To say that summer 2016 has been anything less than shit would be a callous understatement.
Our days in the sun this year have been punctuated by the murders of Christina Grimmie, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile; the massacre at Pulse in Orlando; the Istanbul airport attack; hundreds dead in Baghdad; and Brexit, all while two of the most polarizing candidates in the history of our country attempt to shout over the din of it all in their respective quests for the presidency. I’ve woken up too many mornings these past few months, only to check my phone and feel a wave of nausea wash over me as I scan my timelines. Another attack. Another murder. Another senseless tragedy.
To be connected to the world around you in 2016 is to be in pain. To have any sense of interest in or empathy for others lives, especially those unlike yours, means taking on a tremendous amount of suffering and sorrow at the way things currently operate in this world. Maybe things have always been this way? Maybe we’re only experiencing the sharp sting of realizing that everything always has, and probably always will be, kind of shitty everywhere?
But then a curious distraction—more than a distraction—bubbled up through the cultural zeitgeist, and rather quickly at that: Pokémon GO.
Full disclosure: I’ve been a die-hard Pokémon fan ever since I first picked up a copy of Red for my original Gameboy and leveled up my Dragonite, Starmie, Clefable, and Mewtwo each to level 100 (sans Rare Candies), logging in several hundred hours of gameplay in the process. Pokémon is hard-wired into my sense of nostalgia in a way that only Harry Potter and Britney Spears could ever dare compete with.
But Pokémon GO is something different. It goes far, far beyond a mere mainline dose of high-grade nostalgia. Beyond even being a game, really. Pokémon GO is a unifying, cultural experience unlike anything else we’ve seen in a very long time.
Growing up in the era of the original Pokémon games, I am of the subset of millennials who were born before the age of cell phones. We bought faceplates for our early Nokia phones at the mall, became experts at T9, and spent hours at middle school parties huddled around a computer while the girls tried talking to boys over AIM (my closeted gay preteen self was always living vicariously through the girls). My group of millennials feels uncomfortable even referring to ourselves as millennials, as we can quite literally remember ushering in the millennium (and watching a Backstreet Boys video premiere on MTV at midnight after the ball dropped).
Over the years, we watched as these face-plated accessories morphed into something else entirely: small, physical aggregations of our entire lives. Can you imagine living without your phone? I can’t. Not anymore. Maybe back in the era of T9, I could’ve happily left it at home for the day and not really even noticed, but today, in 2016, my phone is a limb, as vital and necessary to my daily life as any part of my physical body. If I walk out the door without it, I know it. Immediately.
Beyond being a shamefully integral part of my being, my phone, and the world I connect to via my phone, dominates more and more of my attention than the physical world around me, and I am not alone. Go to a party, a bus stop, a grocery store; hell, pull up next to someone at a stop light. We are all in there, at all times. And this is not a condemnation of our ever-connected culture, by any means, it’s just something that simply is.
For the most part, living in there has changed my life for the better in more ways than I can articulate. My boyfriend, my best friends, my editor, my business associates, all exist in my life because I met them through the internet somehow. As a recording artist, I’ve been able to release music independently and develop a passionate fanbase that supports me. Conversely, I’ve spent weeks in deep depression, hopelessly for searching for something that didn’t exist on Grindr, hating myself because my body and my life didn’t look like my Instagram feed, feeling ashamed that someone I adored was accomplishing something I hadn’t and I had allowed their tweets to fill me with envy. In all the ways living in there keeps us connected, it can also leave us feeling more isolated than we ever dreamed possible.
Ironically, this is where Pokémon GO becomes such a cultural milestone.
This past weekend, while my boyfriend was at work, I decided to go grab lunch by myself in North Hollywood. After I finished my meal, I fired up the game, waited to connect to the servers, and went outside. I walked to the nearest Pokestop, about a half a block down from the restaurant, and noticed several other people, buried in their phones.
“Hurry! There’s a Machop!” a girl yelled out toward me from the sidewalk. I was taken aback. How did she just know?
“What team are you?” she continued as I approached.
I told her I was still at level 4 and had yet to commit to a team.
“Anything but Instinct dude,” the guy next to her mumbled. We all laughed.
I caught the Machop, collected some Pokeballs, and walked across the street. A couple came running up to me, and we chatted. I walked with them to a group of people, all strangers, where we all spoke for a few minutes, laughing, sharing tips, and expressing our amazement that this was a real thing.
I found a Pokestop behind a local theater while the cast took a cigarette break before a matinee. Everyone was playing. Everyone catching the Ponyta that had appeared. Everyone was laughing.
A middle-aged white woman walked by, staring as we played. I expected a question, a joke, or judgment. Instead: “Go to Republic of Pie, I just caught a Charmander over there.”
I texted my boyfriend and told him he had to download this game. It wasn’t even about the game, it was about how much fun I was having walking around, by myself, on my phone, but instead of feeling totally, utterly alone, I hadn’t felt so truly connected in years.
In the days since, I’ve made an effort to take my phone out to larger public spaces and play. The effect is staggering, every time. People, everywhere, talking, laughing, playing with each other.
“There’s an Abra over here!” I shouted to a group of younger people on bikes last night in Culver City. They were looking at their phones. They had the look. I just knew.
They all looked at me.
“Dude, he said an Abra!”
They all pedaled over.
