What Pokemon Go Can Teach Us About God

Few phenomena have caught fire like the perfect storm of technology, nostalgia and shared quest that is Pokemon Go. This simple game of finding, capturing and playing with virtual monsters in the real world has in a matter of days become the most popular digital pastime on the strength of nearly 10,000,000 downloads and had such real world impacts as a dramatic spike in average miles walked per day and a nearly 10% leap in the stock of parent company Nintendo. The global trend has had its awful moments ranging from the need to tell players to refrain from chasing pokemon in very inappropriate venues to accidents caused by distracted walking and worse, driving to malicious use of the game to lure players to be assaulted and robbed. Still, for all the sensational incidents, Pokemon Go has mostly resulted in a crazily large number of kids and adults finding themselves, each other, and their city’s points of interest in the midst of a giant virtual scavenger hunt that spans across the globe.

On one hand Pokemon Go takes lots of people to these interesting, and sometimes precarious places just to mill around engaging in a relatively mindless activity. On the other hand the game provides an opportunity to take those engaged in a relatively mindless activity and bring them outside to go to interesting, and yes, sometimes precarious places and perhaps to meet new people. So is this new fad a bright light of healthy fun in a darkening world or the very embodiment of the digital apocalypse toward which we are careening? Or, you know, something in between.

It turns out that the synagogue where I’m a rabbi is a Pokestop, a place that players can come to collect supplies and look for Pokemon to capture. Across our parking lot is a virtual gym, a place to train and spar for control and earn other achievements. I thought about what it would mean for people to potentially walk up to our sacred space in search of something that can only be seen on their smartphone. And then I thought about what that could teach us about the experience of coming to this or any other space in search of something else that cannot be seen with the naked eye.

No, I am not comparing G*d to Pokemon. There is no device or app that will show you a clear image of G*d. There is no way to capture G*d with a flick of a finger or see at a glance what level you have reached in your piety, righteousness or compassion. There are places to train, recharge, and collect useful items but no way of really knowing if you are winning or not, no matter where you look for confirmation.

For me this is both an explanation for the easy appeal of Pokemon and the limitation of any game that keeps score. There is a place for the rush of victory, whether on a virtual screen, a physical playing field or an augmented hybrid of the two. But even though a game can be a satisfying part of life, life itself isn’t a game. The real value of our interactions and our choices and our relationships touches a more profound part of who we are and for what we strive. Money, popularity, happiness even love, blessings and good deeds can be amassed but they are not the measure of who we are.

For me, G*d is the name that I give to that which cannot be measured, that transcends all the counting and collecting. That call that interrupts the game and reminds me to interact with the players and the world around me. The relationship that resists being captured and reminds me that the object isn’t to catch ’em all, but to be caught up in each moment.

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