The Spectacle is not a collection of images,
but a social relation among people, mediated by images.
Now that Pokémon Go has had a few weeks to work its way through our collective psychosocial digestive tract, we can begin considering the effects of this latest, and by far most successful, manifestation of augmented reality (AR). Because it has been so successful, it's worth asking the big questions. Does Pokémon Go really make us more social? Does it make us better as individuals, or as a society? What gets amplified, and what gets obscured? (Hereis a brief overview of how Pokémon Go works.)
It's worth mentioning that augmented reality broke into the national consciousness in the form of a game. Educational tools have a limited audience and their effectiveness is difficult to measure. Workplace applications are either niche or still undercooked – for example, if we're to go by this recent video by AR darling Magic Leap, work seems to entail checking the weather and stock prices, at least until you're interrupted by your kid sharing his school report on Mt. Everest. After buying some spiffy orange boat shoes, there's not much left to do but look up and zone out to the jellyfish languidly passing across the ceiling. Clearly, this is a job that is safe from automation.
Games, on the other hand, are the perfect vessel for distributing a technology such as AR. Software is a contained system; it is built according to specifications and anticipates a gamut of interactions. There are rules – visible or invisible – that tell you what the system may or may not do. And engagement with the system is based on the fact that identity and progress can be established and measured, with performance compared and contrasted with other players.
All of this makes software ideal as the substrate for the gamification of, well, everything. If you've ever used Uber, you can see the available cars trundling along the streets in your vicinity. Once you complete your ride, you rate your driver. What's a rather lesser-known fact is that your driver rates you. Silicon Valley abhors a data vacuum, and a great way to get people to provide data about anything is to make a game out of it. The genius of this is that, consequently, people are really convinced that it's just a game.
So is Pokémon Go just a game? To be sure, there was much ridicule as gamers emerged from their darkened rooms, like refugees from Plato's cave, stumbling into the blinding sunlight in order to catch their little monsters. And any activity that seeks to weave the real world into its purview is bound to have odd consequences. To be sure, there are the heartwarming anecdotes of autistic teenagers gaining newfound social confidence. Or consider the (very dubious) account of a player who ran into “two sketchy black guys” in a park at 3am who – as it turns out! – were also catching Pokemon. When the cops come by to see what's up, they're persuaded to start doing the same. It's like that old Mr. Microphone commercial: Everyone wants a piece of the fun!
At the same time, there is a decidedly darker side to the proceedings. In Wiltshire, England, four teenagers had to be rescued from a cave complex by three fire engine units and two rope crews (how they had reception down in the caverns unfortunately went unexplained). A guy in New York got caught cheating on his girlfriend as a result of the traces the game left on his phone. Players have been “asked to refrain” from chasing virtual creatures through Arlington National Cemetery; nor have they been shy to play the game at funerals or at the 9/11 Memorial in downtown Manhattan. I mean, you're either going to catch them all, or you're not.
More gruesomely, in searching for virtual monsters, players have stumbled across real dead people. In Wyoming, a teenager found a corpse under a bridge. A player in Odense, Denmark found another one in a drainage canal. And a group of players made a similar discovery by a creek bed in a San Diego park. (I suspect the chiron from ABC's TV coverage of the event – “3 Women Find Dead Body Playing Pokémon Go” – is just crying out for a copy editor's cold, clammy hand.) This is just a casual survey, however, and I am sure there are other, similar cases. It's reasonable to conclude that cash-strapped local law enforcement might wish to consider previously uncontemplated virtues of crowdsourcing. Although the cops in Smithfield, Virginia, went one better and used the game to lure a player with an outstanding warrant into the police station itself, where she was promptly arrested. As Columbo used to say, “Sometimes the smartest thing to do is act stupid.”
But truly tragic events have occurred as well, while others were only narrowly avoided. A couple of guys fell off a cliff while playing the game in Encinitas, California; despite this particular augmentation of their reality, they survived. People have been mugged, since anyone with the game can spot other players who may happen to be playing in out-of-the-way places. Even worse, in North Carolina, a teenager was shot to death by a 67-year-old widow after attempting to break into her house to claim a particularly rare Pokemon. Another was gunned down in an apparently random slaying while playing in San Francisco, and another along some railroad tracks in a small town in Guatemala. This too is a list compiled only through casual browsing and is by no means intended to be complete.
In addition to this awful catalogue, there are more accidents just waiting to happen. An NGO in Bosnia has warned players to avoid “areas littered with unexploded mines left over from the 1990s conflict” (as opposed to any other time, when avoidance would seem obvious). And one of the first posts I saw surface about Pokémon Go mused on the hazards of what might be called “playing Pokémon Go while black”. Coming not long after the police shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, Omari Akil describes his epiphany while wandering around in a semi-oblivious play-state within the context of potential police violence: “When my brain started combining the complexity of being Black in America with the real world proposal of wandering and exploration that is designed into the gameplay of Pokémon Go, there was only one conclusion. I might die if I keep playing.”
