By the harbour, in front of the Bluenose Store, as a horse-drawn carriage carrying tourists clopped by, we captured a Jigglypuff. By the fire hydrant on Montague Street, a bouncing blue Nidoran was waiting. Not far away, a Pidgey was snagged, waiting dangerously in the middle of what was luckily a quiet thoroughfare. (Nothing like a digitally squashed Pidgey to take the fun out of things.) Coming around one corner, a Krabby – as in, a crab – surprised us. "There he is, there he is," my son, Samson, whispered, forgetting, in the moment, that the Krabby couldn't actually hear him. "I am sort of freaking out right now," he confided to me.
It's surreal playing Pokemon Go in the historic Nova Scotia town of Lunenburg, hunting virtual cartoon characters along the famous waterfront and brightly coloured, carefully preserved 18th-century houses. And yet, surprisingly fun. Two hours later, we had 27 Pokemon, and a level 5 ranking. This meant we could do battle in the nearest "gym," which had been strategically placed by those clever game masters on the wharf, next to where the Bluenose would usually dock. On this Wednesday evening, the wharf was mostly empty, the famous schooner currently away from its home port. But every new visitor to Lunenburg eventually stops here; now every Pokemon Go player will, too. The founding families never imagined this.
It's no understatement to say that Pokemon Go has become a worldwide obsession, sending Nintendo stock soaring. It's already been downloaded more than the dating app Tinder, and is closing in on Twitter – even though it's only, officially, available in the United States, New Zealand and Australia. Not that this has stopped any motivated gamer in Canada.
For a week, my son, who is 11, had been excitedly volunteering intel about the game, watching YouTube videos to learn how to play, and cleverly crafting the public relations case for why someone in the family should hack the system and get it on their phone. (He doesn't have one of his own.) "It's mother-son time," he told me. "It's really an app to go sightseeing with your kids." "I can run around and burn off energy." "We won't get fat." When he learned we were actually going to play, it was as if he'd chugged seven Red Bulls in one sitting.
Great, I thought, yet another video game, and this one intruding into the real world. And then, there I was, walking the streets of Lunenburg, asking, "Do you see one? Which way do we go? Have we leveled up yet?" – sucked into this hot-cold, GPS-guided Pokemon search along with my son.
"It's as if, until we point the camera," Samson said, "our eyes aren't sophisticated enough to see them."
Mostly, we earned odd looks from fellow pedestrians. (And did I sense a slight judgment that, amid all this history, I was allowing my son to bury his face in a screen?) But, suddenly, in the distance, we spotted two teenaged boys, eyes on a phone, erratically crossing streets. We chased them down. And yes, they were fellow gamers, Tim Godsall, 16 and his brother James, 14, visiting Nova Scotia from Toronto. James pointed out that the first game he and his brother ever played together, years ago, was Pokemon Platinum.
"It's almost like a religious connection to Pokemon," he said. "This kind of brings it to life."
But clearly, the real fan was Tim, who was already at Level 15, and in the hunt for a truly rare Pokemon. He showed Samson his Wartortle. "But it's only 18 CP," he said, referring to the Pokemon's combat power. "That sucks," said Samson, commiserating.
"I have walked more in the last day and a half," said Tim, "than I have in the last two weeks." What he really liked about Pokemon Go, he explained, was that it was more relaxed. "A lot of people get too serious with their video games." At the same time, he said, he would consider "walking into traffic" for a certain coveted Pokemon. (I am pretty sure he was joking.)
So what's the final assessment? I began as a skeptic, but I am coming around. Two hours passed, and we barely noticed how long we had been walking. (At one point, Samson was running up and down the sidewalk, trying to figure out which way to go.) Certainly, this was more activity than sitting on couch. "If we walk five kilometres," Samson told me, clearly game, "we can open an egg."
Some caveats: There have been reports of people walking into traffic, and I can understand why. At one point, Samson grabbed my hand so I could serve as his human guide dog as he followed the phone down the sidewalk. I did have to remind him once or twice to check for cars at the crosswalk, so that's worrisome.
As well, Pokemon and the Poke balls you toss in the game to catch the creatures tend to be found at statues and monuments, and the game creators haven't discriminated on the basis of taste. (Staff at Holocaust landmarks have already told players to show some respect.) In Lunenburg, even supercharged with enthusiasm, Samson was hesitant to collect Poke balls at the Fisherman's Memorial for Lunenburg fishermen lost at sea, which includes the name of his Uncle Kelly. He chose not to play there. If we're going to augment reality with cartoons, maybe we could avoid places where we honour the dead.
But these complaints and worry aside, we did get exercise. It was mother-son bonding – a chance for me to participate in a digital space that Samson enjoys without having to manage a baffling game controller. I don't think I would let him play unsupervised with friends just yet, without more test runs, and not in a busy city – but I'd consider letting him go out with his 15-year-old brother, in Lunenburg, where drivers take their time. And while I expect to grow quickly weary of the constant requests to play, I do relish a new bargaining chip to trade for complaint-free chores and homework. (Whatever. You know you do it, too.) I won't be looking for Pokemon on my own. But if joining in levels me up to cool Mom status, I'm game. Samson and I already have plans to play again on the weekend.
With the sun setting, we ended our first game of Pokemon Go back at the wharf, where Samson was "destroyed" in the gym battle – though definitely not in spirit. Finally, we had to call it quits: the phone battery died. So take heart parents: eventually you will get your kids back – if only because they'll have to charge up.