"Dad, Dad, can we download Pokémon Go?!"
If you've got children and have a smartphone, there's a good chance you, too, have been asked that question. If you're like me, when my 9-year-old first asked it, I didn't have much idea what he was talking about. I knew this mobile video game was based on the two-decades-old Pokémon franchise, but that was it.
I assumed this fad would slip off his radar.
I was half right.
It is the latest fad. But it did not slip off his radar. Or anyone else's. In fact, Pokémon Go has morphed into a cultural tsunami that's sweeping up players young (and not so young) around the world.
So what is Pokémon Go? And how do we, as Christian parents, think wisely and discerningly about it?
Pokémon Go is a new breed of video game called "augmented reality." Players walk around — looking at a virtual map on their smartphones that corresponds with the real world — to capture the magical, imaginary creatures known as Pokémon (short for "Pocket Monsters"). Once players snare enough digital critters and gain sufficient experience, they can challenge others at virtual Pokémon Gyms (locations where players gather to battle).
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The game is pretty simple.
The question of whether (or how) Christian parents should let their kids play is more complex, because there are real pros and cons.
On the plus side, Pokémon Go encourages active movement. It's not a game your child can sit on the couch and play for hours on end. Instead, it requires walking through the environment around you, looking at the map to identify where Pokémon might be lurking.
But that upside is connected to the game's biggest downside, too: Wandering around staring at a phone isn't the safest activity. In the two weeks since the game was released, we've heard stories of people walking off cliffs, getting trapped in a mine, and having a car accident. Unsuspecting players have even been lured into areas where they've been assaulted and robbed.
Pros and cons
Another glass-half-full, glass-half-empty aspect of the game has to do with how relational it can potentially be … or not.
After I downloaded the game to research it for Plugged In, I was flabbergasted to discover how many people — perhaps 50 or so — were playing at a local park. I interacted with more than a dozen folks over the course of a two-hour walk. So there's potential for community and relationship with other players who are out and about playing the game. On the other hand, the idea of young fans interacting with random strangers out on the streets should give parents considerable pause, too.
Likewise, Pokémon Go offers potential for parents and kids to bond over the game. My son and I have enjoyed playing together as we've hunted Pikachus and Charizards. It's given me a chance to cultivate my relationship with him on his turf.
That said, my son tends to become so engrossed in the game that my presence mostly becomes about playing safety cop to make sure he doesn't wander into the street. In that sense, Pokémon Go shares the same potential problem that all well-designed video games have: the tendency to become compulsive. Just because a player is walking outside doesn't mitigate the possibility for unhealthy (or even addictive) engagement in the quest to "catch 'em all," as Pokémon's slogan encourages.
It should also be noted that Pokémon's overarching worldview is a magical, vaguely Eastern-inspired one paired with nods to evolution (creatures can, essentially, become bigger, better versions of themselves throughout the game). That worldview is definitely one that parents of young fans should be aware of and talk about, especially if Pokémon Go spurs interest in diving deeper into the myriad other Pokémon video games, TV shows, movies and trading cards out there.
Pokémon Go represents an intriguing paradigm shift for video games. For parents, though, it's just the latest opportunity we have to think wisely about how our families interact with entertainment media. This challenge is new, but our job remains the same as it's always been: setting wise, informed, appropriate boundaries for our children.
Pokémon Go offers families an opportunity for exercise and relationship … but only if we pay attention together to wise boundaries and guard against becoming so engrossed in an imaginary world that we lose sight of the real one.Need more help navigating the obscure world of Pokémon Go? Download our Pokémon Go Guide for Parents that highlights discerning discussion points to help you decide what is best for your kids.
Download: A Quick Pokémon Go Guide for Parents
Video game review: Pokémon Go