This past Sunday, like 95 percent of the rest of the country, I succumbed to Pokémon Fever. I charged up my phone, slathered myself in sunscreen and grabbed my boyfriend for what I thought would be a leisurely half-hour of hunting Pokémon as we walked to the movie theater.
Eight hours later, having missed the movie entirely, we had trekked all over our neighborhood (nearly nine miles of walking!); discovered parks, fountains and murals we’d had no idea were there; stopped for lunch at a local restaurant where we’d never eaten before; and chatted with at least a dozen of our neighbors — people of all ages and demographics, all of them strangers to us, all united in their enthusiasm for catching pocket monsters around Culver City. Rather than feeling anxious about having wasted a Sunday, I felt satisfied, as though I had set out to spend the day getting to know my neighborhood. After six months of living there, I was finally kind of excited about it.
A long-uneasy transplant in Los Angeles, I had been reading Melody Warnick’s This Is Where You Belong: The Art and Science of Loving the Place You Live in hopes of improving my relationship with the city. Having moved with her family from Utah to Maryland to Utah to Iowa to Texas to Virginia, Warnick resolved that it was time to stop searching for the perfect place to live and start loving where she already was: Blacksburg, a town known for being home to Virginia Tech and, well, not a lot else. In This Is Where You Belong, Warnick, a longtime freelance journalist, chronicles her many and varied attempts to foster “place attachment,” a term from environmental psychology that describes the emotional connection between a person and their environment.
Many of the strategies the book recommends — walk around more; get to know your neighbors; eat and shop locally — are very easy to do, but until Pokémania struck I’d made no real effort to put them into practice. In one day of capturing imaginary animals on my phone, I realized, I had done more to build a sense of place attachment than I had in the previous six months combined. On a whim, I emailed Warnick to ask whether she might be willing to try the game herself. She was.
Pokémon Go is easily the greatest popular success to date of augmented reality, in which computer-generated images, text or other inputs supplement or overlay a real-world environment. (Remember Yelp Monocle, the augmented-reality way to find restaurants and other hotspots in your area? I didn’t, either — but I just checked my phone, and apparently it still exists. Actually, it’s kind of cool.) Unlike virtual reality, which (sensorily speaking) replaces the real world entirely, augmented reality simply enhances what’s already there — in the case of Pokémon Go, by adding Pokémon (the monsters themselves), Pokéstops (local landmarks where you can collect items you’ll use in the game) and gyms (where you can battle other users’ Pokémon for dominance).
“It’s not a game you can play sitting in your house,” Warnick notes when I call to ask how her Pokémon Go experiment went. “You have to leave, and that’s the key to place attachment — you might be really attached to your home, but that’s not really place attachment; you’ve got to leave your house and discover the places around it.”
The implications of a wildly popular game that forces you to get out and about have not been lost on local businesses, governments and other organizations. In Washington, D.C., the National Park Service has mobilized park rangers to engage with the Pokémon fans who are flocking to the National Mall. In Indiana, the Muncie Animal Shelter is hoping that people will volunteer to walk adoptable dogs as they play. And here in Los Angeles, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has created a Twitter account offering tips for catching Pokémon while riding public transit.
As it happens, these are exactly the types of activities that help to create place attachment, which can be much harder to develop in an age when people are paying more attention to smartphones and laptop screens than to the people and places around them. “Most of us are increasingly private,” Warnick notes. “People used to spend a lot of time with their neighbors, and we don’t do that anymore — we mostly want to be left alone.” But getting outside, enjoying local attractions and chatting with the people you meet— if only because you’re all trying to track down that elusive Flareon — is the only way to develop a real connection to where you live. And that connection matters, both for you and for your town.
“Physically, when we’re happy where we live and like the people who live around us, we’re less anxious, less likely to suffer heart attacks or strokes, and less likely to complain about ailments,” Warnick writes in This Is Where You Belong. Furthermore, she learned as she combed through the research on place attachment, “Even in the Great Recession, the happier residents were with their town, the more the town prospered economically.” People who love where they live are also more likely to volunteer, more politically active and more interested in trying to take care of the environment.
Of course, Pokémon Go is not going to transform you into an urban Wendell Berry. Place attachment takes time and effort, and our national fervor for the game is bound to die down in a week or a month. But the era of augmented reality is only just beginning, and one of the take-aways from Pokémon Go’s success is that augmented reality can, paradoxically, make you feel much more connected to the world around you. “It’s like this magical realism going on in your neighborhood, and it kind of forces you to rethink what you know about where you live,” Warnick says.
Long after we’ve all moved on to the next obsession, you’ll likely still remember that nice park where your nearest Pokémon gym was, or the Mediterranean restaurant where you nabbed a couple of Doduos over lunch. You might even keep in touch with one or two of the neighbors you met while you were playing. And those things, in turn, could well inspire you to donate to the local homeless shelter, or participate in a neighborhood cleanup or park beautification day.
“I think that people will find that this is happening for them — that as they play Pokémon Go they magically start to get to know their town, and feel more attached and happier where they live,” Warnick says. “They may not understand that’s what’s happening, but I think that will end up happening for a lot of people, and that’s fantastic.”