Should Christians Play Pokémon Go?

Confession: I feel extravagant when I buy a box of brand-name Cheez-Its.

Blame it on genetics. I come from a long line of thrifty (not cheap) ancestors. This means that when I’m thinking about making a purchase, I have a hard time spending money unless I absolutely need it. (“New shoes? These are fine. I can color over the scuff marks with a Sharpie and make them last another year.”)

Which is why I had a hard time deciding to buy this awesome-but-overpriced-and-completely-impractical pin that references my favorite Pixar character.

GrapeSoda

I eventually did because my twin sister Erika, also a recipient of these thrifty genes, said something interesting: “I figure, if something brings me tiny bits of joy and happiness whenever I see it, it was worth the cost even if it serves no practical purpose whatsoever.”

For context: we are not talking about anything extravagant here, people, nor anything super-spiritual. When she made this statement, my sister was referring to her Batman-themed dress and Darth Vader antennae topper. (I am not joking.)

So what does that have to do with Pokémon Go?

I also have a hard time spending my time on things that don’t seem practical. My knee-jerk reaction is to say “Pokémon Go is terrible and possibly sinful. Go read a book.”

But I think there’s some wisdom in Erika’s comment: not everything that seems pointless is automatically bad.

The church has historically not been awesome at applying this concept. (Shout out to the Puritans who would only allow theater if it was a religious pageant and the Christian camp counselors who tried to give every group game a deep spiritual meaning. “This ball represents Satan’s fiery arrows of temptation…” No. It’s dodgeball. Just let us pummel the living daylights out of each other.)

Good art brings glory to God. Laughter brings glory to God. You can do something that has no objective value—blowing bubbles, creating Mad Libs, trying to identify different flavors of jelly beans while blindfolded—to the glory of God.

Then again, most people who are concerned about “mindless fun” realize that screen time can be addicting, and it often isolates us from other people and world around us. We have so little time on earth, the argument goes. Why waste it on something like this?

So…that’s trickier. I’ve heard the argument in response that most entertainment isn’t inherently good or bad, it just matters how you use it.

This is kind of true…and also kind of not.

So, say we’re just talking about “clean” entertainment, not porn flicks, gladiatorial games, or even questionable R-rated movies. Even then, every entertainment has a bias.

Not sure what I mean? Here’s an example. Board games are biased toward time spent interacting with other people. That’s what they’re designed to do, and that is a good goal. They’re also biased toward competition, which has both a good and bad side to it, and some games lean more toward that than others.

You can have miserable and morally ambiguous afternoon playing Risk while arguing, gloating, backstabbing, and generally losing friends. Or you can have a delightful and fun afternoon playing Pictionary and getting to know your friends a little better.

It’s not that Risk is inherently bad and Pictionary is inherently good (You could play Risk with perfect diplomacy and sportsmanship or brutally mock the bad artists in Pictionary). It’s just that they are biased in different ways. They have different challenges, and if you’re aware of them going in, you’re much more likely to play them responsibly.

Pokémon Go also has biases, and since I don’t play, I don’t know all of them. But from I hear, it’s biased toward physical activity (usually seen as a positive thing), increased time spent on a phone (usually seen as a negative thing), a mix of the real world and the digital world (both pluses and minuses here—most complaints are that people are physically present at cool locations but not actually interacting), and lots of adorable animal-like creatures.

Pokemon

Basically, entertainment, including Pokémon Go, is not wrong, but it has a lot of potential to go wrong because we typically create idols from things we love…and most of us love to have fun.

So, if you play Pokémon Go…know your limits and get someone to hold you to them. Don’t become addicted to your screen, and don’t choose it over time with other people. If you notice you’re getting your feelings of validation and sense of purpose from a digital game…it’s time to reevaluate. (This from a person who, a few years ago, obsessively watched blog stats for the same reason.) If you aren’t taking time to be still and be present in the world around you, schedule it in. Plan media fasts. Make sure nothing trivial crowds out your time with God or your family.

In fact, read over that paragraph again and substitute whatever it is that consumes most of your entertainment time. (For me, it’s checking Facebook.) You can be addicted to watching a T.V. show. You can get your sense of validation from how well you play chess. You can put playing a musical instrument before your time with God.

Idolatry is easier than we think. It’s not always in the major choices we make, but in the little disordered priorities, the tiny compromises, the justifications and procrastinations that clutter our everyday lives.

Worship means doing all things to the glory of God, including what you do for fun, but more importantly, it means not making what you do for fun into God.

9 comments

  1. I agree.

    I think the issues with Pokemon go are interesting since for the longest time people complained that video games kept people from exercising, and here we have a popular game that encourages people to walk and so many people take issue with it. I can understand why. Some people are getting themselves killed or almost getting themselves killed by not paying attention or doing stupid things. But I think a lot of the problem is that we are not used to this kind of technology and have not taught or have not figured out how to teach the next generation to interact with technology as responsibly as they should.

