When Satoshi Tajiri created Pokémon in 1996, he wanted to capture his own childhood experience of running around the rice fields and rivers of the town he grew up in, collecting insects. ‘Places to catch insects are rare because of urbanization,’ Tajiri told Time in 1999. ‘Kids play inside their homes now, and a lot had forgotten about catching insects. So had I. When I was making games, something clicked and I decided to make a game with that concept.’ The first Pokémon games, Green Version and Red Version, take this lost, whimsical experience and amplify its significance the way only a young child’s imagination could: a young boy leaves home and walks around the entire country to become, essentially, the best bug collector in the world. The handwringing that has always followed Pokémon’s popularity to claim it is essentially cutesy cockfighting has always missed the point that it was never really about fighting at all; that was nothing but a pretence for collecting, exploring, and discovering a grand, old, pre-urbanised world that a young kid could adventure through all by themselves.
It’s been twenty-one years since Pokémon Red and Green were released for the Nintendo GameBoy and throughout the decades, Pokémon has been meticulously marketed and tapped by Nintendo. From the very start, the only way to actually ‘catch ’em all’ in the videogame renditions was to either trade with a friend or (undoubtedly Nintendo’s preferred tactic) purchase each near-similar copy of the game. The Pokémon Trading Card Game took over school yards in the early late 1990s and 2000s. Alongside the initial release was the wildly popular anime series, itself spawning several movies. The character Pikachu has become nearly as recognisable to people under thirty-five as Mickey Mouse. For twenty years without fail, Pokémon has been a pop culture touchstone. Even if you never played the games, you probably knew Pokémon existed.
But players themselves moved on. The core Pokémon games have only ever existed on Nintendo’s portable consoles (the GameBoy series of the 1990s and the DS series of the 2000s and 2010s). They require dozens of hours of playtime, and each one adds hundreds of new pokémon and new complex systems. A committed core of fans and an endless stream of new, younger fans excitedly consume each new game, but older players largely move on and outgrow Pokémon, remembering it with a nostalgic fondness even as their kids continue to discover it as a new and contemporary franchise.
It’s in this world that the latest phenomenon, Pokémon Go, enters. After years of stubbornly complaining that the ‘glut’ of free or cheap smartphone games are damaging to the art of videogames, rendering them ‘disposable’, Nintendo has finally conceded that it will never get back the ‘casual’ demographics its Wii console haemorrhaged to Apple’s and Google’s ubiquitous powerful, palm-sized devices. Designed by Niantic, Pokémon Go is Nintendo’s second real attempt at tapping the lucrative mobile ‘free-to-play’ market, after a port of Pokémon Shuffle and the flash-in-the-pan that was Miitomo, and it seems to have worked.
Pokémon Go is an ‘augmented reality’ (AR) game. Whereas ‘virtual reality’ (VR) works to make the playing body feel entirely transported out of its everyday context through sticking a screen on the player’s face, AR works to integrate digital play into everyday (and usually public) contexts. Through technologies such as GPS and cameras, AR games ask the player to navigate real, physical spaces and, through a screen capturing data from a camera, overlay that physical space with digital images. VR aims to put the player in the videogame; AR aims to put the videogame around the player.
AR has existed and been played with for decades by both marketing and artistic types. Collectives such as Blast Theory and Area/Code, and projects such as Pacmanhattan, Geocaching, ilovebees, and countless others have all required players tracked by GPS and/or cameras to move around public environments in different, playful ways. Pokémon Go is itself closely modelled on its designer’s previous AR game, Ingress. In fact, it is not ‘closely modelled’ so much as remodelled, relying near exclusively on the map data generated by Ingress players for its ‘gyms’ and ‘pokéstops’ that players interact with. The labour of one game’s players has been harnessed and used by that labour’s corporate owner to produce a second game.
There’s a point here across this brief history of both Pokémon and AR: Pokémon Go isn’t really doing much new. It takes well-established technologies and modes of play from AR, the existing data from Ingress, and incorporates them with the well-established brand that is Pokémon – a brand already built around the idea of exploring public spaces. It then circumvents the need for players to own unique hardware to play the game, instead being free-to-play on the mobile device already owned by both those kids discovering it for the first time and those adults who remember it with a fond nostalgia.
Pokémon Go is a perfect storm of nostalgia, branding, design concepts, pre-existing data, and established technologies.
But perhaps the point that there is not something ‘new’ here isn’t important at all. Something is here, clearly, and that something has turned Pokémon Go into perhaps the most visible videogame zeitgeist since Minecraft. There is something fascinating about the sheer ubiquity of Pokémon Go.
An anecdote: last Saturday, I was in San Francisco; people of all ages were catching pokémon on every second street corner. It was amazing, but also not particularly surprising, given that San Francisco is a densely populated tech capital. I returned to western Brisbane on Monday and took my dog for a walk as the game informed me there was a fairly powerful pokémon down by the creek behind my house. After I caught it and walked a bit further, I encountered four teenage boys on their phones, walking the other direction. It was clear what they were doing.
‘Hey I caught a Scyther down there,’ I told them, pointing back to the creek.
