When I reached Union Square at midnight on Friday, I’d been playing Pokémon Gofor just shy of six hours. Young people tend to cover the park’s grounds facing 14th street, entertaining each other in a variety of ways, but on Friday night, Nintendo’s new franchisee dominated their distraction. I came within earshot of a couple playing together and heard the woman say, “Oh, there’s the snake.”
I thought she meant she’d seen an Ekans, the Pokémon snake, but a few minutes later I passed a guy showing off his albino python. It had been a real snake. At that point, bringing an albino python out so girls will stroke your pet reptile felt less authentic than gathering to look for digital critters.
That hunt held the attention of six players I sat down next to on some of the square’s steps. They were showing each other their phones, talking about the game and laughing together. Then a couple in the group stood up to leave. The guy high-fived one girl that remained and said, “Goodbye Team Mystic. Goodbye, everybody else.” The couple hadn’t come out with the other four, and once I got a look at them I could see that they were probably almost ten years older than the rest. For a little bit, the game had made them a loose group.
I walked seven miles of Manhattan streets that night, beginning in the Financial District and wrapping up at Columbus Circle, at 2:30 a.m. For players, Pokémon Go has made some of the strangers in public places a little less strange. Serious players disable the augmented reality that has caused so much talk, in order to preserve battery life. Yet the game changes the real world without it; Pokémon Goadds an acknowledgement layer to public spaces, because people playing become just a little more likely to speak to others.