According to a recent Pew Research Center study, 73% of Americans say they go online daily and 21% say they go online “almost constantly.” But most of us don’t need a study to tell us that. The signs are everywhere.
I’ve been writing online for more than 10 years and am active on several social media platforms. I’ve built lasting friendships with people I met online. I say all of this for context. I have a deep understanding and appreciation of social media and digital life.
Sure, I know the digital life has its problems. But I try to focus on the positive. I try not to think about the negative. After all, I know screens won’t disappear anytime soon. Avoidance probably isn’t the best coping skill, but I’m only being honest.
Avoidance was working pretty well until a few weeks ago. I was chatting with an elderly neighbor when she mentioned she was mugged a few months ago, back in December, just a couple of blocks from our house in Minneapolis.
How strange that I knew what an acquaintance in Seattle ate for breakfast that morning, but I knew nothing about my neighbor being pushed to the ground while taking her Christmas packages to the post office.
I should have known. I should have talked with her more regularly. If I knew about her ordeal sooner, I might have at least provided emotional support. The whole situation left me wondering what else I was missing.
Turns out, there's an app for that: Pokemon Go. The game combines virtual reality with the real world as players walk around their cities trying to find animated creatures. The goal is to explore as you collect Pokemon. But in just two days of playing, I’ve noticed the game has an unexpected benefit: It gets me outside, talking with strangers and people who live down the street.
The first night I played, my 15-year-old son dragged me down to Powderhorn Park because there was a Pokestop with a lure. That meant we might catch more Pokemon. When we arrived, there were already 10 people gathered and more arrived shortly thereafter. There was a mix of ages and races — young and middle-aged white people, a middle-aged Latina, a young African-American couple and a small group of Latino kids passing through. Everyone started chatting about the game.
One guy, probably in his late 20s, said: “I’ve driven by this park for three years and never stopped. It's beautiful here."
This group of strangers chatted for a full 30 minutes about the game and all the places they’ve explored while playing. That same guy extolling the qualities of Powderhorn Park talked about strolling through downtown St. Paul over his lunch break. A woman in her 30s mentioned catching a rare Pokemon while walking around Lake Harriet on a gorgeous day. A young guy remarked: “A week ago, I wouldn’t have imagined I’d be sitting in a park with strangers having a great time.”
This was not an isolated incident. My son and I chatted with various players at Minnehaha Falls yesterday and today. One conversation started with, “I just grabbed a Poliwag at the bottom of the Falls.” Then the group of twenty-something guys told us everything else they found, and where. Later an older couple stopped us — they weren't playing the game but asked if we were. We nodded. They gave us big smiles, wished us good luck and told us to enjoy the day.
At Lake Calhoun, a woman in her 30s stopped and asked, “Are you playing that Pokemon game? Can you explain it to me?” So my 11-year-old daughter and I took a few minutes to show her how it works.
Some people will lament the fact that it took a video game to get people outside, to notice local landmarks and strike up conversations. But with so much bad news in the world, I’m once again choosing to focus on the good. I have talked to more people, shared more smiles and knowing nods in the last two days than I have in a very long time. That’s worth something.
Vikki Reich is a writer, editor and consultant for writers. Her writing has appeared in The Huffington Post, Autostraddle and Brain, Child Magazine. She is a frequent speaker at blogging and social media conferences and has taught social media at the Loft Literary Center. Her writing was published in the book "Listen To Your Mother: What She Said Then, What We’re Saying Now" (Putnam 2015) and she won first place in the 2016 Erma Bombeck Competition. Find her online at VikkiReich.com.
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