Carmen George

Across generations, people using Pokémon for good

Librarian Veronica Casanova shows off a charmander Pokémon in the Exeter Branch Library. During the month of August, children who find all six pictures of Pokémon hidden in the library win a small toy.
Librarian Veronica Casanova shows off a charmander Pokémon in the Exeter Branch Library. During the month of August, children who find all six pictures of Pokémon hidden in the library win a small toy. cgeorge@fresnobee.com

Jeanine Johnson decorates her van with Pokémon images every Saturday night, although she’s not quite sure what these creatures are.

The decorations, which include a lit-up disco ball and Christmas lights, advertise a “Poké Shop” in downtown Visalia that the Women of the Moose opened a month ago.

“They are just cute characters who are happy,” the 51-year-old says of the make-believe creatures in the immensely popular Pokémon Go mobile game. “I don’t know really what they are meant to do. Save the world or something? … I just know that there are teams, and I really don’t know what they do with each other. I don’t know if they fight – do they fight each other? Do they go to the gym? Do they go to church?”

All good questions.

Johnson politely listens as I explain what I know – how once you catch enough Pokémon, you can join one of three teams, then you can train and fight your little guys in Pokémon gyms.

We agree that her idea of church-going Pokémon sounds nicer.

“There is a lot of fighting and shooting and stuff going on,” Johnson says of the world today. “I always go the other way. I’m thinking they (Pokémon players) are going out to have a good time. No fights, no arguing. Let’s pray together.”

Profits from snacks, games and Pokémon apparel sold at the Visalia Poké Shop support the Women of the Moose in their efforts to help children. Moose International primarily funds Mooseheart Child City & School, a facility near Chicago for children growing up without family. Their Visalia Poké Shop is in a great location, since a mural of giant sequoias on the building where they hold meetings is a PokéStop – a location in the game where players can get items to catch and aid Pokémon. Before talking with the nice Moose ladies, I drove to the Exeter Branch Library to meet librarian Veronica Casanova, who runs a Pokémon scavenger hunt aimed at children too young to play the game on a cell phone. During the month of August, children can find six pictures of various Pokémon hidden around the library to win a small toy.

Helping orphans and getting kids excited about going to the library are just a couple examples of how Pokémon are being used for the greater good. Fellow Bee Rory Appleton has pointed out other good things, including Pokémoners spending their cash at local businesses and a physical education class at Fresno City College that will use Pokémon to get people excited about walking.

As many millions continue to play the game around the world, I gathered some more Poké thoughts from older, younger and not-so-younger people wandering around downtown Visalia on Saturday night.

Moose member Gwen Young points out that although Pokémon are questionable creatures – “they are like extreme dinosaurs on acid” – they are helping get “oldsters” off the couch.

“Someone who is not a youngster, someone my age, you know what I mean?” Young explains. “We’re young at heart but physically we’re not young anymore. But we were here having a meeting one night, and there were adults running down this street. It was something to see, a bunch of not-the-fittest people running, chasing an illusionary extreme dinosaur.”

Another perk: Family and friend bonding time. The Aguilar family of five was having a grand time catching Pokémon together Saturday night. Even dad was playing – although he didn’t admit it at first. The family affair was led by 18-year-old Jorge Aguilar, who loves Pokémon so much that his first word as a baby was “pikachu” – a bright yellow bunny-looking animal that can shoot lightning.

And this brings us to another point: What’s not to like about cute, make-believe animals with names that make you giggle?

Pokémon have brightened my mood many times – like when I found a diglett, a nice little mole creature, popping out of my parents’ couch, or when I was on a weekend trip to the coast stuck in standstill traffic on Highway 1 and I handed my phone to my mom, sitting in the passenger seat, who caught me a bulbasaur – a sort of cross between a green bulldog, a turtle and a plant.

Not everyone is thrilled about Pokémon, of course, such as 63-year-old Laura Fredman of Arizona. As the Aguilar family searched for Pokémon, she sat on a nearby bench unamused. For one thing, she doesn’t get that Pokémon appear in “real life” via the camera phone: “You can’t catch something that’s not there.”

But mostly, she just thinks the game is dangerous. She’s seen a driver stop in the middle of the street to catch a Pokémon and says someone in her town pushed a teenager to the ground so he could catch a Pokémon first. (For the record, when Rory Appleton and I went Pokémoning, we were both able to catch the same Pokémon at the same time. No need for a stampede.)

Still, these are valid concerns – as is not leaving young children unattended, letting Pokémon take over your life, or accidentally walking off a cliff or crashing into a cop car on the hunt to find cartoon animals. But let’s just say that kids could be doing more dangerous stuff than tapping a cell phone with their index finger. When I was growing up, I jumped out of trees for fun and nearly got bit by rattlesnakes while riding my bike.

Fellow 27-year-old Jared Davis adds that catching Pokémon also makes us happy by appealing to our natural desire to collect. Davis explains that Pokémon’s founder collected bugs as a child, and this passion would eventually lead him to create limitless imaginary animals to discover. Just don’t get too carried away with the whole “gotta catch ‘em all thing,” especially if you heard the same rumor Chris Silva did – that one of the rarest Pokémon, an alien named Mewtwo, is hidden within restricted Area 51.

And then there is just plain nostalgia, and now, tradition. Sarah Pountney, who grew up watching Pokémon, is now happily catching them all beside her two young daughters. Some of us 20-somethings grew up wishing we could find all the world’s Pokémon some day, and that day has finally come.

Perhaps nothing sums it up better than this heartwarming message from “CosmicPube,” shared on Visalia Pokémon Go’s Facebook page: “I am so happy for all of you. Seriously. When you were little, you wanted to be Pokemon trainers when you grew up, and we all scoffed and thought, ‘How cute.’ But now look. You are all living that dream. It won’t make you money. It won’t pay your bills. It won’t give you a good rate on an IRA. But I see it brings you joy. That’s just as important. … All of you grown up 10-year-olds, go out there and get all the Pokémons. Have the fun that the little you always longed for.”

Carmen George: 559-441-6386, @CarmenGeorge

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