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Confessions of a 2017 ‘Pokémon Go’ Loyalist

Happy birthday, ‘Pokémon Go.’ You’ve embarrassed me.

(Ringer illustration)
(Ringer illustration)

Hello. My name is Claire. It is July 6, 2017, one year to the day after the release of Pokémon Go, and I am still playing.

I have walked 495.9 kilometers, 308 miles and change, in service of hatching eggs. I have hatched 283 of them, and out have burst cartoon crabs and fire horses and pinecones and one (1) Snorlax. My Pokédex says I have seen 238 different Pokémon and caught 229. I have two different Raichus wearing two different silly hats. I am proud of this.

You’re judging me now, and that’s fine. If you are like so many of my better-adjusted compatriots, you too may have downloaded Niantic’s megahit sometime in the days after its supernova launch. Maybe you and your friends went for Pokéwalks; maybe you were content just to screenshot Pidgeys and Weedles lurking in your neighborhood grocery store or cafe. In those heady first weeks, there was Pokéhistory and Pokéfitness and Pokéchauffeuring. There were, yes, Pokésexts. Pokélawyers awaited the carnage of Pokéinjuries, of which there were many.

And then, well, you quit. The game was glitchy. Teens — you couldn’t know for sure, but probably teens — took over all the local gyms, and squatted there with high-level monsters. You moved on with your life: to a new fad, to an actual gym, to autumnal apple-picking. Maybe you read a book. The Ringer’s last update of its running Pokécarnage map came on August 13.

But I am still playing. The game is still glitchy. Teens — I can’t know for sure, but probably teens — have taken over all the local gyms, and continue to squat there with high-level monsters. I can personally confirm that the Pokécarnage has continued.

In the game’s (and my) defense: The glitches are less frequent and less devastating. There are new Pokémon and new items, like berries that make captured foes drop extra evolution candy. New features have made it easier to level-up rare finds; walking, sometimes for very long distances (a mere 285 kilometers will get me the weird sheep thing I still need), can evolve creatures. An update launched just last month sets up rare Pokémon at local gyms for group battles. There are daily bonuses to reward playing streaks. Pokémon Go is a richer, smarter, and more interesting game in 2017 than it was a year ago.

But it was all a lot more fun before everybody jumped ship. OK, not everybody — traffic analyst comScore found that the game still had 5 million daily active users through the end of last year, something like a quarter of last summer’s heights. In April, Niantic CEO John Hanke said that the game has 65 million monthly active users. At publishing, Pokémon Go was sitting at no. 13 in the iOS App Store’s top grossing apps.

Still: My year of Pokémon Go has been an almost exclusively solitary effort, one long campaign of lonely self-loathing. The massive, phone-cradling crowds started to vanish within weeks of Pokémon Go’s launch. By September, the last of my friends quit. It has been months — three? four? — since I have seen anyone over the age of 12 playing in the wild. But many people — many people — over the age of 12 have seen me play.

Pokémon Go is an inherently public game: To do anything — catch Pokémon, find items, let the local teens’ Pokémon beat the crap out of mine at a gym — you have to venture out into the great outdoors and wander. I have spent the past year with my phone in my hand but cast down, un-subtly angled away from the people around me in the hope that they won’t see that I’m collecting Gastlys. In February, I was gifted Niantic’s companion wearable, the Pokémon Go Plus, a Pokéball-shaped button about the diameter of a quarter with all the heft and suitability for adults of a Happy Meal freebie. This was in the hope, I think, that the fact that the Plus automates much of the game — a blinking light and semi-violent vibrations indicate when monsters and items are nearby, which can then be summoned with a click — would deter me from playing so much, or at least so obviously. It had the opposite effect.

And so it has been a year of mild embarrassments, of indignities imposed on myself and others by my own desperate desire to — I can’t and won’t deny it — catch them all. Have I dropped my phone while trying to catch a wild Venusaur? Yes. Have I dropped my phone again and again and again, so that now a majority of its edges are scraped and bent in, like a deranged Pokédog chewed on it? Yes. Have I, caught in a mini-sandstorm abroad as my asthmatic boyfriend wheezed and waited for me to find directions to a restaurant, dawdled to catch a Mareep? Yes. Have I, traipsing alone across the park alongside the U.S. Capitol building with my head down, had to explain to a concerned Capitol Police officer why I was holding a blinking trigger? Yes.

Have I, tipped off that a Miltank — I know this means nothing to you, but a Miltank! — was lurking outside the Rayburn House Office Building, urgently taken an Uber there? Did my driver, as we were caught in traffic and the minutes ticked by, conclude I must have desperately urgent congressional business there? Did I, upon arrival, walk straight past the Spirit of Justice and Majesty of Law statues by Rayburn’s entrance to the corner of the block, where a big jiggly cow cartoon that only I and maybe some passing tourists’ children could see awaited me? Did Jason Chaffetz look out his office window, see me, and decide he was done with Washington? Very possibly yes. All of it, yes.

Do I have any regrets? No. Not really. Here’s to another year, and getting the weird sheep thing sometime before next July.