(Apologies for the tortured title!)
Pokémon feels like the craze that just won’t give up. When I was at school and the trading cards were huge, Pokémon felt like it was everywhere and yet, even then, I wouldn’t have dreamed that fifteen years later it would still be a ‘thing’.
And make no mistake, whilst I’m sure many kids are playing the game, a whole load of people from my generation are also playing it – clever ‘twenty-somethings’ whose opinions I respect have taken to the streets to collect fictional monsters.
I don’t want to retread tired arguments over whether this is a good or bad thing. For every person thinking it’s something an adult should be ashamed of, there are others who will point out that it encourages exercise, meeting up and is a celebration of the human imagination.
I’m more interested in the deeper question that is really brought up by those who denounce it as a legitimate form of adult entertainment. Because, make no mistake, that issue gets deep fast.
How can you talk about the legitimacy of Pokémon Go without having a view on the role of pleasure and happiness (in general) in a healthy adult life?
And how can you have an understanding of the role of pleasure and happiness in a human life without some kind of personal view on what you think the meaning of life is?
Pokémon Go may also just be a symptom of what some people are calling ‘infantilisation’, essentially the idea that adulthood is becoming increasingly infantile and stuck in a state of arrested development. It’s something I’ve been meaning to write about for a while so Pokémon Go offers a fantastic springboard into a quite fascinating topic.
Is ‘infantilisation’ a real thing?
Pokémon Go might be the finest piece of evidence yet that our generation is having a little trouble growing up, but it’s something that people have been recognising for a while.
What was the last film you watched? Was it a sophisticated adult drama or a recent blockbuster predominately aimed at kids?
What was the last book you read? Was it an acknowledged classic or the latest YA phenomenon?
What was the last TV show you watched? Was it an educational documentary or the latest piece of reality garbage to be commissioned? Perhaps you don’t even watch TV anymore but can make do with three minute YouTube clips.
When you start to answer these questions honestly it, admittedly, builds up a picture of a generation who, at the very least, doesn’t have the most sophisticated palette.
A huge part of this, it’s suggested, has been the rise of ‘geek culture’. So many of the blockbuster properties were once something a niche group (identified as ‘geeks’) were into, but now these properties (mainly superhero movies) are mainstream. Everybody knows who Iron Man and Captain America are now, and chances are you’ve seen at least one of their movies.
As someone who would identify as a geek, who loves superhero movies and Doctor Who, I often have to reflect on what that says about me. Yet even Simon Pegg, who is something of a poster boy for geek culture, has recently said comic book movies are dumbing us down.
Movies are not the only things accused of having been infantilised, however. Some have suggested the food we now eat is aimed at kids, with so many restaurants offering burgers and chips/pizza as the staple dish. And what about adult colouring books? Is the term itself something of an oxymoron?
And now we have Pokémon Go to add to the list, which has fully grown adults talking about the number of fictional animals they have captured on an app.
What, you may ask, might be responsible for this seeming arrested development?
Well one theory is that we begin living an ‘adult life’ much later now. A huge proportion of us go to university whereas a few decades ago we might have taken up a trade. Equally, with buying your first property being an ever increasingly difficult looking proposition, more of us are living with our parents for longer. This may be keeping us mollycoddled so we live a pseudo-adult life, plus it likely brings new financial benefits.
If you’re not paying off a mortgage or spending a high amount on rent, what do you spend your money on? Probably the latest phones, movies and game consoles. Perhaps consumerism itself is juvenile in nature (always wanting the next best thing), yet our lifestyles are becoming ever more comfortable with it.
So infantilisation is real then?
Well, probably, but not necessarily.
For infantilisation to be real, we would surely need to have a way to neatly delegate what is for children and what is for adults, which might be a harder job than initially thought.
So what make something childish?
A gut answer might be a thing is childish if it’s something you do as a child, but that seems too broad. There are loads of things we do as children that we continue to do as an adult. We eat, sleep and get dressed as children but it would be a strange view indeed that suggested those things are childish.
Perhaps then something is childish if it’s designed specifically for children? But again, this doesn’t seem satisfactory. It seems possible to me that a writer could write a book aimed at children and accidentally capture something that draws adults too. Equally, if the creator of Postman Pat decided the show was for adults, it wouldn’t stop it being weird to assume that’s really the case. Ultimately art becomes separate from the creator, so this doesn’t seem sufficient.
Actually, when you think about it, there’s not a clear, easy way to determine between ‘childish’ and ‘adult’. This is not to suggest that such a distinction doesn’t exist, but it does remind us the distinction isn’t always easy to make.
What does it mean for food to be ‘childish’? Who’s to say that colouring in isn’t something adults should do?
Perhaps these distinctions have more to do with snobbery than reason.
And it’s important to remember the narrative that we’re getting increasingly infantile is one that’s hard to empirically show, but all too easy to argue with anecdotes.
One might argue, for example, that infantilisation is what causes people to read Rowling instead of Dickens, but that forgets that Harry Potter was celebrated because it encouraged people to read who otherwise might not be reading at all. It was actually the reverse of infantilisation – this is why we must be cautious when making assumptions about such things.
