“Where is the Life we have lost in living? Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?

Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries Brings us farther from God and nearer to the Dust.”

T.S. Eliot, Choruses from the Rock

My fear in writing or talking about any new technology is that I am going to sound like an angry, old curmudgeon, shaking his fist at whatever is shiny and new, longing for the good old days of this or that.

But I am not an old man, I am absurdly happy as a priest, and the only thing I am nostalgic about is those times friends have brought me cornbread.

But we live in a world where “something new” is constantly thrust upon us, whether we are ready for it or not. This is particularly true when the app Pokemon Go was released. Suddenly strangers were scouring church grounds, all hours of the day or night, faces buried in their phones (or occasionally looking up to glance suspiciously at the wandering priest).

This sudden influx of wanderers on parish grounds has generated, in many of my older priest friends, questions about what is going on and how to respond to these unexpected visitors. The beauty of this time has been the chance to ask the deeper questions about our relationship with technology and what it means to really be human. And this is what I think is so interesting (and problematic) about Pokemon Go: that it has tapped into something important in us (why else would so many people be playing it?) and yet has also not lived out the full breadth of this desire.

Somewhat of a side note: Whenever anything new emerges It is important that we look critically at what is being offered, not in order to immediately reject it, but to test it.  Not everything new is bad, just as not everything old is good; it all has to be sifted. As Saint Paul beautifully said in his first letter to the Thessalonians, “But test everything; hold fast to what is good, abstain from every form of evil” (5:21-22).  The simplest criteria for testing what is new is asking the question: “Is this good for my humanity?” If, whatever is presented to us, is not good for our being more human, being more ourselves, then for love of my own humanity I must set it aside.

It is a simple criterion, but to live it out requires a particular kind of work. This is the work of comparing what I am living with the desires of my human heart, to live at the level of desire. Great athletes set aside a great deal to perform better; they are cautious about what they eat and drink, they make sure they are making time to sleep. It is a daily sacrifice, but for many it’s worth it because performing well and securing victory is more important to them than distractions. The athlete has to pay attention and take even more seriously their deeper desires than to indulge in other, smaller, desires which presents themselves along the way.

This is an easy example for us to understand; but how much more seriously should I take the deepest desires which govern the whole trajectory of my life? The desire for meaning, for truth, for a love that transcends my smallness?

If I really love and respect my own humanity, I have to take these deeper desires more seriously. I have to constantly return to what is essential and set aside what is unnecessary.

And this is precisely the problem I see with Pokemon Go; It is not actually good for our humanity…but also why it is so unbelievably popular. It taps into the profoundly human desire to make a journey, for a life of adventure, for there to be a thread that connects everything that I do and everywhere that I go and it all matters; that I can be brought out of myself, and be given an opportunity to encounter others. There is a sense of promise in the game, in its potential, what it can offer. I have had many friends tell me of the positive effects, of it bringing them to new places and getting them outside.

But is this what the game really does? Does it live up to what it promises? I like to walk in the afternoons, and what I have found in those I’ve encountered playing  Pokemon Go, is that instead of being glued to their phones or consoles inside, they are now glued to their phones and walking outside.

And this is being equated with living, a life of adventure.

It has tapped into a deeper desire that it cannot fulfill and yet pretends to.

Interestingly enough, instead of drawing others out to life, to the real world, introducing them to the mystery of being that surrounds them, it has instead conformed the real world to a game; it has made their experience of the real world a point of reference for a game. Instead of seeing a beautiful field and appreciating it as it is, we wonder if there are any Pokemon there. Now I look at life in reference to a fake world. How can I ever be rescued when I need to be if my point of reference is no longer reality? People need roots, a place to dig into, a point of reference – in a word, stability. That stability cannot be the digital world, still new, changeable, and flimsy. This game isn’t enough to sustain a life.

Why does any of this matter? Why say this? Who cares? It’s only a game.

Because I want you to be happy, to be free, to really live, to experience an adventure and companionship that is capable of sustaining all of life instead of fleeing from it. Whatever distracts from this has to be set aside. As Joseph Ratzinger beautifully said,

“Do not desire anything less for your life than a love that is strong and beautiful and that is capable of making the whole of your existence a joyful undertaking of giving yourselves as a gift to God and your brothers and sisters, in imitation of the One who vanquished hatred and death for ever through love.”

These games don’t do as they promise, they don’t augment reality. They are not an expansion of your humanity; they are an interruption. If you really love your humanity, really love your life:

Let it go.

  • Pat_H

    I cannot help but feel that a game like Pokemon Go is, at an existential level, reflective of the fact that human beings imagine themselves in nature, as natural people, doing natural things, but we’ve created an artificial world that we do not particularly like. We try to compensate for that by using the technology we’ve developed that oppresses us to go where we would have been, but for it.

    So, rather than living in small agricultural communities where we’d grow, herd and hunt, and know a small collection of friends and live with our relatives, we live in huge artificial masses of concrete glass and steel, and try to hunt and herd on our Iphone, where we can contact our “friends” we do not really know, and stay in contact with our family by artificial electronic means.