    My boyfriend has been happily playing this game lately, which in a lot of ways I’m happy about since he’s been exercising a lot more. Yet when my mom hears about it she mostly just reacts in a way that makes it obvious that she thinks the game is weird/is subtly critical about it. Yet she’s always telling me my boyfriend needs to exercise more. I really wish she wouldn’t be so subtly critical of somehing that isn’t bad but basically satisfies something that seems to be a pet peeve of hers(my boyfriend not exercising). And I seriously doubt being so critical of things my boyfriend likes but aren’t bad is going to help them have a close inlaw relationship if he and I get married. Yet if that becomes an issue in the future, my parents would probably only blame my boyfriend and maybe me for the whole issue…

    And to what you were saying about things being worthwhile if they add joy to someone’s life, that is definitely true. My boyfriend’s mom has a health issue that prevents her from working or doing much around the house, and I guess she’s been playing the game a bit lately, though she’s limited on what Pokemon she can catch since she’s staying in one place. If the game can make her happy by giving her something to do then that is a good thing. I guess there’s always unexpected benefits to everything.

    1. So interesting! Thanks for sharing your experience, Autumn. I think in general it’s hard for people to appreciate any kind of entertainment they don’t like, especially if it seems like a kid’s game. The key, I think, is balance in everything. Which is way harder than it sounds.

  2. ““This ball represents Satan’s fiery arrows of temptation…” No. It’s dodgeball. Just let us pummel the living daylights out of each other.”

    First, I think this line is hilarious, and glad you included it.

    Second, while I fully agree that there are negative elements to Pokemon Go, especially with stories of people becoming obsessed with it, I do think that its worth considering the positive elements involved as well. Pokemon has always been a game about social interaction at its core (or, if you want to be cynical, monetary exploitation disguised as social interaction) with the trade and battle systems involved.

    As early as the first games, the game had Pokemon trading as a big feature, especially if you really did want to “catch ’em all”. While one COULD theoretically buy two copies of the game and two game boys, the game was sold with the basis of you and your friends getting different version of the game and then trading with people who had a different version. Or even just trading with people to get pokemon that could only be evolved through trading. And on top of that, there’s the battle system which encouraged further interaction with your friends.

    If what I’m hearing is correct, this, alongside the nostalgia associated with Pokemon, is not only getting people outside and walking, but also interacting with other people. A phone may be heavily involved, but it’s also a highly social activity that is creating community interaction with real live people. While there may not be battling each other or trading in the game (yet), I think that for its problems and issues, it’s still doing a lot of overall good.

    Whether it’s doing more harm than good could maybe be debated, but personally? I think that it’s doing more good than ill.

    1. Glad you enjoyed the dodgeball comment. Some games are not meant to be parables…

      Interesting thoughts on the way Pokémon can facilitate interaction with others. I think there’s something to that, especially if it leads to more real-world interaction. (This is the same reason I rarely watch a movie by myself–it’s more fun and feels less pointless if you’re watching with friends.)

      I’m okay with not making a judgment on whether Pokémon is positive or negative, because that’s a sociological math I’m not ready to figure. I’m pretty comfortable with saying that lots of people can enjoy playing it with responsible boundaries…and lots of people won’t.

  3. Its good to know your tendencies for sure. I have a personality that when I start something I really enjoy, it quickly becomes an obsession (I haven’t played Pokemon Go for that very reason, but I can relate with the scenario when it comes to Fantasy Football). Fantasy Football is pretty pointless and there’s very little upside to it, but it can consume many people and honestly becomes a wedge that divides men from their responsibilities (speaking from experience). Pokemon is probably similar to that. Until I can learn moderation in these types of things, I’m trying to stay clear of them.

    1. Smart. It takes a great amount of wisdom to reach the place where you know you should steer clear of something you really want to do, so kudos for that! Not always easy, I know.

  4. Good post. Another perspective, from “inside,” ha ha: A few members of my church started something called Dine and Pokewalk. It’s an opportunity for us all to get together for dinner in a neighborhood we don’t all frequent often and then, afterwards, go on a long walk looking for Pokemon. The thing about Pokemon Go is that probably 90% of the time you’re not actually catching Pokemon, you’re just looking. And that looking means walking around (which, as you said, is great if you’re not wandering into the street). This provides an incredible opportunity for fellowship. We talk about life and God and all sorts of topics, and it’s only ever marginally interrupted by “WAIT- THERE’S A BULBASAUR NEARBY!” Then we all rush off to find the Bulbasaur for everyone to catch together, and it’s back to our group walk and chat. It’s been a big blessing so far.

    Interestingly, we’ve all been at that church for a while now, and yet we’ve never done something like this before. It’s very possible even after the Pokemon Go fad ends (and we all know it will) this fellowship has the potential to continue. So in that regard, I’m very thankful for what this little app has done. 🙂

    As far at the “entertainment: good or evil?” larger topic, that’s one of those beautiful gigantic life-subjects that is extremely worthwhile to think long and hard about, but hard to summarize in a blog comment, lol. So I will just say “Balance is the key to a well lived life” and leave it at that. 🙂

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