Pokémon Go and our longing for the world to be transformed

Chad Thornhill

To say Pokémon Go has taken over the world would be an exaggeration, but perhaps only a slight one. Only two days after its release, the app was installed on 5 percent of Android devices in the United States, surpassing Tinder. Though the game is free to play, its popularity has caused Nintendo’s shares to jump 10 percent overnight. So what’s all the buzz about?

A Vox explainer describes it this way: “Pokémon Go uses your phone’s GPS and clock to detect where and when you are in the game and make Pokémon ‘appear’ around you (on your phone screen) so you can go and catch them.” (Pokémon, to the uninitiated, are bizarre creatures that often resemble animals.) Pokémon Go, then, creates an augmented reality out of our familiar places, making for some great photos. Since popular local destinations show up as in-game locations, many players have been unexpectedly sent to church.

There is likely little evangelism value here, yet the way Pokémon Go alters reality does have some parallels with a Christian understanding of how our world will one day be wondrously transformed. As I introduced my older children to the game this weekend, they marveled at the world created by the game and daydreamed about what it would be like “if the Pokémon were real and we could really take them home.” Pokémon Go creates the feeling that these critters are a part of our world. In some sense it also makes us feel as if we are a part of theirs.

Augmented reality, though entertaining, is different from transformed reality.

Of course, augmented reality, though entertaining, is different from transformed reality. (And having a Charmander in the house would likely be problematic.) Perhaps augmented reality games simply recognize that our world could use some improvement and give us a vision of how it might be different. Though an interactive game world full of Pikachu (I still haven’t caught one of those loveable creatures) is an enjoyable break from the physical world, it still only gives us a glimpse of a truly altered one.

Still, there is an echo here of the Christian hope for this world to be transformed. The New Testament portrays a holistic view of the salvation and restoration of both humans and creation. As Christopher Wright argues in Salvation Belongs to Our God, “The Bible’s description of God acting in salvation includes the whole of human life in every dimension and is not merely an insurance policy for our souls after death.” This means that creation itself is awaiting its renewal, as Paul expresses in Romans. We see glimpses of this, but we also live in between the ages, where God’s kingdom on earth has dawned but is not yet fully present, and so evil still creates havoc. We recognize that the world is not as it should be and is in need of change. So as we immerse ourselves in the altered reality of something like Pokémon Go (and its likely successors), may we remember that our world longs not only to be altered, but to be fully renewed and transformed. And may we live in the hope of the coming fullness of the kingdom, when our Lord Himself returns.

Topics: Games, Culture At Large, Science & Technology, Technology, Arts & Leisure, Theology & The Church, Theology