On the night of July 6, 2016, I sat in my apartment, bouncing in my chair as I waited to connect to the newly released Pokemon Go server. As soon as I was in, I scanned around the room with my phone, and found my very first pokemon (Bulbasaur, the starter I chose in my childhood) sitting near my computer desk.
Almost three years and 20,000 pokemon later, Pokemon Go is a big part of my life. I have attended every monthly Community Day event, hatch eggs on the way to and from work, and spend many evenings and weekends trying to get every new pokemon as it’s released into the game. It’s something that never fails to bring me joy, and I find a special thrill in remembering and telling the stories of how I caught some of my favorite pokemon.
My gaming experience wasn’t always so positive. When I was a kid, my parents didn’t let me play video games. They knew that I tended to hyperfocus on things, and since video games were getting more and more immersive, they didn’t want me to fall into the clutches of games designed to keep people hooked. They finally started letting me play games towards the end of elementary school, and the first game I wanted to play was a series I’d learned about through watching the TV show: Pokemon.
Although it started as a solitary game experience, I discovered a Pokemon-playing community when I went to computer camp in the summer. In addition to the fun I had playing the game by myself, I learned that it was even more fun to play with friends. I had something to talk about with kids I didn’t know and it helped me make friends a lot easier than I usually did.
I also learned about kindness – after being the “weird” kid in school thanks to my obsessions and compulsions being too visible at a time with even less mental health awareness than there is now, I finally got to encounter generosity from my Pokemon-playing peers. I will never forget crying over my file of Pokemon Sapphire after losing my chance at catching Kyogre (a legendary pokemon of which there is only one in each game file), only for an older boy I never met to give me his, no questions asked.
I stayed aware of the cautions of gaming – it’s easy to spend too much money on games and even easier to spend too much time – and I worked my way up to being a steady gamer who also knew my own boundaries. I signed up for my first MMORPG (very immersive games played online that tend to be the ones that spark gaming addictions) against my parents’ recommendation at 18, and learned by trial and error how to find balance. Why would I sign up for a MMORPG considering their reputation, I was sometimes asked – and the answer was always the same. In those games, you play with other people from around the world, and I was using my game to find a connection to people who shared my interests that felt too weird for real life.
As an adult, I still find it hard to make friends sometimes, even though I no longer experience compulsions like I did. Now, just like in my computer camp days, Pokemon helps me make new friends and also find a community where it’s not only okay to hyperfocus – it’s actually encouraged.
I went to a Pokemon Go event the weekend I moved to Chicago, and quickly learned of a weekly meetup in my neighborhood to trade pokemon, My Sunday nights are now filled with pokemon trading and hanging out with new friends from all walks of life who come together to play the game.
What I find most interesting about the Chicago Pokemon Go community as compared to the community I played with before I moved is how intense the players here are. I’m actually one of the only people without a spreadsheet or a series of notecards prioritizing which pokemon I will trade for – if someone wants to trade with me, even if it’s not the best trade, I’ll do it, just like the boy at computer camp once did for me.
When I’m out at events, I’ll start a conversation with anyone I see with the game up on their screen, and it’s so different from how I usually am around new people. Instead of telling myself that I can’t come on too strong by expressing my interests right away, I feel enabled to talk more openly because I know they’re just as interested as I am – and I’ve used this as a way to become acclimated to a new environment. In addition to playing with my neighborhood group, I’ve used Pokemon Go to make friends at work, interact with people at mixers, explore Chicago, and more.
Pokemon Go has become a way for me to find a positive thing to obsess about, plus a community where this obsession won’t lead to me getting bullied or ostracized. As a kid, I was led to believe that playing games as a person with OCD meant that they’d take over my life and lead me to becoming a recluse who lived for nothing but the pixels on my screens. It’s been a wonderful journey to discover that I have the inner strength to resist that temptation as well as the ability to make friends by being passionate about things – something I specifically thought would hinder my ability to make friends throughout my life.
And speaking of friends, if you’re looking for new Pokemon Go connections, please feel free to send me an invite! My friend code is 3073-2651-9207. 😊
Ellie, a writer new to the Chicago area, was diagnosed with OCD at age 3. She hopes to educate others about her condition and end the stigma against mental illness.