‘Oh great,’ one replied, not at all surprised that I knew what they were doing. ‘We got a Bulbasaur just over there.’
It was a truly wonderful moment of social play. In San Francisco, seeing players on every street corner was not surprising. But to just go for a walk in the middle of the day on a Monday in my small, outer-Brisbane suburb and still stumble across fellow Pokémon trainers was actually spectacular. As I write this on the bus, I can see two other passengers madly spinning pokéstops for items as we stop at a traffic light. Pokémon Go might not be doing anything ‘new’, and it is certainly more a triumph of brand recognition than AR technologies, but the very fact it requires visible bodies on the streets renders its ubiquity into something uniquely remarkable. Unlike a hugely popular book or film or traditional videogame, the success of Pokémon Go can be seen all around us. You know everyone is reading Twilight, sure, but you don’t see all those readers all around you, and the few you do see don’t require your engagement. But Pokémon Go, by its social and locative nature, must be everywhere – at least in the cities dense enough with Ingress data and players for its playing to be feasible.
More than asking why Pokémon Go is popular or marvelling at it as something ‘new’, then, what is most exciting to consider around Pokémon Go are the questions about public play that its popularity makes difficult to ignore. Jeff Sparrow has already written about how Pokémon Go – like all augmented reality games – has a link to the playful dérives of the Situationists, and mobile theorists have long compared AR game players to the nineteenth century flâneur on his aimless strolls. Like the dérives, AR games defamiliarise the urban environment, rendering the everyday spaces we move through into somewhere new to discover and appreciate. But also like dérives or the flâneur, AR games like Pokémon Go and the public places they depend on are not apolitical.
The flâneur was, typically, only a particular subset of people that could afford to spend their time wandering aimlessly around the city, and only those people for whom such an activity would not be interrogated. Namely, upper-class white men. A nineteenth century woman would have a hard time being a flâneur. Meanwhile, the non-white person who dares stroll around the city without clear purpose is seen as suspicious, as a loiterer, and might attract the attention of law enforcement – attention that continues to be a potentially deadly affair for black men in Western countries.
When Pokémon Go was released last week, the jovial tales passed around by mostly white young men of having to awkwardly explain to police why they were hanging around in a park at 2 am to catch a Pikachu were vividly juxtaposed with yet more police shootings of black men in America. While the media fairly warned parents to ensure their kids weren’t being lured into a pokétrap by muggers, black players in America were realising that playing the game could cost them their life. For many women, too, moving around the city is never quite a carefree activity. By incorporating public spaces, Pokémon Go can’t help but to incorporate the politics of those public spaces that make urban movement much easier for some people than for others.
What of the space itself? Pokémon Go attracts players outside not just with the promise of hidden pokémon, but with numerous ‘pokéspots’ and gyms throughout the world for players to engage with, battle at, and receive items from. These pokéspots are the data taken from Niantic’s previous game, Ingress. In Ingress, players tagged locations and captured them for one team or another: parks, cafés, memorials, graffiti. Google apparently removes locations from the likes of military bases, but countless pokéspots remain on tombstones, World War II memorials, and private residential addresses.
There is an odd sort of colonialism to flânerie. For the working-class man, the city streets are not a place to be lazily wandered around but a place where work must be done. It’s where they live. It requires some arrogance to presume that this urban space that other people work and live in is yours to be remade into a playful space to be used at your pleasure. The ubiquity of Pokémon Go in urban places raises questions about what sort of digital play is acceptable, and where. You would not play chess on someone’s tombstone, but would you spin one for some pokéballs? Would you flick a pokéball at a Holocaust memorial to catch a Pikachu? Are you even interacting with someone’s house at all if you are standing across the road pointing your phone at it?
One could argue that these critiques – the inequalities of urban navigation, the arguably nonconsensual use of both public and private places – have nothing to do with the game ‘itself’. They are issues of the world that exist ‘out there’ whether we are playing Pokémon Go or not. It’s not Pokémon Go’s fault that American police keep shooting innocent black men. It’s not Pokémon Go’s fault that players might choose to trespass private property or digitally desecrate a sacred place. Niantic just provided the map data, and even the points of interest were chosen by players of a different game. As is increasingly becoming the norm with digital technologies, both the labour and responsibility have fallen onto the end user, leaving the corporate owner with nothing but the maintenance and profits. Airbnb owns no properties; Uber owns no cars; Pokémon Go is just some markers on a map. The politics is someone else’s problem.
For the few months that Pokémon Go remains in the public zeitgeist before it inevitably shrinks down to a much smaller, committed group of on-going players, these are the questions worth thinking about. What are the politics of playing in public? How, even as the spaces themselves are playfully defamiliarised, are pre-existing social configurations perpetuated and sustained by augmented-reality games?
Tajiri wanted Pokémon to capture a quintessentially pre-urban childhood experience, but Pokémon Go depends on those urban environments and their dense populations to produce the necessary data and maze-like hunting grounds. The original games and films could afford to be utopic with their children’s-book worlds where a single kid can wonder the world and everyone is more than happy to help out. But Pokémon Go incorporates the actual world and so the actual world incorporates Pokémon Go, giving it a politics whether the game wants it or not.