Fr. Paul Appel
Last weekend I noticed a number of teenagers hanging out around the parish, sitting on the front steps of my church, St. Alphonsus in Davenport. This was a different group from the usual youngsters who are playing in the playground or shooting hoops out back. This new group was simply sitting on the front steps, talking and looking at their phones. To say the least, this is a unique happenstance. Young people don’t tend to hang out at churches without reason. I discovered that this group was playing a new game called Pokémon GO. The game encourages people to go out and walk around their communities to find little digital creatures called Pokémon. These creatures can be captured using your handheld device. Players are also encouraged to visit landmarks, places of worship, and other sites designated on a map that appears on their smart device. St. Al’s happens to be a place where players can come to refresh their supplies and hang out with other players. This is why the teenagers were at church; they were playing this new game. And if you don’t know what a Pokémon is, just ask someone under 40 years of age.
As of this writing, around 10 million people are playing this game in the U.S. alone and the app generates about $1.6 million every day for its parent company. Nintendo, the company that created Pokémon, has added $9 billion to its valuation in three days. According to all reports, it is quickly becoming one of the most popular gaming apps ever. I am told that some people travel great distances to pursue these little digital creations, and this author is not immune to this phenomenon. Over the last week I have walked 20 kilometers in pursuit of my new gaming hobby. In other words, someone finally found a way to make me want to exercise.
The success of this game depends on a number of factors which have all come together to create this phenomenon:
First, many Millennials and Generation Xers grew up with Pokémon cartoons, cards and video games. Those kids grew up wondering what it would be like to play in real life what they saw on TV. “What if all these creatures were real? What if I could walk around my own neighborhood and find them?” This creates a strong feeling of nostalgia for those who are also the most tech savvy in our society.
Second, it is the first exposure many people have had to “augmented reality,” which is the implementation of technology that inserts digital creations into the real world. Many companies have tried to implement this technology, but with varying degrees of success. If you are familiar with Geo-Tagging or “Checking into a location,” then you have an idea about how the digital world can interface with the real world.
Third, people have a desire to get out and about, but often don’t have much of a reason to do so. I knew Davenport had historical markers but I hadn’t actually gone to visit any of them. Since downloading the app, I have discovered dozens of historical markers, churches and public sites that I never knew existed. That is in just six days and I have lived off and on in Davenport for 20 years!
Finally, the app creates socialization where none existed before. Most games encourage people to hide at home, curled up on the couch or in front of the computer. Instead, this game makes players get out and see other people in the real world. You can even join a team and compete for control of certain public
venues called “Gyms.” Head to your local park tonight and count the number of people out walking around with phones in their hands.
This may all sound confusing to some of you, brilliant to others, or maybe you’re just indifferent. As Catholics, this concept should be nothing new. It got me thinking about the nature of a pilgrimage. Before setting out, a pilgrim has to decide on a location to visit with a goal in mind. Hopefully he or she can bring some friends along. Likely this pilgrimage site will be marked on a map and it may take some time to get there. Once a pilgrim has visited the holy site, he or she will be able to tell friends about it and encourage others to do the same. Maybe they will even plan another pilgrimage in the days to come. Chances are they picked up some holy cards, medals and relics on the way. There was a time when this was considered a momentous event in someone’s life, even though they were just walking around and visiting churches in far-off lands.
Unfortunately, nowadays most of our churches are locked up tight when visitors come around. Still others are in rough neighborhoods where safety might be a concern. We don’t have a lot of markers placed around the countryside showing where Father Samuel Mazzuchelli crossed the Mississippi River or the site of the first Mass celebrated in Wapello County. How many of us have taken advantage of the pilgrimage sites listed for the Year of Mercy? How many of you have visited a historical church when on vacation? The developers of Pokémon GO found a way to get people out of their homes and right to the front door of our churches in order to capture meaningless digital creatures on smartphones. Perhaps we need an app that encourages people to visit our holy sites. Or maybe we just need to jump on board and offer a glass of water to the people standing on our steps. They might find something more meaningful than a digital creature in the icons and tabernacles of our beautiful churches!
(Fr. Paul Appel is moderator at St. Peter Parish in Buffalo and St. Alphonsus and St. Mary parishes in Davenport.)