In order to write this article, I have walked almost 90km, used 68% of my phone’s battery on one app and bonded with my youngest son in a new way. I have also been able to share my faith with people with whom I have nothing in common. Nothing, that is, except a love for a new game that you’ve probably already heard about.
That’s right, Pokémon is back (although, to be fair, it never really went away), and it’s bigger than ever. The Pokémon phenomenon began in 1996 as a pair of video games for Nintendo’s Game Boy. It soon developed worldwide and Pokémon trading cards, animated television shows and movies, comic books and toys became available. It is now the second-most lucrative video game-based media franchise in the world, second only to Nintendo’s all-conquering Mario franchise.
We live in a time when virtual reality and real life are interacting as never before, and at the cutting edge of this fusion is the creature-collecting-and-battling game Pokémon Go. More than 20 million of us have watched with amazement as our smartphones display virtual creatures hidden around the real world. All that is required to play is the free app and the capacity to move around. You can’t play from the comfort of your sofa!
More people log in to Pokémon Go each day than to Twitter. The statistics are also somewhat sobering for Christians as projections show that over the next few weeks, more people will visit churches that are PokéStops to play the game than will go there to worship God.
The name ‘Pokémon’ is shorthand for ‘pocket monster’, a fictional animated creature that can be captured, raised and used to fight duels. Players act as trainers, capturing and training the creatures before using them to battle other Pokémon.
PokéGyms are locations that can be battled for and controlled by one of three teams (players can choose a team to join once they reach level five). The game is played under a self-chosen nickname. This is useful, as you may not want you or your children to be identifiable when out playing.
PUTTING CHURCH ON THE MAP
I’m a parent of teenage boys who have played many of the Pokémon games to date. But before you decry me for letting my children interact with ‘digital demons’ (more on that in a minute), I would like to state for the record that I confess a faith in Christ and have felt no ‘demonic influence’ from the games.
I really like the fact that Pokémon Go requires players to walk around in order to visit PokéStops where resources can be collected. PokéStops can be anything from public landmarks such as war memorials, recreation areas such as pubs and parks, and places of worship such as churches, mosques and gurdwaras.
In playing the game, I’ve found a lot of churches around my town that I didn’t know existed. This game is quite literally putting churches on the map. The Church of England has even issued official guidelines on how churches can use the craze to evangelise. It seems somewhat ironic that video games – long blamed for preventing our children getting any exercise – are now encouraging us to go for long walks and explore our local areas.
Many Christians are open to using the game. I visited a local church as they were having a Pokémon event and met the church youth worker, John Reynolds.
He said: ‘We’re delighted that Ruislip Baptist Church is a PokéStop, and to celebrate we held a youthfocused event today which saw us release two “lures” [devices that attract Pokémon to the PokéStop]. We promoted it on social media and provided free drinks, snacks and cakes for those who turned up. It was a really good time, certainly an opportunity to talk to people, not just young people, who came. I think, as with anything, you have to exercise care and think through the possible problems, but I can certainly see us using Pokémon Go again in the future.’
There was similar excitement in Hitchin, where church youth and children’s worker Emily Wright told me: ‘I have been able to minister to a few children on a playing field after we bumped into each other at a PokéStop.
‘I absolutely love the fact that churches are being used as PokéStops because it made more people want to come in and look around. Plus I get super-excited when I can go to church and catch a cheeky Pokémon after the service!’
MORE PEOPLE WILL VISIT CHURCHES THAT ARE POKÉSTOPS TO PLAY THE GAME THAN WILL GO THERE TO WORSHIP GOD
ENGAGING WITH OUR COMMUNITIES
There are already millions of Pokémon Go players out there, walking about, staring intently at their phones and battling with friends or strangers in the same neighbourhood on behalf of Team Instinct (yellow), Team Mystic (Blue) or Team Valor (Red). During my extensive ‘research’ for this piece I have met people of all ages, races and social types. We have all united in a common gaming experience.
Christian teacher Tom Wade, who is head of RE at a Hertfordshire school, believes the game is having a positive effect on pupils: ‘I spoke to one student who said that they’d left their house early that morning so he and his sister could walk via a location that a specific Pokémon had been spotted at, and this is a student that we’d previously dealt with [who had] anxiety issues in leaving the house.
‘I’ve seen students talking with students from other year groups as they walk to and from school sharing stories and tips, and against my earlier concerns that it would lead to people walking around staring at screens, it’s actually made them more sociable with each other.
‘I’ve spoken to other teachers who have been sniffy about the phenomenon, stating security risks, but I’m not sure I buy into that. Students already walk around with their phones out, so in that regard they are already targets, and if it makes people happy, gets them out of the house, into community and having fun, I find it a bit sad that people want to take that away.’