Is infantilisation necessarily bad?
However, let’s assume that infantilisation is happening. Is it necessarily a bad thing?
If we think there really is a way to distinguish between ‘adult’ and ‘childish’, is there a reason to think a childish life is a worse one?
Would making such a claim imply a telos (purpose) to life?
Because, if we’re being honest, (you might want to whisper this), isn’t life a bit, well, meaningless? Doesn’t all the evidence point to the fact that our very existence is a freak accident, we live this bizarre life and then we die (and probably, unfortunately, don’t ever come back)? What kind of purpose could you extend to a life when you see it in these terms?
Two goals I would think still worth pursuing are:
- Help others. Alleviate their suffering and contribute towards their pleasure.
- Live as happy a life as you can.
In a world where purpose is not clear to see, living as happily as you can seems as good a creed as any.
And so, if Pokémon Go is what makes people happy, why should we object to it?
I myself can attest to the joy I experience watching a new episode of Doctor Who, it’s a genuine high for me. Should I feel that excited by it? I don’t know, but it doesn’t really mater to me. What does matter is it makes me feel happy, and in that sense genuinely makes my day-to-day life easier.
I guess the question is does the source of happiness really matter, as long as you are in fact happy? (Assuming, of course, that the source of happiness is not harming others.)
Does a ‘childish’ source of pleasure count less than an ‘adult’ one, even if the chemical response in the brain that causes the feeling of happiness is exactly the same?
If not, then is infantilisation just a change and not really a problem?
This comes close to my own view but then the thought experiment of Robert Nozick’s Experience Machine comes to mind. The Experience Machine isn’t a million miles away from the idea of ‘The Matrix’, and is essentially a simulated reality which could be programmed to make you happy.
Would you prefer to be hooked up to the happiness machine or live a real life? If you choose the latter, then you are essentially saying that happiness is not the only intrinsically valuable thing – there’s a value to experiences which goes beyond how happy they make you.
This thought experiment is particularly potent in the wake of the first mainstream augmented reality game. Is Pokémon Go, and the way it blurs the distinction between real life and fantasy, just the first step towards the Experience Machine? Might augmented and virtual reality essentially offer us Nozick’s Experience Machine – might a virtual house, virtual world, heck, even virtual sex life one day be more pleasurable than the real thing?!
I don’t know, but it would feel somewhat counter-intuitive to say that those virtual experiences would be of the same value as real ones.
This is all a long way of coming round to the idea that perhaps what we need is not an ‘either/or’ approach but an approach of balance.
Should adults feel bad for playing Pokémon Go if it brings them happiness? Probably not, because happiness is something to be valued.
Should adults feel bad for playing Pokémon Go if it brings them happiness, at the expense of a well rounded adulthood? The answer to that is a bit more tricky (what is a ‘well rounded adulthood’?), but the answer might, in this case, be ‘perhaps’.
If a person spends more time on Pokémon Go, or watching Doctor Who, than, say, learning about the political system of their country, then that might be a problem (and let’s be honest, we all know a lot of people have probably plundered many more hours into a video game than they spent learning about the consequences of the recent EU referendum.)
But, here’s the thing, I rarely see evidence that those who play/watch ‘infantile’ things are in any way less engaged with the real world. It doesn’t follow that because I watch Marvel movies that I can’t also read political essays, or travel the world. The two aren’t mutually exclusive, and as far as I’m aware there’s no evidence to suggest they’re often practiced exclusively.
Further still, there may well be a value to holding onto ‘childish’ things in a balanced adult life. For example, I find in Doctor Who an optimism and lack of cynicism which isn’t found in a lot of depressing and often nihilistic ‘adult’ TV programs. Plus a lot of things aimed at children ask really big questions because, after all, aren’t we most philosophical when we’re at our youngest, always asking how and why?
Adult dramas might be able to beautifully capture the minutia of a failing relationship breaking down, but kids stories are almost always about the fundamental forces of good and evil themselves.
Might it be that becoming an adult is not about rejecting what we enjoyed as kids, it’s just about widening what we consume? Playing Pokémon Go is fine, just make some time for looking over the news. Watching superhero movies is cool, but why not read a classic novel when you get back?
We don’t need to legitimatise children’s things and pretend they’re ‘adult’ (geek culture has often become ugly trying to do just that.)
Accept it, Pokémon Go (like superhero movies, like children’s books), is aimed at kids. And that’s fine. That doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it, just accept it for what it is. Have a balanced diet. Use your imagination. Perhaps those who snub all forms of childhood joy are those with the most limited creative palettes.
And if there is a problem about infantilisation, remember, it’s a problem for our entire generation, not just Pokémon Go players. So before you share a condemning meme ask yourself, what childish activities do you partake in? Have you ever face swapped using an app? Do you watch kid’s movies? Read YA fiction? Then you’re guilty too, and let he without sin throw the first stone as a wise man may have once said.
Otherwise we’re just like children in a childish exchange ‘I’m more mature than you’, ‘No, I’m more mature than YOU’ *blows a raspberry.*
And if you NEVER embrace your inner child then…why not? Maybe it’s you who has the problem.