Who would have thought that in such a short time Pokémon Go could redefine reality?
Not even a month has passed since the mobile app became the most talked-about craze of the year, and already a significant number of Americans have allowed the game to dominate their waking lives, leaving the remainder of the population wondering what makes the game so special.
Of course, there is a huge nostalgia factor fueling the fad’s ongoing following. The majority of Pokémon Go players—Millennials with smartphones—were the fan base of the original Pokémon card game in the mid 1990s. For them, the app offers a momentary trip back to the carefree days before they had to start paying taxes and college loans.
Nostalgia alone, however, cannot drive a cultural phenomenon. Pokémon Go’s success lies in an idea deeply ingrained in the American mind since the nation’s founding. In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson declared that all men are entitled to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Over the years, his dictum has been perverted to mean that, as Americans, we have an unalienable right to create our own hyper-realities.
Hyper-reality is a state of consciousness that occurs in a person who seeks happiness in a simulation or imitation of reality that outdoes the “real” world in which he actually exists. Americans in particular have a propensity to try to find happiness in such states. The Italian novelist and philosopher Umberto Eco, in Travels in Hyper-Reality, argued, “The American imagination demands the real thing and, to attain it, must fabricate the absolute fake, where the boundaries between game and illusion are blurred.”
Pokémon Go blurs the boundaries between game and illusion beautifully for a generation of young adults disillusioned with the burdens of everyday life. By transforming the familiar streets of American towns into a treasure trove of animated monsters that the player can catch with his smartphone, the game invites its users to indulge in the dream that they are actually capturing and using their Pokémon for fights, no longer in a children’s card game, but here, now, in a real and tangible world.
This is not a quirk unique to Millennials playing Pokémon Go. The American pursuit of hyper-reality can be found in everything from the middle-aged stock broker who buys a summer home so he can wear flannel, chop wood, and drive his pick-up truck on the weekends to the teenage girl who listens to Lana Del Rey all day so she can feel like a tragic beauty queen. The artificial addendums we use to amend the dullness of our everyday lives give us a certain degree of “realness” that reality simply cannot offer.
But more so than any other recent craze, Pokémon Go provides this “realness” by embracing the unreal. Since the game’s release, many Americans have shifted from being sedate Netflix-binge-watchers to people actually walking, moving, and experiencing their hometown in ways they never have before. Shod in Birkenstocks, we’re chasing Charmander down in front of the Starbucks on Main Street, just as our hunter-gather ancestors used to hunt down the mammoth on the tundra. In our minds, our hunt is just as real as theirs was.
Like all popular trends, Pokémon Go has detractors who have proposed that people are losing themselves in their smartphones because they play the game so often. This is a grave misunderstanding of what is really happening. Pokémon Go players don’t lose themselves in their smartphones; they integrate their new self-created reality into their pre-existing lives by means of the smartphone’s transformative screen.
The average Pokémon Go player is not too different from the stock broker who buys a second home; both have tweaked their realities to make life just a little more palatable. After all, as Americans, we have an unalienable right to the pursuit of happiness. Why would we settle for a mundane reality?
There is something innately human about desiring access to the hyper-real. One such example oddly pertinent to the Pokémon Go phenomenon is a portraiture technique called “sfumato” that the Renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci used in many of his paintings, including the Mona Lisa. Da Vinci pioneered sfumato to give his artworks the appearance of being shrouded in a smoky haze. When the viewer looks at the painting, what he sees is not so much a three-dimensional object represented on a flat surface, but rather something that looks more like a living person separated from the viewer only by a thin veil. Da Vinci realized that art must do more than depict real subjects as they are in our everyday lives; it needs to inspire the viewer to lose himself in something higher, in the sfumato of hyper-reality.
In a way similar to how da Vinci veiled the Mona Lisa with an enticing haze, Pokémon Go players are veiling themselves with the kitschy phantasms of last century’s video game characters. Whether or not this makes millennials’ real life more bearable remains to be seen, but the impulse to lose ourselves in the hyper-real is much older than this latest craze—and is likely here to stay.