Last September, rather a mischievous student at my school attempted to bemuse, outwit or irritate his teachers by making it sound as though he was exclaiming 'Pikachu!' when he sneezed. Reactions varied. Depending on moods, situations and everything else going on in a busy classroom, some teachers found it infuriating while others simply thought it was ridiculous. I'm sure some didn't notice, and equally I'm sure he didn't try it out in every lesson. He might have thought he was being retro with his Pokémon reference, but actually he was right ahead of a trend: even I haven't managed to escape noticing that much of the western world has been gripped by the Pokémon Go! phenomenon.
Pokémon Go! mixes virtual reality with 'actual reality', allowing users to search out characters through their phone screens in locations which they visit in real life. Hence in the seaside holiday resort where I live, I've seen teenagers scuttling around streets and promenades and even beaches, their iPhones held aloft, searching and swiping and high five-ing. Parents smile indulgently: I suppose it gets them out of the house... I've heard that sightings of a rare and high stakes Pokémon caused chaos in New York this weekend, and that a crash in the game's server on Saturday night made already-addicted players feel that their lives were virtually over. Pun fully intended.
Police forces in several parts of the world have issued health and safety warnings about the game, saying that it could lead absorbed players to walk out into traffic, or outlawing playing while at the wheel. The quest to capture Pokémon characters has been leading hunters to unsuitable places as diverse as the Cenotaph in London, a graveyard where a funeral was in progress, people's private property, a sex shop. The tutting about the world of modern technology has been as evident as the scuttling gamers following their iPhones as if they were possessed: and every bit as predictable. But is there more to the Pokémon Go! thing than just this? Does it actually sum up an awful lot about how we live these days, exposing our weak points and what sometimes makes it hard for us to sleep at night?
Pokémon Go! is all about the reward. It's all about the competition: get ahead of other players, catch another and another and another, and aim to catch the rarer and higher value creatures to amass more points than your rivals or better your personal best. Get to another level by playing, and playing, and playing some more. Get the in app purchases which will help you; read about cheats and tricks. In other words, get completely obsessed with the thing until it takes over your entire summer. There are stories of the sort of clever entrepreneurship which simply makes me laugh in a kind of bewildered admiration: playing the game runs down the iPhone battery, so people have opened lucrative charging stations near to hunting 'hotspots'. Like so many of the other recent crazes, it's harmless and it's fun, but...
But then you start to analyse it all. It's the summer holidays for so many of us, and the Pokémon Go! craze has coincided well with that. It gives us something to do, and makes us leave our computer monitors behind and get outdoors. The 'buts' gather on street corners and I catch them without even taking my phone out of my pocket to swipe the screen. The game is all about the reward. At work, at school, it's all about the targets, the grades, what teenagers call the gainz. It's all about what we can achieve to the extent that we have to make a deliberate effort to live life in the moment, with books and CDs and Apps encouraging Mindfulness becoming increasingly popular as so much of the western world teeters on the edge of total burnout.
Even on our holidays, it seems, we push for more. We want the full experience. Living in a holiday resort is at once amusing and exhausting, as families in shorts and fleeces, bearing furled windbreaks under their arms like some kind of military equipment, push past you as they stride determinedly towards the beach, where they'll sit doggedly for a few hours in a westerly gale. A few days ago, when the sun suddenly came out one evening after a week's rain, I saw a family enjoying the typical seaside fish and chips overlooking the sea. Idyllic, you might think - until I explain that this was one of about six families squeezed onto four benches, so that the children had to sit on the ground and eat their fish supper from the pavement. I recoiled in utter horror: surely faced with this alternative, you'd go somewhere else, return to your car, go home? But no: the day at the seaside includes fish and chips and that's the rule. Even if it's on the pavement, on a street corner. Gotta eat 'em all...
The traffic and pedestrian chaos caused by Pokémon Go! is just an exaggerated version of how so many of us seem to behave on holiday anyway. Loosed from our desks and from our targets, all stressed out and nothing to aim for, we forge ahead anyway, determined to get there first, be first in the queue, get the whole experience, and be able to flood social media with our successful, reward-gaining lifestyle. The better the experience, the higher the reward: if we can tell everyone about something that makes them really jealous, our cachet points soar. We might be on holiday, but we're still pushing for those targets. Giving 110%. Doing better than our best. It might be just a game, but we're playing it for real. The creatures we're trying to catch might be virtual, but there's virtually nothing we won't turn into a target worth fighting for. Or so it seems.
But who am I to know? I never latch on to the summer's latest trend. I find it ridiculous when someone sneezes and it sounds like Pikachu. When I go for a walk, I like to look at the seascapes and the people I encounter. I've even stopped taking photos of the landscape to tweet or post on Facebook. There are enough pressures: enough targets: enough demands.
Pokémon Go? I won't catch 'em at all.