On my best days, I can go to the grocery store, confidently maneuver a cart down the aisles, and comfortably engage in light conversation with the cashier at checkout. On my worst days, a trip to the grocery store feels impossible. That’s what social anxiety does — it makes you feel so insecure, so frightened by social interaction, that every other person in the world might as well be a Mean Girl. It’s harrowing, crippling, debilitating, and it envelops you so deeply within your own neuroses that you can’t see through them until its petrifying spell wears off.
It was on one of those off-days when I first saw an advertisement for Pokémon Go, a game that would allow me to finally actualize my full potential and become a true blue (or red, in my case) Pokémon master. When it first released, I was slightly peeved at its immediate cultural phenomenon status. Jank-ass bandwagoners talking about how their favorite Poke-E-Man is the Pikachu because it’s always blushing, I thought, Go back to crushing candy instead of crashing my servers, you filthy casuals.
But soon I surrendered, and in abandoning nerdy elitism it became possible to connect with members of the general public with casual ease I never imagined possible. It was as if I’d been playing pickup basketball alone my entire life and suddenly the courts were packed with enthusiastic players. In this way, Pokémon Go leveled the playing field for non-gamers and for extreme introverts alike — it made Pokémon appealing to one group and excessive social walking appealing to the other.
But being introverted does not translate to being socially anxious. Rather, social anxiety is the New Game + of introversion, where your feelings of vulnerability severely limit your stamina and your fear of others increases their attack threefold. But somehow Pokémon Go abraded that mental barrier and turned real-life intimidating spaces into harmless playgrounds. It also turned strangers from Dark Souls NPC’s, where overt kindness felt eerie and even the friendliest folks might kick you down a pit as soon as you turn around, to Pokémon NPC’s, where people are obsessed with play, and the worst thing that might happen is that the weird random fact someone tells you about themselves is TMI.
By demanding I go outside and visit populous places, the game poke-d a hole in my anxiety veil, let me crawl through it into the outside world, and flushed that world full of Pokémon. It layered a fantasy world on top of the real world that made the real world more accessible, meaning I was both in California and in Kanto. Even if I were feeling blue, at least I’d be in Cerulean City. It sounds sad, but it wasn’t — It was fun and engaging and empowering, at least up until hatching another 10KM Eevee.
But along with changing my perception of the world, Pokémon Go established a welcoming community. Every time I showed up at a park to play, I’d look for the throng of people bent over their phone walking aimlessly. People tended to congregate when they played Pokémon Go, sometimes almost mindlessly drifting together like hunched-over starlings in flight. And just like at a concert of your favorite band, a seemingly random assortment of individuals temporarily becomes a bona fide group of people who are there at that time doing that thing, and that’s enough reason for implicit camaraderie to develop.
Because of that unspoken sense of togetherness, every person became a potential playmate. Once, I teamed up with an overzealous six-year-old at a gym and learned about goings-on at my old elementary school. Another time, I spent twenty minutes in memorable conversation with a grandmother as I taught her how to play so that she could play alongside her granddaughter. These are interactions I wouldn’t have had otherwise, and I value them along with the software that prompted them. And though none of them developed into anything more than a fleeting bond, they were a reminder of our interconnectedness as playful, curious, easily-manipulated-by-addictive-gameplay-loops human beings.
Pokémon Go is not a panacea for any psychosis, but it was an emotional inflection point I traveled through daily. Luddite skeptics might consider Pokémon Go the start of a slippery slope toward a dystopian future reality co-opted by media conglomerates that force us to see only what they want us to and nothing else. Instead, it helped me clearly see that people are only people, and that I was capable of interpersonally connecting with them. In that way, it made me more personable and made other people at least appear more personable to me.
I deleted Pokémon Go on December 31 of last year. I’d caught all those catchable in the US, and decided since its time in the limelight had passed, so had my time with it. A few days later, I moved down to San Diego with my fiancée, leaving behind my friends, my family, and a town I’ve always loved to call home in search of a life that starts and ends with my own decisions.
There are a lot of ways a game can have an impact on someone. It can make them reconsider what a game is through an innovative mechanic, or wholly envelop them in its engrossing world, or emotionally resonate with them in ways they couldn’t have anticipated. Pokémon Go did all those things for me, and it may have played some small part in helping me garner the self-confidence I needed to hit the reset button on parts of my life I wasn’t satisfied with. Whether or not it actually played a role is hard to tell, but feeling like it could have is testament to the power that even a flawed monster-catching simulator can have. And maybe it’s the warmer lighting, or the chiller SoCal muzak, or the trademark San Diegan friendliness, but trips to the grocery store are certainly less terrifying than they used to be.