Art by Sam Woolley.

Pokemon Go Helped Me Cope With My Social Anxiety

Art by Sam Woolley.

The first time I played Pokemon Go, I was terrified. Charmander appeared on my neighbor’s garage door, and as I approached, I could hear sounds coming from inside. Music. People chatting and laughing, socializing. Signs of life.

As I frantically flicked Pokeballs in a nervous outline around Charmander, images rushed through my head of what would happen if somebody opened that garage door. They’d probably want to know what I was doing. I’d have to explain myself. With talking. To a person. With a mouth and a brain and eyes and hair.

Don’t get me wrong: I enjoy being around people, but I have to adequately psych myself up. If I’m not in the right frame of mind, the prospect turns my stomach into a cauldron of agitated butterflies, each of whom is screaming in an adorable little butterfly voice and, of course, puking.

Worst case scenario, the garage door episode probably wouldn’t have been hard to resolve. “I’m not eavesdropping on you, actually!” I could’ve said. “I’m just playing this dumb Pokemon game that’s currently taking the world by storm.” I might have even made a friend if my neighbor, like everyone else on Earth, was playing the game.

But the anxiety people sometimes give me is not rational, nor is it easy to control. It’s the sort of thing that I structure my day around. I spend a lot of time alone, in my own head, where I’m most comfortable. I also do a lot of socializing by way of the Internet, where things don’t feel so frighteningly immediate. Sometimes I even do that while around people, to calm myself down enough to keep spending time with those close to me. It probably seems rude. I should apologize more.

Mostly I operate in two very distinct modes—alone or social—and activating Social Mode takes a degree of willpower I don’t always possess.

The first time I tried to catch a Zubat in Pokemon Go sucked. I was out on a crowded San Francisco street on a Friday night, and the tiny blue asshole with a smaller asshole for a mouth moved like friggin’ Muhammad Ali.

Illustration for article titled Pokemon Go Helped Me Cope With My Social Anxiety

As I wasted Pokeball after Pokeball, people passing by said things like, “Oh man, are you playing Pokemon?” They seemed excited, like they wanted to talk. “Haha yeah,” I replied as sweat pooled on my back, my nerves fractured like glass in a trash compactor and my aim got worse and worse. I didn’t want to talk to them. I didn’t want them to see me fail.

After a fifth person tried to talk to me, I said “Fuck it” and gave up.

After wrapping up a singing lesson last week, I found myself in downtown San Francisco. I didn’t want to drive all the way home in rush hour traffic, so I decided to spend a couple hours hunting for Pokemon in a park.

Walking down the sidewalk, I held my phone at my side, nearly pinned to my leg. I didn’t want people to notice I was playing, in case they wanted to talk about it. Being approached by a stranger who wants to talk about God Only Knows What (But Probably Pokemon) is a nightmare scenario for me. My anxiety is significantly more beatable if I get to socialize on my own terms, deciding who I approach and why. Playing Pokemon Go is like marching around while twirling a lightning rod for random smalltalk.

When I got to the park I saw that multiple people had lures out. “OK,” I figured, “this is my chance to both catch some good Pokemon and engage people on my own terms.” I could approach them if I wanted to, and we already had a topic of conversation. I approached the first lure and, boom, 300 CP Pidgeotto. I caught the shit out of that fucker and named it “Big Bird,” to place it in line with my Pidgey (“Bird”) and Pidgeot (“Biggest Bird”). So far, so good. Everything was going according to plan. I was having fun despite a rising tide of nauseous butterflies.

Illustration for article titled Pokemon Go Helped Me Cope With My Social Anxiety

My next Pokestop was a big statue, with a small crowd gathered at the base of it, drawn by a lure. They were chattering animatedly about the game, talking to each other easily and having a great time. I planted myself near the bottom of a nearby staircase and took a deep breath. I caught a few more Pokemon. Each time, I told myself, “OK, one more Pokemon and then you’ll go talk to them.”

I never talked to them.

It’s not the first time I’ve chickened out of talking to people I really wanted to talk to, and it probably won’t be the last. I feel like I’ve failed when that happens, like I haven’t even been able to climb far enough out of my own head to achieve the status of Regular Functioning Human. Everyone around me was having fun, making new friends, and all the other positive things Pokemon Go seems to promise. Except me. Way to go, me.

After I realized I wasn’t going to talk to anybody, I decided to just walk for a while. WALKS ARE GOOD FOR YOU is not revelatory information. But “I’m gonna go for more walks” is something I’ve always told myself I’ll do, only to fail miserably on the follow through. Credit where credit’s due to the person who invented walks: that shit really does clear your head. That person is probably dead now, but I bet they died in a really healthy headspace.

I spend a lot of time in my head, but usually I’m also writing or reading an article or listening to a podcast or wishing I had never tweeted while composing my next tweet. Pokemon Go is just mindless enough that I have space to think while I walk, free of distractions beyond the occasional flick of a Pokeball.

And yet, there’s still a sense of community to it. Each time I glanced at my screen during my walk in the park, I was acutely aware of the other people around me. I’m a big fan of ambient socializing, of being around others without directly engaging, to feel less isolated. For me, Pokemon Go works as an extension of that.

While walking, I passed a woman who was clearly playing the game as well. We exchanged knowing smiles, and it was nice. It wasn’t some big life-changing moment, but it didn’t need to be. Sometimes being acknowledged is enough, a moment of human connection that doesn’t require me to keep it going, that doesn’t ask me to be someone I’m not.

Though I’d been in that park plenty of times with friends, I’d never really looked around and taken it all in before. This time, though, I paid attention to the paths and the views, to all the little clumps of people taking it easy after work or playing with their dogs. A few people had brought a pinata, and I dare you to watch people thwack open a pinata together and not come away with a dumb grin on your face.

