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posted: 11/17/2019 7:30 AM

Pokemon is everywhere now. Long live Pokemon.

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  • A giant Pikachu hangs from the ceiling at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington for the Pokémon World Championships in August 2019.

    A giant Pikachu hangs from the ceiling at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington for the Pokémon World Championships in August 2019.
    Photo for The Washington Post by Evelyn Hockstein

 
 

Pokémon is the highest-grossing entertainment franchise of all time. Having acquired a whopping $90 billion since its conception in 1995, it continues to grow in popularity, its demographic constantly widening at an unprecedented rate.

Consider the case of veteran actor Bill Nighy, who played Clifford Enterprises founder Howard Clifford in the film "Detective Pikachu." When speaking about his time on set, Nighy remarked that he had been "generationally disqualified" from Pokémon in the franchise's early days, but had since found joy in discovering the wonders of the encyclopedic Pokedex book.

This affection, fostered at the age of 68, is a sign of a broader trend: It is simply impossible to escape Pokémon in 2019. It is an entity that has deeply affected universal society -- arguably for the better -- connecting people of all ages and from opposite ends of the world to one another for over two decades. It is a game, a world, that is founded upon fun, discovery, exploration, and what it means to wonder, to imagine, and to dream.

As the franchise has grown, the fictional world of Pokémon has become ever more intertwined with our own. Once, the franchise was just an anime series, a trading card community and a pair of ambitious games for the Game Boy Classic. Now there is a mobile game played by millions of people all over the world, with Friday Nov. 15 marking the behemoth series' first mainline venture onto home consoles via the games Pokémon Sword and Shield. Pokémon are no longer merely a figment of the imagination, some intangible fancy pondered by youngsters as their imaginations blossom. The franchise permeates the boundaries between our worlds, subsequently uniting generations in a shared passion for something wholesome, positive, and deeply invested in community.

The augmented reality of Pokémon Go is the bridge connecting the real world to the virtual world of Pokémon. Nowadays, simply looking through the lens of a phone camera can reveal a Pidgey nestled amid autumnal foliage, a Squirtle riding the inward tides or, terrifyingly, a Mr. Mime comfortably plopped on your living room couch, sizing you up with those ghastly eyes. (As if Mr. Mime wasn't already frightening enough, I recently realized that it's not actually wearing clothes: those blue growths protruding from its head and its curled clown feet are actually part of its body.)

However, it is the community behind Pokémon Go that truly makes it special. For example: although game-maker Niantic recently announced it would be introducing an official PVP League to Pokémon Go in early 2020, dedicated fans have made do since the app's launch back in 2016, with popular Pokémon resource community The Silph Road having arranged The Sinister Cup, an annual competitive circuit designed by the fans, for the fans.

Meanwhile, official events known as Go Fests have been held in cities all over the world, inviting folks of all ages and backgrounds to congregate and share their passion.

One particular show of communal solidarity stands out. Earlier this year, players from Salamina -- the largest Greek Island in the Saronic Gulf -- completely lost access to Pokémon Go. Affected players appealed to Reddit in search of a solution, and seven months later, Eurogamer reported that Niantic had rectified the issue.

"Last night a member of our community opened Pokémon Go and came across a huge surprise," a player wrote on Reddit in a thread. "After seven months of no spawns, the whole Saronic Gulf, including islands Salamina, Aegina, Agkistri and Poros, is once again full of them. Our combined efforts gave us a great victory, and from last night, we are once again able to go out and hunt!"

"We, as a community, owe a great deal of gratitude and appreciation to every single person here that even with his/her upvote helped this effort come true," the post continues, thanking individual players, streamers, and journalists alike for coming together to resolve the issue.

The community came together to solve the problem. There may have only been 80 avid players in Salamina, but thousands of others banded together to help them get their game back. One player even said they'd name one of their favorite Pokémon "Salaminaia" in honor of the resolution.

Catching Pokémon in your local area -- Salamina, in the above instance -- is a curiously affecting thing. Thanks to Niantic's real-world mapping, playing Pokémon Go converts your local area into a world teeming with fictional creatures. Similarly, Pokémon properties are beginning to align the world of Pokémon with our own in an unsubtle way: the Galar region from Sword and Shield, for example, is based on the United Kingdom.

Pokémon Go has also increasingly integrated real-life activity into its progression systems. You walk to hatch eggs, select a buddy Pokémon to gain more candy, and undertake specific field research tasks in your local area to net significant rewards. The accessible world of Pokémon Go is a prototype of the congenial societal makeup of Rime City from the film "Detective Pikachu," which grossed over $430 million at the box office. Rime City is a place where people and Pokémon live in harmony -- not as master and pet (or whatever you call a Pokémon companion), but as co-workers, neighbors and fellow citizens. Now, in our world as in the fictional metropolis, Pokémon extend far past the boundaries of media, permeating reality as an inescapable global phenomenon.

But there's far more to it than just fitness goals and local landmarks: the fact is that Pokémon has always been something that brought people together to experience a shared passion. It's a fantasy world, but its status as something that connects people to one another makes it so much more. And now, as it becomes even more intertwined with reality, that effect, that capability to unite people, is increasing at an exponential rate. Whether you're a near-70 actor or a player roaming a remote island, choosing to spend time with Pokémon is choosing to share joy with others.

Recently, a toxic segment of the Pokémon fandom emerged from the shadows and betrayed the overall community's sense of wholesomeness. Disappointed by the executive decision to cut the National Dex from Pokémon -- a Pokedex featuring every creature every designed -- this splinter faction spat hate at developers, labeling the phenomenon "Dexit." The community at large responded by creating a "ThankYouGameFreak" hashtag on Twitter, which fans all over the world used to share personal stories of how Pokémon helped them in some special way. This riposte against the toxicity showcased the community's shared joy and passion.

I remember playing out the back garden when I was six years old, armed with nothing more than a plastic bucket and spade. I had recruited several fellow trainers from the vicinity, all aspiring Pokémon masters between the ages of four and eight, to join me on my expedition. "There's bound to be a Diglett here somewhere," I told them, arms tiring from plunging plastic garden tools into sun-baked dirt. "You never know, maybe even a Dugtrio -- if we're lucky."

Now, however, my recollections of hunting for Diglett as a child are no longer tied to children's playthings. The world of Pokémon has been made accessible, tangible and become a wholly positive force capable of creating real connections between people and, for its fans, making everyday lives extraordinary.