'Pokemon Go' Can't Cure Rural Loneliness

Here's why the game won't break down small-town social barriers like it does in cities. 

Jacqueline Ronson

I finally got my Pokémon Go account last week. I’d never played any sort of Pokémon before, but I was excited to see the little monsters hanging around in augmented reality, and to glimpse a phenomenon that has swept the world. What got me the most excited, though, was all the reports of the game bringing strangers together, breaking down social barriers, and providing moments of spontaneous, joyful interaction. Sadly, that isn’t a reality for everyone.

I moved to a Canadian small town of a few thousand people a year ago. I came for the wilderness and the proximity to close friends and family. But while I have several great friends in the area, I haven’t met all that many new people, particularly right here in town. I wasn’t banking on finding my tribe by playing Pokémon Go, but I thought it might at least net me some smiles and hellos, and a sense of being a part of a community.

My first evening of Pokéwalking was disappointing. My town is big enough for two Pokmon gyms and maybe a dozen Pokéstops, all within about a half mile along the main drag. The weather was lovely and lots of people were out playing — it’s just that everyone was playing alone or with their own crew. No one lifts their head for that look of recognition, like “Hey, you too?”

It was like showing up at a high school party that’s too quiet, too bright, and too empty. A group of teenage boys loitered with their bikes and skateboards between two Pokéstops where they had set up lures. No other players approached to take advantage of the Pokébounty; it was clear that they had marked their territory.

It could be that I felt like a fish out of water because I was the only childless 30-year-old playing by herself, but it wasn’t just that. Inside a burger joint where I came in for a bite, the teenager behind the counters asked some friends who stopped by in a loud, derisive tone, “Is she playing Pokémon Go?” He wasn’t referring to me, but I felt shamed anyhow. I did my best to look like someone who texts constantly, rather than a full-grown adult out looking for digital creatures in the real world.

It seems the lines had been drawn — kids with a group of friends to play with, those brave enough to play alone, and those eager to mock others for getting into the latest nerdy fad. Although Pokémon Go is undoubtedly a sensation, it’s probably true that you have to be a little bit of a weirdo to get super into it. The difference is that cities offer both anonymity and a critical mass of weirdos finding each other in the places where Pokémon like to hide.

I’m still a huge fan of Pokémon Go. I show it off to all my friends and sneak a few pocket monsters into my clutch whenever I can. But I’ve given up on the idea that the game can make the place I live feel more like home. There just aren’t enough of my particular brand of weirdo in the area where I live to make it likely that I’ll bump into them — even with help from the likes of Pikachu.