4 ways your church can make the most of Pokémon Go
Web developer James Doc shares some tips. For more ideas see premierdigital.org.uk
1. Check whether your building is a Pokémon Gym or PokeStop
PokeStops have been virtually placed on public landmarks – such as museums, train stations and churches – around the world. Do you have any near you? If you do, you should expect to start seeing people wandering around hunting for Pokémon in your area.
2. Lure some Pokémon into your building
Perhaps your building isn’t a Pokémon Gym or a PokeStop. That’s a shame, but not to worry. The game has a feature where you can set up a lure on your location, attracting Pokémon to you. When the Pokémon start turning up you can tell the Pokémon hunters on social media.
3. Start conversations
Somehow this game is creating community. It is bringing strangers together and getting them talking to each other. Vicars, pastors and church leaders, how are you training your church members to make the most of these situations?
4. Go on a walk together
Yes, you can now get your youth group out on a walk in the country or around the parks in your area. Simplest youth activity ever = youth leader win! Why not get some of your church members to invite their friends on a Pokémon Go walk on a Friday night? Before you go, pray that God will use the evening to lead people into conversations about the gospel.
Journalism tutor Bill Shaw agreed. He told me the game offers a unique opportunity for Christians to engage with the local community: ‘We’re called to be “in the world”, to be “salt and light”, and that means engaging with popular culture. Unfortunately, for most of the last century, we were disobedient to this calling and shunned areas like the arts and entertainment, rock music and the mainstream media.
‘“Going into all the world” means not just crossing continents, but also crossing cultures. It means we have to be in touch with 21st-century British culture…so we can express the Christian faith in a way that is relevant to that culture.
‘We can affirm, for example, the fantastic creativity and imagination that goes into computer games, which are at the cutting edge of technology. However, another danger is that we then go to the other extreme and we swallow contemporary culture hook, line and sinker.
‘So we should discern what is good about contemporary culture, which we can engage with as Christians, and also understand what does not honour God, which we should oppose. We should know our culture, engage with it, and affirm what is good, but also identify and counteract the downside.’
As a Christian youth worker, I fully endorse parents checking this or any other game before letting their children play. If it makes you feel uncomfortable, that in itself can be a good discussion starter and can hopefully lead to a chance to explain why.
I’m a fan of the game, but not everyone has welcomed Pokémon Go. Right-wing US pastor Rick Wiles proclaimed on his TruNews programme: ‘Pokémon creatures are like virtual cyber demons: digital demons.’
This seems an extreme opinion. The fact is, this is a game where the pocket monsters you collect are the modern-day equivalent of carrying around an interactive roster of Narnia’s weird and wonderful monsters, as imagined by CS Lewis.
Wiles also went on to say: ‘What if this technology is transferred to Islamic jihadists and the Islamic jihadists have an app that shows them where Christians are located geographically?’ Let’s face it, most terrorists already know where Christians hang out, so this concern is wrongheaded, misleading scaremongering.
After speaking up for this game on the Premier Christianity blog, I had a massive amount of positive feedback, mostly from parents who wanted to understand the game. However, the comment section told a different story. There were concerns that Pokémon could be a demonic influence on our young people. But despite my best efforts, I’ve yet to find a single case of someone’s faith in Christ being lost or undermined through playing Pokémon Go.
Another aspect of the game that has annoyed some believers is that the virtual Pokémon ‘evolve’ into stronger versions if you train them enough. This mechanic of the game is viewed by some as ‘anti-creationist’. But the fact that these are fictional creatures means I’m happy to go along with whatever upgrading system the game makers have designed. This is not a challenge to my faith. After all, there’s very little in Pokémon Go that translates directly to real life. Let’s not forget that while this game might be virtual reality, it isn’t real, and it certainly isn’t claiming to be truth-telling in any way.
AN OPPORTUNITY FOR THE GOSPEL
There is certainly an opportunity here for Christians to engage with culture. Parents and carers can also embrace this game and find themselves being requested to go for walks with their children in order to find wild Pokémon. Those who work with teens who have their own phones can compare collections or virtually fight alongside young people to win over a landmark. It’s a new kind of bonding experience!
Devices that promote walking and talking together are a good thing in my book but it’s worth noting, as Paul Windo from Urban Saints advises: ‘Pokémon Go is the latest in a long line of Internet crazes and needs to be treated as such, despite its mainstream popularity. Games like this encourage a certain level of addiction. The Pokémon strapline is “Gotta catch ’em all!”, and can cause distraction for, and some level of disconnection with, offline community.’
It’s also worth looking at the NSPCC’s online safety guidelines. Let’s be careful out there, but don’t dismiss the joy that a virtual Pokémon hunt can bring. And if you see any gyms held by Cleric20 then do try and beat me…