I crave candy. It’s a hunger I share with 7yr-olds and cartoon characters. Much has been written about how this primal urge, Niantic’s Pokemon GO, is either saving or dooming a generation (and its road traffic). But we’ve had ARGs and fandoms before, why is this craze proving so provocative? A huge proportion of stories about this social phenomenon feed on gross exaggeration – either reality is melting or global communities forming, depending on the commentator. Zombie hordes are roaming our cities! An obese hemisphere is being cured! Car crashes and dead bodies are the price we are paying! And phones are bringing us all together in life-affirming adventure! MPs in Russia have even called for a ban.
The negative voices are predictable – in the main sensationalist misunderstandings of new media, and conservative fears about the corruption of the ‘youth’ – and the perhaps exaggerated positive defences of the game are understandable given the effective erasure of young voices in a culture that vilifies anything popular. Yet, I think there might be something more significant to find if we strip away the hyperbole, an explanation of the dystopian/utopian mania of our perception of it, and try to locate the subtle subversions and plain banality of Pokemon GO. This phenomenon, as I see it, is an opportunity to reflect on normality – to look at the common nature of crazes – and as I’ll argue, a lot of the myth-making around Pokemon GO reflects pre-existing concerns: from ableism in urban planning to fears concerning attentiveness and labour.
Video game developers and critics are actually largely cold to Pokemon GO, and why shouldn’t they be? Another year, another sales record broken, plus ca change. The ‘unique selling point’ of GO has even been done before – augmented reality has been around for years, and Niantic’s previous game, Ingress, used similar systems and even a lot of the same database.
‘Big whoop’ say Alex Nevarro, Nick Breckon, Jake Rodkin, Chris Romero, Rob Zacny and others; ‘it’ll be over soon, and it’s not even well designed or executed.’ But the numbers involved, and the cross-generational penetration are staggering – 75million users in a couple of weeks. It might be a weird conceit to win mass appeal – a dying 90s Japanese anime franchise – perhaps hard to accept, but more people are into it than any other mobile game. Certainly more people are into it than GTA V (65million copies sold), and with it surpassing Tindr, maybe more people are into it than… sex? Tech Crunch even reports it overtaking Facebook and Twitter in popularity. It’s big. Huge enough to influence local businesses and dog shelters, big enough to cause Japan to practically declare a pre-emptive state of emergency, and importantly large enough to be a diagnostic tool of things bigger and more concrete than gaming-unto-itself.
Pokemon GO is a blunt instrument. Its candy fed catching and upgrading loops are simple and well-trod – industry insiders are excusably cynical. Bosses have been complaining about the distraction and idleness of workers since the mid-19th-century (Jonathan Crary), it doesn’t add much of a burden to our already frayed attention or much more of a critique to the work ethic. Nothing revolutionary perhaps, perhaps it’s the critics that suffer from a lack of attentiveness. Considering that Nintendo lost 17% of its share price for repeating the fact that it didn’t make this game shows how hasty and inexpert the economy surrounding this spectacle is. Pokemon GO is in itself pretty banal, it’s where it’s ‘going’, what it’s doing, that pulls us in. Visual/documentary culture surrounding PG is revealing in stressing how it is relationships, not content, that’s driving this craze. It’s not Pokemon, it’s our relationship to the world.
People are understandably fascinated by the enrapturing myths and the manifestations of ‘mass-hysteria.’ Who else but Lovecraft could have written this scene of a crowd of glowing phones walking into the sea after an invisible blastoise? The often-repeated story of one PG player’s encounter with a dead body finds its opposite number in groups hilariously (hopefully) getting stuck in mud pits, but what these narratives all share is an unintentional emphasis on relational aesthetics. A magikarp is a chuckle, but a magikarp inside a smoothie-maker is a thousand likes. PG lives in the ‘real’ world. It outgrows social networks because it feeds on them, it makes the city our timeline. From the outside it may seem invisible, weird ‘ether’ to the uninitiated, but it’s magic lies in augmenting reality, not displacing it.
With a map showing the Blastoise, the horde wading into the sea is comical rather than creepy, but it’s precisely this asymmetry of information which makes the phenomenon into ready-made myth. What are these ghosts that cause people to stop and start in the street? What can I see that they can’t and vice versa? And what does it mean that what I miss could have a knock-on effect for me? The ‘hysteria’ is on the other foot – conservative’s calling the craze a drug are engaging in the paranoia that headlines struggle to keep up with, after all, this isn’t the 70s any more. This paranoia can be critical too – increasingly software dictates how we interact with the world and where we go. While we are increasingly wandering the city like the Flaneur, experiencing little known statues and monuments which have gone unnoticed like (de Certeau’s ‘walking’ the city), we are also obeying a top-down map. We have new freedom and new constraints, and yet all of it feels imaginary to the outsider. All that is solid melts into air. The real is becoming virtual, from this perspective, and this brings fear.
For the opposite side, the myth-making may be more self-aware, but it still stems from the perceived magic of augmenting reality. That magic is powerful – being able to inscribe the world anew, to re-route a city’s traffic, to lay claim to space that previously alienated you. In a society where it is easier to relate to someone on the other side of the world than someone sitting next to you on a bus, what could be more magical than providing a shared discourse for people who are close to one another? If the idea of the local is disappearing in globalisation, perhaps this is actually the silver-lining implicit in the ‘global village’ – close-knit communities emerging from an abstract imagined community. The virtual is becoming real, from this perspective, and that brings hope.
I generalise these ‘camps,’ grossly, but I hope that doing so shows the truth is somewhere in the middle. This is AR, not VR or IRL, and it’s messy. But by mixing the virtual and the ‘real’ it reflects interestingly on both. We learn something new about google maps and about urban planning. We are pushed through the city in new, not always liberating, ways, but ways which generate friction with our well-worn habits. Pokegyms and pokestops point out graffiti long since painted over, and churches now repurposed, hidden and erased details of culture emerge from the ablative force of this reinscription of space. To credit Nintendo with getting a generation out of the house is unfair on many levels, but so too is rendering Niantic liable for civic architecture which was always ableist in design and purpose. What might be said positively, however, is that PG unintentionally reveals truths which were always there. Space is unequally distributed, the rich are more mobile than the poor, and 50s brutalism had a perverse fetish for stairs. The city is always being written and rewritten by corporate and political and politi-corporate messages which alienate many and ‘augment’ our reality. Heck, before Pokemon GO reached Britain (trademark B.P.G., do it now) all we thought it was safe to talk about was the weather. And silly things have always made us go silly places. What would happen, I wonder, if we replaced all the gendered symbols on bathroom doors with holograms of Pikachu instead? It wouldn’t melt reality or liberate all queer and trans people overnight, but fuck it, at least the world is more malleable than we thought!