On Pokemon GO and Momentary Obsessions

Let’s go back in time to 1994. You’re 11 years old, the Phoenix Suns are the hottest basketball team around1, Nintendo and Sega are battling it out for home video gaming dominance, punk rock is just becoming mainstream (but you don’t know what punk rock really is, because you’re 11), and little cardboard discs called Pogs are the currency of choice on the playground.

I, along with just about all of my friends, became thoroughly obsessed with collecting Pogs. They sold them at the grocery store, the comic book store, and even the ice cream truck. I got my first taste at an indoor swap meet, where I bought 10 Pogs and a 1/4″ thick plastic slammer that didn’t really do anything. After that I was buying them every time I could scrape together a couple dollars, the slammers increased in thickness and weight and I invested in a two foot tall cylinder to hold it all. Collecting them was an addiction. Playing the game? Not so much. 

Some of my friends maintain that Pogs was fun. I never thought so. Using the slammer to flip the stack seemed largely to be a matter of luck, and though there was meant to be a gambling aspect to it (you bet your own Pogs and anything your opponent flipped, they kept), to me and my friends our collections were too precious to actually gamble them. It was ultimately a game of throwing a big disc at a stack of smaller discs and seeing how they scattered.

It was at this time that my mom explained to me the concept of a fad. She told me I was wasting my money on these stupid things that I would just forget about in a few months. I voraciously denied it. Pogs were here to stay, I thought, even though the game was boring, the Pogs were just cheap pieces of cardboard with terrible art on them that somehow went for 10 cents a piece, and I was only buying them because everybody else was. Sure enough, one year later, the bottom dropped out of the Pog market, and everyone born between 1981 and 1984 suddenly found themselves with a stupid tube of paper discs in their closets collecting dust.

I felt stupid. Even though the whole thing was pretty harmless, and cheap – if you owned 500 Pogs, an absurd number for a kid, it probably only cost about 75 bucks with the slammers and carry tube – I felt shame for being taken in by it when I knew deep down it was hollow. It was a social virus spreading from kid to kid, triggering their budding competition instincts.2 I still have that tube full of Pogs somewhere, at the bottom of some lost box. It’s a totem now, a reminder of how fads hijack your capacity for rational thought.

Somehow, today, almost 20 years after the first game was released, a new Pokemon game is sweeping the nation on an insane scale. At the time of this writing it’s only existed for about a week, but already it has flooded all of my social media feeds and most of the news websites I read. Popular gaming website IGN has been completely taken over by it. Their front page is laid out with 5 featured posts in the slider at the top, four more just below that, and then about 26 of the most recent articles in a list. Of those 35 or so front page articles, 10 are about Pokemon GO – nearly a third.3 Then I saw this one:

Pokemon go IGN

And that’s when I knew, Pokemon GO has become a full on obsession. IGN is scrambling so desperately for Pokemon-related content they’re posting smartphone battery life articles and pitching them as Pokemon tips.

I want to be clear before I go any further: I have no beef with Pokemon GO, or the people playing it. By all indications, the game seems fun – certainly no Pogs. I’ve read some of the clickbait-y articles about it and laughed at the stories of people walking into oncoming traffic while tracking elusive ‘Mons. But I’m struck by how quickly and how thoroughly this simple cell phone game has consumed the attention of the public. It’s given Nintendo’s stocks a boost worth literally billions and kindled a newfound interest in the concept of Augmented Reality gaming – a kind of sister to VR.

But how long is this novelty going to last? In one week, we’re talking about this game in terms reminiscent of society-altering inventions like the smartphone itself. And I can’t help but think forward to 2017 and see us all looking back at this moment in time, feeling stupid for all the hours we spent walking around with our phones up trying to catch digital animals. It’s all giving me a distinct, broader-reaching Pogs vibe. Yeah, it’s harmless (the game is free* for god’s sake), but it’s also showing us all a profound weakness in our psychology: our attraction to momentary obsessions.

When it’s surrounding a game, it’s trivial. Maybe the end result is a feeling of mild embarrassment and fodder for future Buzzfeeds to leech off of. But remember at the end of last year when we were all wrapped up in Making a Murderer? Remember how outraged we all got and how we petitioned to win new trials for one or both of the subjects of that series? Well, nobody is talking about Making a Murderer anymore, and Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey are still in prison for life. They heard about the public’s sudden, explosive interest in their cases and probably felt pretty hopeful that things would work out in their favor. At least one of those people is almost certainly innocent of the crime with which they were sentenced, but we’re done with them. Now we’re all about Pokemon. Sorry. How must that feel? To know the subject of your freedom or lifelong imprisonment was a fad.

Have you ever known somebody who lived an entire life nearly free of exercise or dieting, then suddenly became a 5-day a week gym rat? They probably rode that novelty wave for a few months, long enough to get in noticeably better shape, then likely went back to their old ways after it stopped being exciting. I’ve seen it myself a number of times, and it clearly illustrates the difference between genuine interest and momentary obsession. The person who drags themselves to the gym twice a week may not ever see dramatic results, but they’ll probably be consistently active for most of their lives. But the overnight gym rat exhausts all their steam, and when they go back to their old body, they feel like failures in comparison to the moment they were fitness freaks.

I feel as if a momentary obsession thing is happening right now with many of Donald Trump’s fans. Should reason prevail and Trump loses the general election in November, I predict a lot of people will snap out of the spell and feel pretty ridiculous for thinking that insecure con artist would make a good president.4 But what if he wins? What if the momentary obsession with hatred of political correctness, hatred of corrupt and inefficient government, and fear of a progressive society is the force that chooses our leader for the next four to eight years? As Ruth Bader Ginsburg recently stated, “I can’t imagine what our country would look like with Donald Trump as president.” The same kind of psychology that convinced me that Pogs were awesome could result in historic ramifications.

So what does this all have to do with Pokemon? Only this: a distressing number of people appear to have grown up never having learned to distinguish between lasting appeal and momentary obsession. Lasting appeal leads to positive and fruitful relationships and lifestyles. Momentary obsession leads to embarrassment and destruction of the object of obsession. Enjoy Pokemon GO while it has its moment in the sun, and realize you will cast it aside in a few months. Know what’s driving your behavior.

And maybe don’t get that Charizard tattoo.

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