This almost came to pass in Iowa City, when a student at the University of Iowa was mistaken for a bank robber. Faith Ekakitie is a big guy – 6'3″ and 290lbs – and plays as a defensive end for the school football team. He was also playing Pokémon Go in a park located a few minutes from the robbery that had just occurred, and his description somewhat matched the robber's. Thanks to the distraction of the game, plus the headphones that he was wearing, he didn't hear the police accost him, which led to four guns trained on him while he was stopped and searched. The fact that he emerged unscathed from this encounter is somewhat miraculous. It's my fervent hope that a game that memorializes the location of Tamir Rice's death doesn't eventually see an ironic consummation.
The memorialization of Rice's death at the hands of Ohio police leads to an interesting insight into how Pokémon Go constructs its world, which, in turn, is the world that its players see. Why are certain locations privileged over others? Why would you include places like minefields and national cemeteries? And simply from a logistical point of view, how do you launch an augmented reality game that is truly global in its scope?
In reality, Pokémon Go is a collaboration between two corporations. Nintendo is the owner of the Pokémon concept, which has been around in one form or another since 1995. But the technological enhancement – you might say the ‘Go' in Pokémon Go – was provided by Niantic, a former subsidiary of Google that was spun off in 2015. In 2012, Niantic released Ingress, a massively multiplayer online game.
The competition in Ingress is primarily between the two opposing factions (teams) rather than between individual players, and players never interact directly in the game or suffer any kind of damage other than temporarily running out of XM (the power that fuels all actions except movement and communication). The gameplay consists of capturing “portals” at places of cultural significance, such as public art, landmarks, monuments, etc., and linking them to create virtual triangular “control fields” over geographical areas.
This is pretty much Pokémon Go, without the branding. What's fascinating is how the “portals” came about: they were patched together from a number of different sources, including, perhaps most significantly, user-provided locations. Niantic first started with mining public databases as well as Google Maps for locations that were popular. Once Ingress started taking off, players were asked to “submit places they thought were worthy of being portals. There have been about 15 million submissions, and [Niantic] approved in the order of 5 million of these locations worldwide”.
So we can immediately appreciate the notion that there is some arbitrariness at work here. Wherever there are more people, and the wealthier and more connected those people are, these are the places that become privileged, because these are the voices that get amplified and heard within cyberspace. All the usual lumpiness applies.
This is made especially resonant in a fantastic Medium essay published by Rob Walker, about catching Pokémon in his local neighborhood, which happens to be New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward, the same place that was devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and essentially left for dead. Walker compares the area's desolation with its further desolation in the realm of augmented reality: there really aren't that many places that are marked for play in the game. Instead, what Walker sees is a lost opportunity to experience the lived and broken but real environment of a post-hurricane neighborhood.
Instead of focusing on landmarks as we understand them, he prefers “the idea of a kind of Bizarro-world version of Pokémon Go, leading players not to their geography's most laudable features, but rather to the ones they'd prefer to ignore, or avoid.” For him, an abandoned house is an object worthy of attention. To catch a Pokémon behind a car that hasn't been moved for over a year requires us to acknowledge that this car is here, even though we may have passed by it a hundred times before, perhaps only half-noticing its ongoing deterioration. It renders the invisible visible; it generates acknowledgment. For Walker, this is real exploration. Indeed, it is a genuine flânerie.
It is this act of making the invisible visible that makes the Tamir Rice landmark so extraordinary. Known as the Cudell Gazebo, there is no official designation of the event at the site itself. However, if one approaches the gazebo with Pokémon Go in hand, the description reads “Community memorial for Tamir Rice, shot and killed by CPD officers who shot him in under 2s after breaking department policy regarding escalation of force.” It doesn't get much more explicit than that. Moreover, this is in contrast to the official version of events, where the police responsible were exonerated by the county prosecutor, who agreed that they had acted in fear of their lives.
But how did this virtual memorialization come about? There is only one comment to the local article I just cited on the Cudell Gazebo. Someone by the name of Jamie wrote:
Well, this was a bit surreal. I wrote that not long after Tamir died, and never expected many people to read it…. Memorials are built in the hope people will remember. The events that ended Tamir Rice's life are something that I worry will be forgotten. It was difficult to see the gazebo pictured without context, and I added a bit without expecting it to be noticed by anyone else.
Nicolas Carr, in a recent Aeon essay, writes that “What I want from technology is not a new world. What I want from technology are tools for exploring…the world that comes to us thick with ‘things counter, original, spare, strange', as Gerard Manley Hopkins once described it.” Even if those tools take the form of a transient video game – or perhaps especially if they take that form – somehow, in ways that are both lucky and lucid, these tools may yet lay within our power.
(All images from the fabulous web comic Apocamon: The Book Of Revelation)