Players of the augmented-reality game join birders in Central Park to search for their respective elusive critters.
By Michael Schulman
I wish I had eight pairs of hands, and another body to shoot the specimens,” John James Audubon wrote in 1829. A similar yearning has gripped the population lately, thanks to the world-conquering success of the smartphone game Pokémon Go. In the “augmented reality” app, which has topped fifteen million downloads since its release, on July 6th, players venture into the streets to collect cute Pokémon creatures, which have been digitally overlaid onto real locations. At least the game gets you outside, the thinking goes. But, like any social experiment, it has its dark side. Pokémon hunters have popped up at Auschwitz, and, around the country, robbers have targeted players by staking out Pokéstops. A safety advisory from the N.Y.P.D. last week: “As you battle, train, and capture your Pokémon, just remember you’re still in the real world, too!”
If Pokémon Go has a real-world analogue, it might be bird-watching, which also involves curious souls going outdoors in search of elusive critters, arranged in a detailed taxonomy. What is the Pokédex (where captured Pokémon are stored) if not a newfangled “life list”? With that in mind, a novice birder/Pokémon hunter, going by the avatar MonsieurJavert, set out for Central Park’s Hallett Nature Sanctuary, a four-acre preserve that is rarely open to visitors. On his way in, he passed a group of Pokémon Go players. “We’re leaving, because our phones are dying,” Aaron Senson, a twenty-year-old engineering student, said.
“Yay, I caught a Shellder!” his friend said, flicking a finger across her phone’s screen. They’d racked up plenty of Pidgeys — the Pokémon equivalent of the common pigeon (Columba livia) — and one had nabbed a Hitmonlee (a rarity, more like the black-bellied plover).
In the sanctuary, a volunteer in a mesh vest pointed toward a tree. “You see it?” she said. “A cardinal.” She added, “We’ve seen woodpeckers, too.” And Pokémon hunters? “Not on my shift. So far, so good.”
Up a wood-chip path, Mei Chien, a retired graphic designer, was angling her Nikon at a robin. She seemed unimpressed when MonsieurJavert spotted a wild Pinsir (a sort of Viking bug) lurking in the bushes. “I like real stuff,” she said.
MonsieurJavert yelled, “I got a wild Spearow!” A woman in a floral scarf spun around and squealed, “Oh, nice!” When she realized that it was a Pokémon situation, she said, “I thought you were a birder.” But she didn’t judge. She was Teri Tynes, a sixty-two-year-old blogger who chronicles her city strolls; she had also come to the sanctuary to investigate the overlap between birding and Pokémon. “Since it’s said to introduce people to being outside, I needed to not just be dismissive of it but download it and go,” she said. (Her avatar name: FridaCallow.)
Tynes, who lives in Inwood, where she sees egrets and great blue herons, had already spotted a gray catbird (real world) and caught a Pidgey (Pokémon). “I am not totally into birding culture, but I’ve been around enough to know about the excitement of seeing things in the wild and creating lists,” she said. “There are parallels. You need a device with which to spot the bird, and so instead of high-power binoculars it’s mediated with a screen.” However, she added, “I have deep reservations about the idea of Pokémon Go as a flâneur-type activity. I have to stop and think, This is an artificial reality that has a baseline to get me to spend money within an app.”
She turned around. “Oh, wait! There’s one!” It was another Pinsir, at the foot of a red mulberry tree. A Park worker leaned in, looking astonished: “That’s in the Park, right here?” Failing to capture it—Tynes’s app froze—she went the Audubon route and took a screenshot. Then she headed toward a promontory overlooking the Pond, where MonsieurJavert caught a Magikarp on a wooden fence. “I’m wondering what it’s going to do to our sensibility,” Tynes said, adding that the overlay of the natural and the mythic reminded her of the fairies in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Her eyes darted: “There’s a blue jay!” She gazed out. “It’s beautiful. I love these classic nineteenth-century vistas—oh, I got a buzz on my phone! It means there’s a Pokémon nearby.”
Strolling onward, MonsieurJavert caught a Pikachu in a patch of Virginia creeper, while Tynes photographed a bumblebee in a wild bergamot. “This is a good place to see real things,” she said. “Maybe we’ll see a ‘Peterson Guide to the Pokémon of North America.’ ” ♦
This article appears in other versions of the July 25, 2016, issue, with the headline “Gotcha!.”