People walking around glued to their smartphone screens, like robots receiving commands. If this seems even more common than ever before, it’s because of Pokemon Go, the augmented reality app by Niantic that has exploded in popularity since its July 6 release.
And there’s concern that game players are dangerously distracted on sidewalks and street crossings, as they attempt to find and “catch” cartoon creatures, as directed by their phone.
However, one local woman says Pokemon has been key to overcoming social adversity.
Lonness Valenna stands out from the crowd, roller-skating in a bright blue dress around Seattle Center. She is hatching Pokemon eggs on multiple phones for her friends, while battling at the virtual Pokemon gym in the Space Needle.
“Usually, when I’m walking around, I meet all these random people everywhere — young and old — playing, and it’s great how we can talk about things and start conversations.”
Starting conversations has not always come easily for Valenna. She is transgender.
“Growing up as a child was difficult,” she says.
Valenna was also born a hermaphroditic intersex, meaning at birth she had both male and female genitalia.
She was raised as a girl until age 7, when she began attending a school that she says was not tolerant of her unique situation.
They looked past all these little differences and because of Pokemon — and what it stands for — I’ve made so many friends.
"I was forced into an operation by the state to make me either male or female,” Valenna says. “They decided on male because it was cheaper.”
“It was difficult, living this lie, that I kept trying to be a female. Trying to be, you know, the cute little girl, but couldn’t,” she says. “But then Pokemon came along.”
Valenna recounts playing the game for hours on her Game Boy, going on virtual adventures. Because of the popularity of the game, people who would normally pass her by began approaching her.
“We would talk and it would make up other conversations — like other likes, other dislikes — and because of it, we formed friendships that are still here today,” she says.
Sadly, Pokemon couldn’t patch up everything in Valenna’s life.
“When I was 12, my mother abandoned me. I’ve been on my own ever since,” she says.
Valenna was briefly in foster care before being placed with her aunt and uncle.
On her sixteenth birthday, she decided that she had hidden herself long enough, and committed what she jokingly calls “social suicide.” She outed herself — wearing a pink, poufy dress — and she has been living as her true self ever since.
But, her journey into the world of Pokemon wasn’t without its rough patches.
“I was out and about and I went to Pokemon tournaments,” she says, describing how she was often labeled as “weird” or “gay” by other tournament goers.
“They would pick on me and everything, until we got into the tournaments.”
Valenna would dominate the tournaments, quickly gaining the respect of players who had sometimes bullied her mere hours earlier.
“Because of what I did, not what I was, we started becoming friends. Even with people who were against me.”
Valenna credits Pokemon for her ability to make connections with people who might not ordinarily approach her.
“They looked past all these little differences and because of Pokemon — and what it stands for — I’ve made so many friends.”
Pokemon not only helped her as a transitioning teen, but the recent release of Pokemon Go has also helped her make business connections. While hunting for Pokemon in Ravenna Park, Valenna met a professor from the University of Washington.
“We started exchanging resources and he’s actually working the same fields that I do volunteer work in with the homeless and youth areas,” she says.
Pokemon doesn’t appear to be a phenomenon that will be disappearing anytime soon. The game became the most active mobile game in the United States ever with 21 million active users and has exceeded 100 million downloads worldwide. As smartphones and video games are often cited as culprits when it comes to cyberbullying and disconnectedness, Valenna’s experience offers hope, proof that technology can foster friendship and community.
“It’s a universal conversation starter,” says Valenna. “I think it’s going to be an interesting future, that it has become so big. Unexpectedly big.”
Rebecca is a graduate of Highline College with a degree in journalism. Currently, she attends Central Washington University majoring in film with an emphasis in production. She is also the president of Wildcat Films, CWU's student-run production company, and was the recipient of the Rising Star scholarship for film. Rebecca has a strong sense of visual storytelling and hopes to pursue cinematography after graduation. When she is not behind the camera, Rebecca can usually be found rock climbing or painting.More stories by Rebecca Starkey