I joked on Twitter during my first day playing that Niantic Labs, the game’s developer, deserved the Nobel Peace Prize for creating something so uplifting, so powerfully unifying, during a period that feels downright bleak at times. But it isn’t really a joke. I can turn on Twitter, watch a video of Alton Sterling’s son breaking down in tears, mourn the lives of all 49 victims of the Pulse massacre last month, read passionate posts about why Black Lives Matter, digest an account of a Syrian refugee losing her children, and cry for, and with, them all.
Then I can do something as silly as load up a game, go for a walk, smile at a stranger, and feel a bit of comfort in knowing that, even in the darkest of times, hope is always there. In an era of confusing, isolating connectedness, there’s now an opportunity to go outside, meet people, and heal.
Simon Curtis is a recording artist, songwriter, and author. His debut novel, BOY ROBOT, will be released on October 25th, 2016 from Simon & Schuster.
Half of Pokémon Go is collecting the little beasts, you’ve got to “catch ‘em all!” after all, but the other half is a little more daunting: gym battles. But they needn’t be overwhelming or scary. Here’s a complete guide to what gyms are, how to battle in them and, most importantly, how to win.
What is a gym?
They are the battle arenas of the Pokémon world, but until your trainer reaches level five, you can’t even enter a gym. Once you have made it to one, however, you fight other players’ Pokémon, take over the space for a team and then defend it against attack. When you fight in a gym you’re never actually fighting another player: the defending Pokémon are controlled by an AI, as are yours later, when they’re resident in the gym and defending.
Which team should I pick?
When you hit level five and head to a gym for the first time you’ll be asked which team you want to join. There are three to chose from, Instinct which is yellow, Mystic which is blue and Valor which is red.
Professor Willow will give you the big spiel about how one is different from the other, but all you need to work out is what colour your mates are and where the gyms nearest to you are. Picking the same colour as a close group makes attacking and taking over rival gyms a lot easier.
How do I identify what’s what in a gym?
Gyms that are grey haven’t been claimed by a team yet. Once a team has at least one Pokémon in the gym, it will change to the corresponding colour. You can scope out a gym from any distance away as long as you can see it on the in-game map.
Tapping on it will show you which team controls it, what level it is and how many Pokémon are in there from which trainers, their levels and types. The higher the level of prestige a gym has, the more Pokémon it can hold.
How do I take over a gym?
To take over a gym you have to reduce its prestige to zero by defeating its inhabitants. One Pokémon in there will be the boss, which when defeated will lower the prestige by the greatest amount. Depending on the level you might have to defeat them all more than once.
You don’t have to attack a gym alone; multiple people can attack a gym at once and they don’t have to all be on the same team either. You also don’t have to win all battles to reduce the gyms prestige. You will fight each defending Pokémon in order until either you beat them all, your squad of six Pokémon have all been knocked out, or you run for the hills.
How do I defend a gym?
Once you’ve dominated your opponents and thrown out their beasts it’s time to put your Pokémon in there as a defender. Choose wisely; once you put a Pokémon in a gym its locked in there until it gets knocked out at which point it’s returned to your inventory.
You can place up to 10 Pokémon in gyms at any one time, and while it’s worth putting strong monsters in there, you might need to keep your strongest for attacking other gyms.
What do I get out of it?
Taking on and controlling gyms gives you experience points (XP). Each battle you win gives you 100XP, which isn’t a great deal given you can easily get that for simply catching Pokémon, but once you’ve secured a gym you earn Pokécoins.
Every 21 hours you can collect 10 Pokécoins for each defender you have in any gyms you’re supporting. It is not 21 hours per Pokémon, however, so choose when to collect wisely; if you add more defenders after you’ve claimed once already that day you have to wait until the timer runs out to claim again. The only other way to get Pokécoins, which can be spent on things in the shop such as bag upgrades and lures, is to buy them with real money.
It’s also about the only thing you can do right now if you’re a high level and have as many Pokémon as you can carry.
What if my team already controls a gym?
If you encounter a gym that some kind soul has already won for your chosen team then you have two options. You can either slot one of your Pokémon in there as a defender if there is a space, or spar with the defenders to increase the prestige of the gym, eventually increasing its level and potentially adding a slot for one of your monsters.
You’ll get up to 50XP for each sparing match, and get to practice your battle skills, which sounds dull but could make the difference in a real fight.
What happens in a battle?
Instead of the turn-by-turn battle mechanic of previous versions of the game, Pokémon Go uses a static real-time system in which you command your monster with three basic gestures on the screen. A single tap launches a quick attack, a tap and hold launches a special attack once you have enough energy built up, and a swipe left or right dodges an opponent’s attack.
You fight until you win or the six Pokémon you’re allowed to take into battle with you are defeated.
What determines my chances of winning?
Each Pokémon has a combat power (CP) and health points (HP) score. Broadly speaking, the higher the CP the greater the damage a Pokémon can do, while HP denotes how much damage it can take. But there are also hidden values. One, frequently called energy or stamina, denotes how fast your special attack meter fills up. Others differentiate between Pokémon of the same type and level, referred to as individual values (IVs), which the game uses to produce defence, attack and stamina scores.
Those with higher IVs will be more powerful than those with lower IVs at any given rank, which doesn’t make that much difference at the start, but can make a big difference to how powerful your Pokémon is by the time it is fully evolved and powered up.