Starting last Wednesday, New York City pedestrians began acting strange—more strange than usual. They walked as if they were failing a sobriety test, starting and stopping at random intervals while deathgripping their smartphones and furiously swiping their screens. Dogs looked askance at their owners. Drivers went on high alert. These pedestrians’ eyes darted wildly, both in fear and awe of one another. Pokémon Go—the new hit augmented reality mobile game—had descended upon the city.
Before this week, the terms “Pokéballs,” “Pokéstops,” “charmanders,” and “lures” meant absolutely nothing to me—but I soon realized that if I wanted to keep up with the kids, I better learn. And so, I caved and downloaded the game, while my coworkers educated me on these terms, which might as well have been in Dutch, and explained why and how people were walking all over the city to catch these so-called Pokémon cartoon monsters. I customized a "trainer"—the human character meant to snatch Pokémon—to look enough like me, and within minutes was traversing downtown Manhattan with the app’s GPS-enabled map open, trying to catch monsters, and most important of all, find other players. Because let's be honest: The main reason this game appealed to me was not the promise of becoming a master trainer—it was the promise of getting a date.
For the uninitiated, Pokémon came to America in the late ‘90s, inspired by a Japanese game called Pocket Monsters. In the game, human "trainers" must catch the various monsters and train them for battle. It would be barbaric if the 'lil guys weren’t so cute. The video games led to trading cards and a wildly popular TV series, and though it’s seen a lull in recent years, the crashing Pokémon Go servers are a testament to just how many people were laying in wait for the next generation game.
As someone who has dated a lot and written about dating a lot, experience has shown that some of the best dating apps aren’t labeled as such. I’ve gotten way more dates via Twitter than I have through Hinge, for example, and know others who have found Words with Friends much more conducive to meeting likeminded people than Bumble. So when I heard that this GPS-controlled game had taken hold of my country, and especially my city—and that some folks were already suggesting it might double as a dating tool—I hit the streets, armed with my iPhone and my wing-woman/poké-guide/coworker Molly. I couldn't wait to, as the game’s slogan says, “catch ‘em all.”
Our quest began near Astor Place in Manhattan’s East Village neighborhood, where I loaded up on Pokéballs—the things you throw at the Pokémon to catch them—at different Pokéstops—stations that appear every block or so on the screen, meant for getting virtual game supplies. Once I had the basics down, I was on the hunt for lures. These are spots on the map where tiny pink hearts flutter romantically, signaling that other users are congregating. After visiting a few lures throughout the neighborhood (and spotting a gaggle of preteen boys obviously playing along, too), Molly and I came upon a couple and a man on his own, all seemingly in their 20s, doing the eye-darting thing. We knew we’d found our people.
“Hey, are you guys playing Pokémon Go?” I innocently asked. “Yes,” the man in the couple replied, as did the other man nearby. Our three factions stood in an obtuse triangle, exchanging random musings about lures and balls and glancing absentmindedly at our phones. When the couple eventually wandered away, Molly turned to the lone man. “Hey, have you chosen a team yet?” She asked him. (Every player eventually chooses to be on the red, blue, or yellow team, for reasons still unclear to me.) “Yea, I’m on red,” he said. “Oh, I’m on yellow. But Marisa doesn’t have a team yet.” Damn, she was good.
I sidled up to the guy, who was wearing a tight henley t-shirt, shorts, and aviator sunglasses. He was a few inches shorter than me, making it easy to peer at his screen. “Did you hear that there are almost more Pokémon Go downloads for Android than Twitter downloads?” he asked us. I hadn't, but I nodded vaguely, intent on keeping this going. “Molly and I were saying how funny it would be if people used the game for meeting dates.” This was no time for subtlety.
He laughed, then dropped the g-bomb: “Right? My girlfriend isn’t too crazy about me wandering around and talking to random girls about a video game!” While I was tempted to say that it sounded like there were some deeper issues at play, I politely wrapped up our chat and said we had to be going to the next lure.
But the next few lures proved equally fruitless—leading Molly to suggest we set one of our own right outside the office. Genius. Because I didn’t have enough points or balls or monsters or something, I couldn’t do it, but Molly was gracious enough to set one for me. She believes in love, above all. Even after creating this custom virtual love den and walking around in circles for a cumulative FIVE miles, however, I came up empty-handed. It was time to activate phase two. Or, simply put: I needed Tinder.
Some data indicate that Pokémon Go has already overtaken Tinder in number of downloads on Android devices. But for my quest, I still had to lean on the ubiquitous dating app to try and land a date. Specifically? I changed my default Tinder photo to a screengrab of my trainer avatar and made my bio “Pokémon Go ‘n Chill,” a nod to the overdone Netflix ‘n Chill. A real poké-master with the heart of a poké-trainer and the body of a god would surely recognize my dedication to the game and reach out, right? Right?
After swiping for minutes, or perhaps hours, I finally got a match. “How many Pokémon have you caught so far?" a guy we'll call Bob asked me. After we exchanged a few messages, he said, “Maybe a wild Marisa will appear at a bar for a drink.” At first I was alarmed, but Molly assured me this was poké-lingo, as the Pokémon have a tendency to just pop up around you. Phew. I shot back with “You’ll have to catch me.” The student became the master.
But once we decided to see this thing through, my guilt set in. I told Bob that I was not a true fan, and that I was using Pokémon Go and Tinder as an experiment, knowing this could be the end of our chat. Instead of running to catch another, though, he took my confession in stride and was amused. Maybe this really was the beginning of a great love story.
Either way—whether Bob and I go on one date or get married, I can still say that I successfully set my first lure. And when I later received a message from a different man saying, "Ey girl, you must train charizards because you're hot as hell," I knew it was worth it.
Marisa Kabas is a Sex + Life reporter based in New York City. She loves baseball, bunnies and bagels.