By Luther Blissett
Imagine walking to a park in a fairly average medium-sized city on a warm Summer day. There you see groups, pairs and individuals of different ages and races slowly milling about, some with dogs, some with baby carriages. Approaching closer, you realize nearly everyone in the park other than yourself is staring intently at their phone, occasionally tapping and swiping the screen. It seems odd, though not completely out of the ordinary in this day and age. Then, off in the distance at the far end of the park, someone shouts what sounds like a word in an alien language or dialect triggering a crowd to rapidly swarm towards the general area; most speed-walking or jogging but all aiming their phones at the same destination. Soon everyone in the vicinity of the park (except yourself a few vagrants and junkies of a less tech-savvy sort) surges towards the center of the swarm of over a hundred participants as if sucked into a vortex. As quickly as it started, the crowd disperses and an “normalcy” resumes, albeit temporarily since the pattern repeats continuously at half hour to one hour intervals throughout different areas of the park.
This dream-like scenario is an outsider’s description of a Pokémon Go session on a typical Summer weekend at Bellevue Downtown Park. The crowd might have been slightly larger than usual due to the balmy weather, but numerous videos posted on YouTube indicate such occurrences aren’t completely anomalous.
Still, the relative newness and novelty of the experience doesn’t make it feel any less like being in a dystopian narrative such as a Philip K. Dick novel or an episode of Charlie Brooker’s “Black Mirror”. However, the sense of social displacement and alienation for non-gamers is dampened by nearly a decade of collective exposure to increasingly advanced internet-enabled cellphones whose ubiquity and usage has steadily increased over the years.
Prior to the release of Pokémon Go more people have been spending increasing hours using smartphones for talking, texting, email, news, entertainment and social media, selfies, etc. In the context of modern industrial society it’s almost an aberration to be without a device, or to not be heavily reliant on one. What sets Pokémon Go apart is its ability to simulate a fusion of material and virtual worlds by depicting through phone screens digital sprites superimposed on real-time images of physical environments to its users.
Just as shamans would use entheogens to peer behind the veil of reality, augmented reality allows users to perceive additional veils over reality. This is not necessarily a bad thing because there’s potential for “digital veils” to assist us in seeing what certain interests might prefer to keep hidden. For example, what if everyone could literally see the interests orchestrating a politician’s rise to power? What if we could walk into any store and instantly know which products were made by war-profiteers, polluters, and/or sweatshop owners? Would people want to know? How much of an impact would it have on decisions and actions in the context of a media environment inundated with heavily financed government/corporate PR and marketing? Of course, even without augmented reality the virtual realm affects the “real world”, most notably with the economic dominance of the tech industry as well as the social, political and economic havoc wreaked by hackers; but rarely is such influence immediately manifested as when crowds swarm newly spawned Pokémon sprites.
In many ways, Pokémon Go was the ideal vehicle to bring augmented reality to the masses. Many apps have utilized it for different purposes such as navigating, translating, finding dates, viewing celestial objects, narrating self-guided tours, weather forecasting, image enhancement, etc., but only Pokémon was able to use the technology to bring a fictional universe closer to life by creating a cross-generational craze. Alfie Brown of ROAR Magazine, characterized virtual Pokémon as the perfect example of what Jacques Lacan called the objet petit a, a fetishized yet ephemeral and unobtainable object of desire, a key concept behind consumerist neoliberalism’s push towards cheap, chronically obsolete, ephemeral and now digital goods and services.
But what makes Pokémon creatures so desirable? In regard to children, they seem naturally drawn towards cute and brightly colored cartoon characters. The mechanics of the game taps into natural tendencies to collect things and to display one’s collection to others (a phenomenon South Park astutely critiqued on episodes lampooning World of Warcraft and “freemiums”). In consumer societies children and adults are prone to feeling prestige and power from the size and perceived value of their collections; however, children are mostly limited in terms of the acquisitive power: video games elicit a rare opportunity to gain more prestige and power than adults have in real life.
As for older folks, there’s a variety of additional interconnected factors. For teens and young adults, peer pressure alone might be enough to hook some people, but the mainstreaming of geek culture no doubt plays a part, making fandom, quirkiness and technological obsession more accepted and valued. The transition to adulthood also happens to be a time when there’s increased pressure to establish one’s sense of identity, become more independent and to succeed academically and professionally. Games are a means of escape from such pressures (as real life opportunities for economic advancement continue to dwindle) while at the same time functioning as structured activities for social interaction and, more broadly, to build communities. For adults, reasons may include all of those previously mentioned in addition to fascination with technology, bonding with younger friends and family, the feeling of being part of a global phenomena, or nostalgia for the original Pokémon games, for example.
Returning to Pokémon Go’s more dystopian aspects, the game has been used as a tool by the unscrupulous for crimes such as robbery and sexual assault. Though crowds created by Pokémon Go spawning areas or “gyms” (locations where players battle each other in teams to increase their avatars’ abilities) have been a benefit to some local businesses, residential neighbors in some cases view game players as unwanted loiterers invading their privacy. There have also been news reports of video game battles escalating to physical brawls and innocent gamers being racially profiled as suspicious threats.
As with most online tools, there’s a risk of the app and users being exploited for surveillance, social control, to extract money and personal data, etc. Modern media literacy requires an understanding of how businesses benefit from our use of game and service apps (especially “free” ones) and how intentional or unknowing misuse of collected data could serve government/corporate/criminal interests. Augmented reality games are an exciting new media with potential to be used in novel and fun ways, but we should be vigilant of its potential to influence beliefs as well as decisions regarding how we spend time and resources.
Pokémon Go is at the forefront of the increasing power of tech companies such as Google and Niantic (the software developer behind Pokémon Go) to control and use information to manipulate the masses. Such power in itself is disturbing, but more sensational examples might include news reports of car accidents caused by drivers mindlessly following Google Maps off the road or colliding into other cars while playing Pokémon Go. Such cases may seem absurd but they prompt a number of important questions. Why do some prioritize and trust mediated information over their own senses? As online personas increase in perceived importance, at what lengths will people go to sustain it and would it be at the expense of others things (such as personal safety)? Are we becoming addicted to cognitive “skinner boxes” with our needs perpetually triggered and gratified by apps? In an increasingly hyperreal world in which the boundary between the real and virtual becomes more permeable, what new hazards await?