us, implicitly or explicitly:

  • Today’s person requires a screen to mediate the realities around us.
  • While Pokémon Go tries to be a social experience, it may just be teaching us that social experiences are best when we can mitigate our feelings of social awkwardness and/or boredom by playing a game together.
  • That people still love games. Challenges. Creative story-telling.

 The singular reason why I think this game is going to be so impactful is that it pushes a ridiculously cool narrative: The mundane world you live in is actually full of mystery and fantasy … you just need the right mentor or mediator to help you see it. While this story-telling strategy is common in movies and classic video games, you never fully buy in because you always know the story is being told to you. Yet here, the reality is just outside your front door—go out and experience it! In the Pokémon universe, you may passed a fire-breathing dragon on the way to your car from the supermarket, if only you have an eye(Phone) to see it.

Christians regularly claim belief in things unseen: angels, demons, and other spiritual forces overlaid on top of the seen world. Whether they live in accordance with this truth is a post for another time. For now, consider how the narrative of Scripture runs parallel to this little iPhone game.

pokemon3In 2 Kings 6, the great prophet Elisha and his servant are surrounded by the forces of an enemy king bent on capturing the man of God. The servant sees the city encircled by chariots and horsemen and understandably despairs, ‘Oh, my lord, what shall we do?’ Elisha’s response is unbelievable. ‘Don’t be afraid. Those who are with us are more than those who are with them.’ The prophet lifts a simple prayer to God on his servant’s behalf, asking God to open the man’s eyes to the true reality of the battlefield. The servant opens his eyes and sees chariots of fire, a veritable angelic army coming to the aid of the two men.

I confess that I forget the supernatural reality that exists in my everyday life. For some reason, I convince myself that it’s less real because I cannot see it. Out of sight, out of mind. Perhaps mentorship is the missing piece of the puzzle. The servant had Elisha. Elisha had Elijah. Elijah had God himself. Spiritual mentors remind us of the ever-so-important fact that we are not the sole reason for the universe. A mentor gently pushes us out of our egocentrism and into a perspective that can finally recognize the others in our midst … even if those others are fire-breathing angel armies.

I believe it’s crucial for the Christian Church to recognize the realities that exist, apart from that which is seen. Without this sense of the supernatural, we are left with a world that cannot possibly fulfill our spiritual needs because it knows not the source of all things spiritual. That’s why I believe, in part, that Christian marriages have a greater chance of realizing a truly beautiful love—because a Christian wife can identify the spiritual nature of her husband and thus sees him in a truer sense.pokemon5

One of our goals, as Christians, is to draw unbelievers toward a better sense of what is true—and this has to include the spiritual world’s presence in the here and now. In fact, I would suggest we add this simple prayer to our toolbox: ‘Lord, help me to see what’s really going on and give me the courage to act upon your will in that reality.’ What a strange world we live in when we overlay a digital reality upon a physical reality that already has a spiritual reality in residence.

Expect that more mobile games will launch youth out into the streets of your neighborhood, where the physical world becomes the new arena in which digital battles are being played out. Whether this will lead to more lasting friendships among fellow gamers and a better sense of embodied neighborhood life, nobody knows. Such games might just cause us to keep our heads down and oblivious to everything else as we’re absorbed into our own little fantasy land. Time will tell.

I, unfortunately, cannot see the chariots of fire that stand ready on the hills of the future … yet.


© Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.