The unreal urbanism of Pokémon Go
Earlier this month the mobile-app game Pokémon Go was released in the U.S., and the game has been ubiquitous ever since. Aside from being a sudden pop culture phenomenon, the game's success poses some significant implications. First of all, this is clearly a breakthrough moment for augmented reality. Pokémon Go is not the first augmented reality game, nor is it the most ambitious, but it has undoubtedly brought AR into mainstream consciousness. Secondly, the success of Pokémon Go has led me to reconsider all my previously held assumptions about the uses of mobile apps and gamification for interfacing with urban spaces. I have historically been cynical about the prospect of using mobile games or AR interfaces to interact with urban space, since they usually strike me as shallow and insignificant, typically resulting in a fleeting diversion like a flash mob dance party, rather than altering people's perceptions of place in any lasting or meaningful way. Pokémon Go satisfies all the requirements of my earlier preconceptions, yet despite my best critical instincts, I really like the game.
The buzz about Pokémon Go had been building on various forums online, and after it was released it was virtually impossible to avoid Pokémon Go-related posts. Save for maybe 10 minutes with a friend's Game Boy in the late 90s, I've never played a Pokémon game and I preemptively wrote off Pokémon Go as yet another cultural fad that I would never partake in or understand. Curiosity got the best of my wife, however, and she downloaded the app and we walked around our neighborhood to test it out. To my surprise, the game was a lot of fun; our familiar surroundings were now filled with digital surprises, and we were excited to see neighborhood landmarks and murals represented as Pokéstops, and wild Pokémon hanging out in the doorways of local shops. We meandered around discovering which of our local landmarks had been incorporated into the game, and each discovery increased my enjoyment of the app. Yes, the game is simple and shallow, but I was completely charmed. I downloaded the game so I could play, too.
Reactions to Pokémon Go have been as fascinating as the game's widespread adoption. Many news articles sensationalized the inherent dangers of playing the game: distracted players wandering into traffic or off of cliffs, people's homes being designated as Pokéstops and besieged by players, and traps being laid (using the games "lures") to ambush and rob aspiring Pokétrainers. There have also been insightful critical analyses of the game. An early and oft-shared article by Omari Akil considered the implications of Pokémon Go in light of recent police shootings of black men, warning that "Pokemon Go is a death sentence if you are a black man":
I spent less than 20 minutes outside. Five of those minutes were spent enjoying the game. One of those minutes I spent trying to look as pleasant and nonthreatening as possible as I walked past a somewhat visibly disturbed white woman on her way to the bus stop. I spent the other 14 minutes being distracted from the game by thoughts of the countless Black Men who have had the police called on them because they looked “suspicious” or wondering what a second amendment exercising individual might do if I walked past their window a 3rd or 4th time in search of a Jigglypuff.
Others questioned the distribution of Pokémon across neighborhoods, suggesting that poor or black neighborhoods had disproportionately fewer Pokémon and Pokéstops. Among urbanists, however, reaction to the game has been mixed. Mark Wilson at Fastcodesign declared that Pokémon Go "is quietly helping people fall in love with their cities". Ross Brady of Architizer celebrated the game for sparking "a global wave of urban exploration". Writing for de zeen, Alex Wiltshire boldly states that the game has "redrawn the map of what people find important about the world". City Lab contributor Laura Bliss proclaimed "Pokémon Go has created a new kind of flaneur".
Others have been more critical of the game, with Nicholas Korody at Archinect retorting: "No, Pokémon Go is not an urban fantasy for the new flaneur". At Jacobin, Sam Kriss implores readers to "resist Pokémon Go":
Walk around. Explore your neighborhood. Visit the park. Take in the sights. Have your fun. Pokémon Go is coercion, authority, a command issuing from out of a blank universe, which blasts through social and political cleavages to finally catch ‘em all. It must be resisted.
Some, like Jeff Sparrow at Overland, drew direct parallels to the Situationists.
Writing for the Atlantic, Ian Bogost mediated on "the tragedy of Pokémon Go":
We can have it both ways; we have to, even: Pokémon Go can be both a delightful new mechanism for urban and social discovery, and also a ghastly reminder that when it comes to culture, sequels rule. It’s easy to look at Pokémon Go and wonder if the game’s success might underwrite other, less trite or brazenly commercial examples of the genre. But that’s what the creators of pervasive games have been thinking for years, and still almost all of them are advertisements. Reality is and always has been augmented, it turns out. But not with video feeds of twenty-year old monsters in balls atop local landmarks. Rather, with swindlers shilling their wares to the everyfolk, whose ensuing dance of embrace and resistance is always as beautiful as it is ugly.
Pokémon Go's popularity has led to many online comparisons to the Star Trek: TNG episode "The Game," in which the crew of the Enterprise is overcome by a mind-controlling video game. The game in Star Trek is not strictly-speaking an augmented reality game, but does involve projecting images onto the player's vision similar to an AR-overlay. Previous gaming and gadget fads have been compared to the TNG episode, notably Google Glass (for it's similarity to the eye-beaming design used to interface with the game in Star Trek) and the pervasively popular Angry Birds game (as evident in this parody video). The comparison has regained cultural cachet because, unlike Angry Birds which can be played on the couch, Pokémon Go is played in motion. This, of course, has contributed to the perception of the game's zombie-fying effects; we've grown accustomed to the fact that everyone's eyes are glued to a smartphone screen in our public spaces, but now there are whole flocks of people milling around with their eyes on their devices.
My cynical side is inclined to agree with the critics who see Pokémon Go's proliferation as proof positive of the passification and banalization of our society; the visions of Orwell, Bradbury, and Phil Dick all realized at once. But there's something there that has me appreciative, even excited about this goofy game. As my wife and I wandered our neighborhood looking for pocket monsters, we noticed several other people walking around staring at their phones. This is not an uncommon sight, but it is re-contextualized in light of Pokémon Go's popularity. "Look," my wife would say, "I bet they're playing, too." After a while she had to know for sure, and started walking up to people and asking, "Are you playing Pokémon Go?" Every person she asked was indeed playing the game. Then we were walking along with these people we've just met, discussing play strategies, sharing Pokéstop locations, spreading word of upcoming lure parties.
One night around 10:30 last week we went into the Oakland neighborhood, home to both Pitt and Carnegie Mellon's campuses and a hotbed of Pokémon Go activity. When we arrived, at least 20 people sat along the wall in front of the Soldiers & Sailors Memorial, smartphones in hands. We walked around the base of the Cathedral of Learning, where dozens of people in groups of two, three, or more were slowly pacing, stopping to capture a virtual creature. We crossed the street to Schenley plaza, where still dozens more people trekked through the grass, laughing and exclaiming and running up to their friends to share which Pokémon they had just got. Sure, most of these people were only talking to their own groups of friends, if they were talking at all, but it was still a cool experience. For me, the greatest thing was not which monsters I caught or XP my avatar earned; rather it was the energy, the unspoken but palpable buzz generated by all these people walking around in the dark of a warm summer night. Yes, I was giving attention to my smartphone screen, but what I remember most from that evening are the stars, and the fireflies, and the murmuring voices. Pokémon Go is promoting a sort of communal public activity, even if the sociality it produces is liminal at best. Yes, it is still shallow, still commercial, still programmed, but it's something; there's an energy there and a potential that is worth paying attention to.
Pokémon Go is not the be-all-end-all of augmented urban exploration, nor should be it considered the pinnacle of how mobile technology can enable new ways of interfacing with city space. But the game's popularity, and my personal experience using it, has given me hope for the potential of AR apps to enrich our experience of urban spaces and engender new types of interactions in our shared environments.