I spent the past weekend indoors not because the temperature was too hot outside but because after weeks of delay the game Pokémon Go had been released in Taiwan. I already knew that, come Monday, I would have to confront this new — dare I call it reality? — on my way to the office and wanted to delay that confrontation for as long as possible.
Still, Pokémon succeeded in invading the peace of my home not because I was looking for the virtual critters inside my apartment (I didn’t and never will), but because the game craze had invaded the news. Every local channel had segments on players hunting the virtual critters in parks, streets, and famous landmarks around the nation. Some night footage of perambulating hordes of Pokémon addicts was oddly reminiscent of B-rated zombie movies. Other news items reported on the more than 200 people who have been fined so far for playing the game at inappropriate venues or while, stunningly, driving a vehicle. There were also reports about the first Pokémon-related traffic injury (a man fell from his motorcycle in New Taipei City while playing the game on his phone, breaking his knee and sustaining various bruises).
Public transportation authorities have since been compelled to announce the fines that will be imposed on those who are caught playing Pokémon Go in train and MRT stations. Military bases have already made the game off-limits.
Smart phones were already bad enough, what with the epidemic of completely disconnected people who block traffic during rush hour while typing almost-always inane messages or playing games that we have experienced in recent years. I have lost count of the number of occasions that someone has bumped into me in public spaces because their eyes were glued to their phones — no apology, no acknowledgement, in fact, that the perpetrator had collided with a real person, with reality. People have stopped looking around them; they are now isolated, their world limited to a tiny screen that provides high doses of visual stimuli but little else. It is even believed that there could have been fewer victims in the May 2014 stabbing incident in the Taipei MRT had it not been for the fact that most commuters’ attention was completely directed at their cell phone screens. For some of the victims, the pixels on the screen of their telephones, the chat bubbles or RPGs, were more real than the bloody knife that was being raised behind their back, eager to slice their life away.
The fact that the authorities have to fine and threaten fines for such behavior is alarming in itself and demonstrates the public hazard that this new fascination with virtual reality has become.
Yes, Pokémon Go isn’t only a threat to national security, as some governments have determined; people can — and will — get injured. Some will even die. In fact, funeral homes in Taiwan are expecting it and are prepared to handle the passage of people from this world into the next while they were trying to capture creatures that do not even exist. As if that wasn’t worrying enough, a number of funeral homes are offering discounts for people who lose their lives because of accidents caused by Pokémon Go. People continue to pay the full costs of a funeral if they are decapitated by random killers, calcinated in a terrible bus accident, or lose their battle to a terrible disease. But if you die because some idiot was driving his vehicle while hunting down a yellow critter and ran you over, or if you’re the idiot who fell off a bridge while chasing a blue one, you’re entitled to a discount, as if you were owed something. It’s as if dying while playing the game, or killing some hapless victim in the process, were not only expected but acceptable.
I’m not exactly sure what this bizarre incentive to death tells us about the state of our society, but whatever it is it can’t be flattering.
There’s so much wonder to see out there, from great works of art to natural scenery, a beautiful woman to a playing child. Have we become so alienated from each other that we must superimpose virtual critters onto reality, and in the process make the real world a more hazardous place?
First Editor: Olivia Yang
Second Editor: Edward White