    A sad state of affairs.

  • Simon

    “In fact, this even has a specific term: “juvenoia.” In a 2011 paper, sociologist David Finkelhor coined the word to describe “an exaggerated fear about the influence of social change on children and youth.” Examples of things formerly castigated: The Waltz (yes, the dance), Chess, cheaper postage, etchings, magazines, movies, comic books…https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/07/18/kids-these-days-have-been-criticized-all-through-history/

    • Fr. Branson Hipp

      Hey Simon, interesting article, but it leaps over the problem because juvenoia is an exaggerated fear. Just because there are plenty of hypochondriacs doesn’t mean that illness doesn’t exist. The question has to be asked again, is this good for my humanity or not?

  • John

    This is a great article. Thank you, Father Hipp.

    I understand what Tony is saying and appreciate his desire to find the good in this. I’ve heard similar stories of people coming into the light of day, talking to neighbors they wouldn’t otherwise talk to, etc. Many parishes are trying to use it as an opportunity to evangelize, and no doubt some good can come out of that.

    There are, however, many safety concerns as well. There have already been cases of predators luring people to unsafe locations through the game in order to rob or assault them, people getting into traffic accidents while playing, and more. I’ve read of a boy who walked off a cliff and died while playing the game, a girl who happened upon a dead body under a bridge (that particular death unrelated to the game), a guy doing a U-turn in the middle of the street and running into a police car (doh…..), and other incidents. When you consider how many fatalities have come from people texting in the car, it’s hard to believe that Pokémon Go will not send those numbers higher and put in danger those who, like me, don’t play the game.

    Lastly, we need to consider where this kind of “augmented reality” technology can lead a society, and for a cautionary tale we need only look at Japan, which has been suffering the effects of this kind of thing for a good decade now. They are much further along the virtual reality path than we are, and it’s having devastating effects in that country. There may be some benefits to something like Pokémon Go, but the dangers of such a “bridge technology” are many and profound.

  • Tony Powers

    Just as a point of reference, Fr., I’m curious what you would say of the fact that thousands of people who were once stuck inside glued to the consoles have in fact finally made it outside, and are finally beginning to interact with other real humans? Hundreds of thousands of people have met others for the first time, and for millions, it has inspired them to at the very least get outside.

    I understand the idea that putting reality into a digital box helps no one. But what of the millions who would not be out otherwise? What of the thousands who would be incapable of human interaction without the game (there are dozens of stories of low-functioning autistic children being able to finally speak to strangers, for example)?

    Is there any merit to the idea of “meeting people where they are”? Or is that step of evangelization best left to someone else?

    These are all genuine questions. I understand the idea behind the post, the warning it contains, but it does seem to neglect the good and comes close to calling it intrinsically problematic. Am I right in that understanding? Or am I missing something?

    • Fr. Branson Hipp

      Hey Tony, thanks for the thoughts. Yeah it seems like there are a couple of good questions here, so I am going to try to parse them out as best I can.
      1. Yes, people are getting outside more, and that is great, but are they really encountering reality, or using it for the sake of a game, even with positive side effects? If you want to introduce me to your friend who works at a restaurant, and I speak to your friend only to order my food, have I really met him? Is he really a person to me, or a means to an end? Even if I get my food and can claim to have met your friend because he took my order, I have missed out entirely on his personhood, on his personality, the history of his life, etc. Having the food and the claim doesn’t make up for having not really met your friend. I would argue it is no different with this.
      2. I mentioned this to someone else, but the question that emerges even more deeply is whether or not all technology is neutral. If it is neutral, then yeah, it can be used for good or for ill, it is about using it moderately or correctly. But I would argue not all technology is neutral. To give an example, the app Tinder is certainly not neutral. There is no neutral way to use it. It has changed the way people view the other, reduced them to a couple of pictures. It is actually changing how people view reality. Technology that alters our perception of reality for the worse is not neutral. I would argue that Pokemon Go is no different, that it changes our relationship with reality to one of use, to using it instead of being in relationship with it. Certainly not as extreme as Tinder, but what we focus upon has changed, not on the thing itself, but how I can use the thing.
      3. As for evangelizing through a medium, I think the question there is whether or not by participating in a medium for the sake of evangelization, I am not supporting the thing in itself. So if someone used a cheating spouse app to share the faith, they are validating the app through paying to use it, even if their intentions are good, or they have some success. We can’t participate in something ultimately bad for the sake of something good.
      These are all extreme examples, but I think the final point is that our life and time is precious, if we want to evangelize, there are better ways to do it, and if we want to recreate, there are betters ways.
      Another side note, none of this is meant as a point of judgment for anyone, but an invitation to something better.
      Tony, does that help?

  • George J. Galloway

    Brilliant. I immediately thought of Robert Frost. This made me smile and gave me a sense of peace.