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Our Pokémon, Ourselves

“Uber for Pokémon” and a special Chicago subreddit show just how well the mobile game capitalizes on our new obsessions.

A Drowzee relaxes at Hollywood Beach, and a Bellsprout enjoys brunch at Longman & Eagle.   Photos: Bettina Chang (left); Carrie Schedler

Pokémon riding the el. Pokémon enjoying beach volleyball by the lake. Pokémon brunching at trendy Logan Square spots.

It’s 2016, Pokémon are back, and they’re behaving a lot like … us.

The mobile app Pokémon Go has taken over the city, and it’s a truly 21st century phenomenon. Augmented reality, which the game uses to make Pokémon appear like they’re standing on the sidewalk (or beach, or Metra seat) in front of you, isn’t new, but it’s giving life to a dear wish of any Pokéfan—that the adorable, obedient creatures could exist in real life.

And while a lot of the appeal of the game has to do with searching for and meeting real-life players in real-life spaces, the ’90s video game thoroughly benefits from our overly tech-connected 2016 lives. It already has its own Chicago-specific subreddit (need tips on finding Dratini? want advice on which team to join?). The Chicago story on Snapchat is lousy with Pokéjokes, and #pokemongochi on Instagram makes it look like a full-fledged invasion; the app is already more popular than Tinder.

By this morning, three enterprising Chicagoans already offered up their services on Craigslist: One promised to drive Pokémon Go users around, allowing them catch ’em all in a “comfortable SUV” for $25 an hour—like Uber, but for the laziest of trainers. Another went a step further, offering to level up the customer themselves after being provided login information—just $20 for 10 levels. One poster in Romeoville is open to all of the above.

It might seem like a massive comeback. But the truth is, Pokémon never left.

Back in 2011, Wired did an excellent feature on how the franchise had remained so popular throughout the years. At the time, the most recent releases Pokémon Black and White sold more than 1 million units in their first day in the U.S. Pokémon X and Y, released in 2013, broke the record for Nintendo 3DS game sales when it moved 4 million copies worldwide in two days. (Pokémon Go had an estimated 7.5 million U.S. downloads yesterday, according to TechCrunch.)

But for those who allowed their Poké-obsessions to languish for years, Pokémon Go is the perfect re-entry point. I’m 27 now, which means I was 10 when Pokémon Red/Blue was released in the U.S. in 1998. (You can tell the game is focusing on its older customers since only the original 150 characters are available for capture—sorry, Froakie lovers.) My generation grew up glued to Game Boy Color screens, leveling up our Pikachus and Pidgeots, and now we finally have our own income to spend on our goal of becoming the very best, that no one ever was.

Kudos, makers of Pokémon. You have managed to capture both the tech-obsessed and the “back to real life” factions of my generation. Now, I hear there’s a Dratini near my office, so I’ll see you after my incense wears off.

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