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Why Pokemon Go Feels So Familiar for Gay Men

Pokemon Go

The mobile game taps into our catch-and-release attitude toward dating and sexuality. 

In less than two weeks, Pokemon Go, the augmented reality mobile game, has become the biggest game in U.S. history.

Gay men online didn't take long to compare the game with another popular app--Grindr. After all, l both play into our love of identifying with varying animals (bears vs. Charmanders) as well as our love for hunting "pocket monsters" around town while using GPS-based technology.

However, beyond these comedic similarities, I thought more about why this game has become so popular, especially with other gay men. I wondered--has dating become its own version of Pokemon Go?

The popular game is a great metaphor for online dating, particularly for young gay men--and not just because a Pokemon dating app is actually launching. When you first meet a new guy, it's a new adventure. The electricity between you is like a Jolteon in heat. There's an excitement in this newness, the thrill of unfamiliarity. It's confusing and maybe a bit mysterious at first--an unidentified species.

You start to learn more about each other: your strengths, your weaknesses. You develop a sense of each other's habitat, the food you enjoy, the places on the map you're most likely to be found. You impress each other with your skills, eager to perform up to his standards. Over time, the relationship levels up, gets stronger, and evolves.

And as things start to feel like they are going somewhere, you find yourself not being called on as much, only sitting around waiting for them to choose you, again.

By now, most people have experienced ghosting. But according to New York magazine there's another battle tactic that's evolved and become the new go-to for people when trying to find love: benching. And just like dating, it, too, is best explained by playing Pokemon Go. Collect as many Pokemon as possible, pay them a little attention, and then keep them in the wings, waiting for battle by putting them on the bench with the others you've caught.

What makes this so different than ghosting is the bencher doesn't cut off all communication. He just cuts it down to a barely-maintained level. You know you haven't been released back into the wild, because he still texts you semi-regularly. You know he's still keeping you around in his pocket.

And you never get the chance to understand why it happened, because there's never any confrontation--just a long, slow withdrawal into a barely maintained connection. You tear yourself to pieces wondering what went wrong, but then you realize. He probably knows he's already caught a million guys just like you. Been there, trained that.

Sure, he'll drop a text or a like on your Facebook post that stirs the embers in your heart into a blaze, but you haven't leveled up with him in weeks. He doesn't ever really choose you again.

When he meets a new guy, he's more interested in having that entry in his dating Pokedex than actually taking him out for a battle. His obsession with catching as many Pokemon as possible is just a constant source of narcissistic energy to refuel on, before hitting the road to find the next one.

So, why do we keep hanging on? Why do we allow ourselves to stay on the bench?

Well, if we've learned anything about Pokemon Go, beyond it being a metaphor for the last guy who broke our hearts and the perpetual bench many of us find ourselves on, is that we love to play the game, even if we are losing.

And even when we know what's going on and know the limit to the games being played, we still find ourselves desperately hoping for that fantasy that one day we'll hear a knock on the door, he'll snatch you up in his arms, and say, "I choose you!"

And until then, we all find ourselves back in the gym, playing the game and trying to level up--hoping that one day we will be someone's Pikachu.

Tom Benjamin Hord is an anthropologist, musician, photographer and storyteller based in Chicago. Connect with him on Twitter and Instagram @hordlove.

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Tom Benjamin Hord