How Pokemon GO gets me through the pandemic

I’ve just written “Day 71” on the daily journal I’m keeping since our household went into lockdown. I call my journal “Life in a time of Covid-19.” I am documenting our lives, day by day: the mundane, the extraordinary and the coping mechanisms, our points of contact.

I am getting fatter. We are all getting fatter. We somehow – even before the pandemic –became a sedentary family. I tried to buck that trend for myself last fall when I set out to walk the Avon Trail in its entirety, in preparation to walk the Camino Primitivo. I would have been leaving for Spain next Tuesday. It’s strange how life takes hairpin turns when you least expect it.

Despite the lack of motivation, my family gets out for a walk nearly every day. It’s easier and much more pleasant now that the weather has turned. I remember a conversation early in March where I talked about the rules of lockdown, and also the need for exercise for good mental and physical health.

Since this pandemic started in March, our exercise has more or less been confined to our neighbourhood. It felt strange and unnecessary to stray further than that. Like everyone we passed gave us the once-over because they didn’t recognize us as being from their neck of the woods. Once, I walked five kilometres with the kids to our friends’ house in a neighbouring city to exchange puzzles, and five kilometres back again. I felt exhausted after that, even though it was about half of the hike I would have done on the Avon Trail in a day. Walking on pavement is hard on the joints – it’s not like walking out in a forest on dirt paths.

My son, who is 16 and often finds it hard to get off his screen to do something different, suggested early on that we play Pokemon GO as a way to get him out of the house on family walks with us. It’s hard for him to choose to be with us. Always a champion of anything that gets him to spend more time with us, I dived in. I downloaded the app, dressed my avatar, picked a buddy, and learned the basics. Ready to go in minutes.

Pokemon GO is an augmented reality mobile game based off the card game (which I never really understood, nor did it interest me). The ultimate goal of the game is to fill the Pokédex, a comprehensive Pokémon logbook, by catching and evolving every Pokemon in it.

My daughter refused to play. She came on the walks, but she didn’t want to play Pokemon GO. My husband downloaded the app, captured a few Pokemon, and then gave up “to keep her company.” My son and I threw ourselves into it. I quickly moved through the levels, and often he and I would be several strides ahead of his dad and sister on our walks. We’d take routes where we knew there were gyms or Pokestops. We’d go downtown as much as we could; it’s only a few blocks away. It became a point of contention, though. My daughter didn’t want to go downtown – even with us. The unknowns are anxiety-producing for her – will someone ask us for money? Will there be someone talking to themselves or another voice in their head, or gesturing wildly? Will it be safe?

Soon it became an ongoing negotiation to even complete a walk – my son and I would go pretty much anywhere, but she held back. And because she held back, my husband also held back. It became less like a family walk, and more like a house divided. They do, however, enjoy laughing at me when I bump into things because I’m watching the Pokemon on the screen instead of watching where I’m going. I missed a possum sighting in our neighbourhood once for the same reason.

While some – including me – balk at the idea of spending even more time on a screen, it has revealed some benefits to me, especially during this time of physical distancing and isolation. An article in Forbes Magazine outlines plenty more.

1. It gets me outside: Even when I’m on my own for a walk, I’ll whip out my phone, sign in my buddy, and take a route that I know has a number of Pokestops. I know where the hot spots are, where lots of Pokemon reveal themselves, and often take detours to hit them. I also take photographs on my walks, to document life in a time of Covid-19.

2. It gets my son outside: For many reasons I won’t go into here, it’s difficult for my son to come off his screens. He will literally sit in his room watching videos on YouTube on his Chromebook, and texting and Snapchatting his friends on his phone. All day. He doesn’t exercise. Pokemon GO gets him out and about, and often on longer walks to fill up the items in his arsenal to play the game more effectively. He, too, will sidetrack to drop a Pokemon in a gym or to capture a few; a longer route = more exercise.

3. It builds our relationship: There are few things left that my 16-year-old son likes to do with his mother. This is one of them. I’m willing to allow more screen time, if it means we can be together doing an activity that we both enjoy. Because we’re enjoying it so much, it prolongs the time we spend doing it.

4. Public art and public spaces: Pokestops often reveal hidden gems of public art. On my first trip around downtown, I discovered a mural on a wall that my neighbour had painted 20 years ago! I didn’t know she’d done that. Pokestops acquaint us with the gifts of public art and public spaces – parks; places of worship; museums and art galleries; performance spaces; schools, colleges and university campuses. Each stop tells the player a bit about the art. I’ve learned the names of each piece of public art, works I’ve seen for years and appreciated, but never knew what they were called.

Life in a time of Covid-19 is strange. I lost my part-time job because of the virus. My kids are not in school. They miss their friends. My husband and I are both working from home (freelancers don’t take holidays) and fighting over the one pair of wireless noise-reducing headphones.

Despite how crappy this pandemic is, the truth is I am moving through it mostly with ease. We’re all under one roof, we’re all healthy, everyone we love is healthy and safe. In saying this, I recognize and acknowledge my privilege, which allows me to feel secure, well-fed, without worrying (yet) where next month’s rent or this week’s food is coming from.

As I write this, the province is opening up bit by bit, for better or worse. I am not taking any chances by venturing back to “normal.” I’m sticking to my walks around the neighbourhood. I will walk to the other side of this pandemic, phone in hand and hopefully son at my side, throwing Pokeballs at the Pokemon that reveal themselves, and collecting items at Pokestops.

I will walk, and I’ll walk some more. Buen Camino.

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