I never really liked Nintendo’s Pokémon when I was growing up. Backyard Baseball was my favorite PC game, and my brother and I would argue over whether or not it was fair to use the Mongols in Age of Empires: The Age of Kings. I spent endless hours meticulously arranging and rearranging my legion of baseball/basketball/football cards. My mom would attempt to help me beat the harder levels of SpongeBob Squarepants: Super Sponge on Gameboy Advance (a game I never beat, regrettably). Simpler times.
But for whatever reason, I didn’t really play much Pokémon or indulge in any of its associated entertainment tentacles (video games, cards, TV shows, apparel, etc.). Don’t know why. It just never really caught my interest like it did for other kids.
Nonetheless, this entire Pokémon Go phenomenon has stirred up some old memories for me. As game-related stories have started to come out, ranging from the weird to the macabre, the enduring image at this point seems to be little roving packs of people, huddled over their phones, giggling to themselves because their childhood obsession, like any good Pokémon, has evolved.
For the uninitiated: Pokémon Go allows users to emulate the previously screen-bound game by digitally inserting Pokémon into the real world using GPS. Pokémon (yes, this is the plural form) materialize on a player’s screen, and as you move around the physical world, a variety of different Pokémon will appear, based on location, nearby bodies of water, and time of day. It’s an augmented reality game that’s not the first of its kind, and far from the last.
Besides some of the obvious questions raised by this huge surge in Pokemania—most pressingly, the ever-disappearing gap between entertainment for children and adults—there’s been some unanticipated trouble.
Take the following story from The Washington Post, (cheekily) titled, “Holocaust Museum to visitors: Please stop catching Pokémon here.” This is an actual paragraph from the story:
One image circulating online appears to show a player encountering an unsettling digital critter inside the museum: a Pokémon called Koffing that emits poisonous gas floating by a sign for the museum’s Helena Rubinstein Auditorium. The auditorium shows the testimonials of Jews who survived the gas chambers.
Holocaust Museum officials are obviously upset. Their communications director, Andrew Hollinger, said, “Playing the game is not appropriate in the museum, which is a memorial to the victims of Nazis.” He added: “We are trying to figure out if we can get the museum excluded from the game.”
Meanwhile, one player interviewed by The Washington Post had dropped a lure within the game—meaning, he paid real money in order to “attract” more Pokémon to that specific area, i.e., the museum. Here’s another real-life paragraph from a venerable journalistic institution:
The player behind the lure, a 30-year-old visiting from North Carolina named Dustin…was excited to catch a crustacean-like Krabby while waiting in the museum’s lobby with a group of friends to pick up tickets for a scheduled tour…”It’s not like we came here to play,” said Angie, a 37-year-old member of Dustin’s group who also declined to share her last name for privacy reasons, “But gotta catch ’em all.”
And of course, because the world is the way it is, the game has begun drawing users to the museum at Auschwitz. The official Auschwitz twitter account tweeted a plea to players, asking them to please refrain from playing at the concentration camp memorial.
Yes—Jewish institutions tend to be stuffy and patently uncool. I think I speak for anyone who’s ever attended a benefit dinner or an annual fundraiser when I say that fumbling attempts at topical jokes for the youngins’, however well-meaning, are typically Shemperian (Alan, that is) in their corniness. It’s an easy piñata to whack.
In this case, however, I’m going to have embrace my inner grouch and say I’m on board with these requests. Jewish groups tasked with preserving the memory of the Holocaust are supposed to be stuffy, or, shall we say, professional. That’s not say I’m not pro-lightheartedness—I’ll laugh at The Producers or a tasteful Holocaust joke, which is indeed possible. But when it comes to these Holocaust institutions, they’re rightfully serious, joke-free zones.
And that’s the trouble with Pokémon Go. As of now, there’s no Pokémon Go-free zone, no place where mindless pleasure isn’t appropriate. The problem of Pokémon Go in Auschwitz is the problem of all entertainment for adults right now—the joke-free (or superhero-free, or Ghostbusters-free, or any recognizable brand-free) zone is rapidly shrinking, and adult tastes are recalibrating as such. There’s irony in the fact that adults are spending so much time and money on a product made by a company literally called “4Kids Entertainment.”
I’m not trying to be the Fun Police, and far be it from me to tell people whether or not they can spend their time and money catching ‘em all, but American pop culture doesn’t do moderation—it only does immersive obsession, which is more befitting to, say, a ten year-old me trying to decide if trading Carlos Zambrano and Lance Berkman for a rookie Jimmy Rollins would really be worth it (it was).
And not every Jewish group is up in arms: the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco is having fun with Pokémon Go, and so is Israeli President Reuven Rivlin. Even I can admit that there is something amusing about a randomly generated, gas-based Pokemon somehow ending up in the gas chambers room. Or the fact that the game’s object is to catch ’em all. Absurdity isn’t anti-Semitic.
Regardless, I’ll issue my own plea to all those would-be Ash Ketchums out there: please, go somewhere more appropriate than Auschwitz to catch Pokémon—and not Arlington National Cemetery either.
Jesse Bernstein is a former Intern at Tablet.