In February of 1512, a Spanish Conquistador named Juan Ponce de León received a royal commission to pillage, plunder, and claim the rumored islands northwest of Hispaniola. King Ferdinand specifically wanted this honor to go to Ponce de León, a Spanish son of a good Spanish family, because he did not want to cede any more power to Diego Columbus, the uppity son of that silly Italian fellow who’d done all the exploring for them in the first place.
Ponce de León had travelled to the New World initially on the second voyage of Christopher Columbus in 1493. Though it’s not clear what he did in the meantime, by 1504 he became the right hand man of the appointed governor of Hispaniola, Nicolás de Ovando, by effectively squashing a rebellion by the native Taínos.
Thus began Ponce de León’s widely successful career of murder and exploration. He soon set off for the island eventually known as Puerto Rico in search of riches rumored by the Taínos, in exchange for which he enslaved many of them and gave the rest smallpox because he never washed his hands. He did find a great deal of gold, but by the time he returned to Hispaniola, Ovando had been usurped by the pesky Diego Columbus and a power struggle soon raged.
So when King Ferdinand suggested Ponce de León go exploring, he was probably pretty happy to oblige. He was the kind of guy who would jump at the chance to gather slaves, glory, and eternal youth, even if it meant wandering into a dark alley at 2 o’clock in the morning.
Because, yes, I think it’s safe to assume that if Ponce de León were alive today, he would be pretty obsessed with the game Pokémon Go. Now I don’t know where else in the world this game may be at this point, but here in the US, it made its debut earlier this month, and I’m telling you, wash your hands, because the pandemic is coming. If you are in the US and you don’t know the game yet, it’s what those people wandering aimless through your neighborhood while staring intently at their phones are doing.
I was just a few years too old to get caught up in the Pokémon craze the first time around and I’m going to sit it out this time around, too, so if you one of those obsessed (and I’m betting you’re not because you wouldn’t be wasting time/cell phone battery on reading this post), then I apologize for the following explanation.
As far as I can figure, Pokémon is a game in which you capture little powerful creatures and make them fight each other for your entertainment. In the late nineties, you did this by buying or trading Pokémon cards that you would play against your friends who would try to counter your attack with whatever cards they bought or traded for.
Now it’s gone mobile and realistic-ish, because through the magic of Internet mapping, Pokémon (the critters) can show up anywhere at any time and in order to capture them, all you have to do is throw Pokéballs (whatever those are) at them or hatch them from an egg by walking around like a crazy person.
And if that’s not exciting enough for you, yes, you can make them fight, and you can take over “gyms” from other Poképlayers (a word I think I just made up, but probably not). The “gyms” are located in real-life public spaces, businesses, and even private properties that were once designated as something else, without any permission whatsoever given by the property-owners, or any recourse for those who don’t want their property to be a part of the game.
Did I get this about right?
And people have become absolutely obsessed with this game. I know because when I first heard about it maybe three or four days ago, it took over my Facebook feed, where so many of my otherwise pretty rational friends began posting screenshots of all the funny little places they’d found Pokémon, like in the bathroom stall at work. I would say an equal number of otherwise rational friends began railing against the posts and the crazy people stumbling about staring at their phones in places they ought not to have been, like the bathroom stalls of someone else’s workplace. Then I turned on the radio and the dj was droning on and on about Pokémon Go and I realized that even though I didn’t understand a single word, she assumed all her listeners knew exactly what she was talking about. And they probably did.
So why are people so obsessed with the game? All I can think is that they are reliving their childhoods, searching for a little bit of that wonder they felt in their youth, and hoping that by scouring a dark alleyway at 2 o’clock in the morning, and taking over new lands (or “gyms”), perhaps they can find it.
The great rumor mill of history suggests that that’s what Ponce de León was after as well when he stumbled into Florida. In addition to gold and slaves and glory, he was searching for the famed fountain of youth. Of course there are no contemporary sources that suggest this was the case, and even if he was seeking it, he never found it. In 1521, the conquistador was shot by poison tipped arrows fired by native inhabitants of his new land. Sapped of the strength even to throw a Pokéball, he died shortly after. And it couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.
But despite the possible private property issues and potentials for abuse, which will need to be worked out, the game seems innocent enough. I wish all the Pokéballers (another word I think I just made up, but probably not) good luck on their quests for youth. But seriously, go wash your hands.