I went home that day with my spirits higher than they’d been in weeks. Instead of feeling like a failure, I discovered a new way to spend my time when I’m just not in a headspace to be social.

I’ve asked friends who share my secret fear that people’s heads will explode into rows of teeth and decapitate them how they approach Pokemon Go. One friend, when asked if Pokemon Go helped her get out of the house, she said, “A little bit. When I notice that someone’s placed a lure in the local dog park, for example, I’ve found myself wandering out there for no reason other than to catch Pokemon. Which is good! I’m pretty sure I’ve developed a slight tan from Actually Going Outdoors this week.”

Much like it’s been for me, though, actually socializing is a different story.

“A lot of Pokemon Go players seem to be talking about interacting with other players IRL, teaming up with strangers to take over gyms, making friends, that sort of thing. This is not something I’ve been doing,” she told me. “When I’m out playing by myself, I actually kind of pray that nobody will approach me and ask me questions about Pokemon. Of course it happens anyway, and I’m not sure what I’m supposed to say. Yes, we have this one shared interest? Yay?”

Illustration for article titled Pokemon Go Helped Me Cope With My Social Anxiety

“My anxiety also has the added layer of me being a small, lightly-built girl in a city where I don’t feel particularly safe,” she explained, adding a layer of complication that I, as an average-sized dude, don’t share. “I’d love to discover more of my neighborhood through visiting Pokestops, but I’m afraid to stray too far from familiar areas alone. I’ve been hit on while playing Pokemon, I’ve been catcalled. I feel incredibly vulnerable.”

“The other day at a train station Pokestop a couple of college-aged guys asked me about what Pokemon I’d caught in the area before going on to joke crudely about me ‘walking around with no protection’ because my iPhone doesn’t have a case on it. It was a bit gross. Thanks to stuff like this, I don’t explore new areas unless I’m with friends, and I don’t play at night even though I’d really love to.”

A few days ago, I attended a Pokemon Go-themed party. A couple friends of mine, both DJs, organized it at the last second, but hundreds of people showed up anyway. Lights flashed. Music pulsated. Lures flowed like wine, encouraging my increasingly plausible idea for a new Pokemon, who is basically just a big ol’ bottle of wine with eyes. It was a hedonistic celebration of a game that captured millions of hearts overnight.

And it was a little bit depressing. I met maybe three new people that night; otherwise, it was an oddly anti-social experience. Instead of dancing or walking or talking, most people just staked out a spot and stared at their phones, praying to the Pokegods that the next buzz would signal the arrival of something other than another goddamn Doduo.

In the moment, I didn’t really know what to make of it all. Pokemon Go creates a rare sensation that feels like human interaction but actually isn’t. It’s a game that can isolate as well as it unifies, even when you’re one among hundreds.

I’ve really been enjoying ambiently socializing through Pokemon Go, but I do want to directly socialize with people as well. It was disheartening to have Pokemon Go detract from that when I was finally ready.

During a recent nighttime Poke-walk around my neighborhood, I thought about a lot of the things that have been making me unhappy lately. Uncertainty about the future. A lack of belief in my own skillset. A fear that, when push comes to shove, nobody really has my back and all the things I care about can easily be taken away.

Before long, I found myself thinking about countless conflicts that are boiling to the point of bursting in the US and abroad. People fighting over politics, killing over race and sex and ideology. As much as I hate making any of that about me—because it’s really not—it’s hard not to let it weigh on you. It’s weighing on a lot of people right now. I think Pokemon Go is doing so well because it represents something simple and kind ripped straight out of a time when things seemed simpler and kinder.

And while nostalgia certainly plays a role in the game’s pleasure and appeal, people like my friend Leigh Alexander have pointed out that Pokemon Go takes things a step further. The game enables moments of creativity, generosity, and compassion. People leaving lures at children’s hospitals, discovering things they never knew about their home cities, and making new friends en masse, despite differences. Pokemon Go would be nothing without the stories it’s created. At the end of the day, it might be escapism, but it’s some of the most valuable I’ve encountered.

Illustration for article titled Pokemon Go Helped Me Cope With My Social Anxiety

This is gonna sound like some Hippie-Ass Bullshit, but in that moment I just existed for a bit, apart from all the stuff I’ve been carrying around for the past couple years. And I resolved to do that more often.

But that didn’t solve my problems, because Pokemon Go can’t do that. Anxiety quietly crept back in, as it so often does.

Pokemon Go hasn’t changed my life or anything like that, but it’s made me a bit more comfortable with how I interact in the world. It’s given me an outlet for those times when I want to be alone, but also with people. It’s made me feel less ashamed of those times, because now there’s an outlet for those feelings that countless other people are plugged into too. I’m not sure how long that’ll last, how long the game will be popular, or how many times I can only kind of interact with people without feeling like I’m not doing enough. But for the moment, I’m not gonna sweat it, or at least try not to.

Recently, while out catching Pokemon in an obscure corner of the city, I encountered a couple other people doing the same. We exchanged pleasantries. One showed me a ludicrously high CP Magikarp that they hadn’t evolved yet (“I wanna be the very best… at Magikarp”), and I showed them a Tentacruel that I affectionately nicknamed “Anime Porn.”

“Well, it was cool meeting you,” one of them said after a couple minutes of chit-chat. And then they took off. It was nice, and I barely even had time to feel anxious.

Kotaku senior reporter. Beats: Twitch, streaming, PC gaming. Writing a book about streamers tentatively titled "STREAMERS" to be published by Atria/Simon & Schuster in the future.


Here’s my advice, that I pretty much used to make me a notable person in my high school year:

Don’t be afraid to be an idiot.

Don’t be afraid to do something stupid. If it makes people laugh, then that’s good.

I have a weird way of thinking...