Videogames can tell us a lot about contemporary society, as demonstrated in this guest post by Gisele O’Connell, a postgraduate student in the Dept of Geography.
“Did you know the world is full of Pokemon?” is the spatially-inflected greeting message by grey-haired Professor Williams who invites us to “catch em’ all” on a creative journey through the virtual world of Pokemon Go. Indeed, Pokemon is back. And this time with a vengeance. Whether you love it or hate it, one thing you can’t do, is ignore it. Us 90s kids we will be all too familiar with the brightly coloured, attractive Pokemon animations which consumed our childhood; from the loveable Pickachu to the squishy Squirtle tortoise. My personal favourite was Jigglypuff; an outwardly endearing, yet inwardly fiery pink fairy with an unapologetic hair-quiff. For those less familiar, Pokemon Go’ is a spin-off gaming app from the children’s cartoon, and is characteristic of what software developers have coined ‘augmented reality’ games, developed by Niantic Inc whose digital interface essentially requires a superimposed fantasy-like computer generated image onto our (pre)existing material surroundings. The superimposed images in this case, are animalia short for ‘Pocket Monsters’; Japanese fantasy-like creatures otherwise known as ‘anime’ which come in an attractive array of shapes, sizes and colours, even bearing their own fictional zoological roots, (see figure 1). The game works like this; players both produce, and immerse themselves within a place-based gaming experience achieved through the conflation of GPS navigation, camera and touch-screen smartphone technology to both produce and all –the –while immerse themselves in a virtual world that coincides with their own, in order to collect digital creatures as they physically move around their locale. With one swish of a finger over our touch-screen phones, the gaming app can bring us on vicarious and tangible journeys through our connectedness with place, both re-imagined and experienced here in new and dynamic ways. The rate at which the game has spread, and the geographical expanse which it has covered, is noteworthy in itself. Having been released in July, 2016 in America, Australia and other parts of the industrialized West, global citizens are already calling it a ‘cultural phenomenon’, some have expressed fear that it is “taking over the world” while others rather cryptically remark that it’s “a beast on the cusp of something vast” (Gapper, 2016). Indeed the game is traversing our daily life and altering, producing and shaping the spatial at unprecedented pace as we attempt to keep up with its daily developments. The clever move by gaming software developer ‘Nintendo’ has seen its shares sky-rocket by 53% adding 7 billion to their financial worth. The app has been downloaded more than 5 billion times and, having already overtaken Tinder, it is set to surpass Twitter as the most downloaded app of all time (Financial Times, 2016). Having now downloaded and briefly experienced this for myself, I seek to question what, if any, spatial experience is offered by this gaming app and how does it produce its own geography through issues of materiality, practice and control? From initial glance, once can discern several forms of spatial encounter; mobility as disciplinary control, place embodiment, and transformative social geographies.
Fig 1: Examples of Pokemon Creatures. Photo by author.
Human beings relish touch, action and presence (Cheok et al 2002: 430). Taking this as a useful starting point, I want to first briefly mention how embodied game-play acts as geographic practice. According to Cheok et al’s (2002) study of emergent technology, AR is exemplary of “imaginative play” that seeks to capitalise and imitate the forms of physical interaction and game-play experienced as children. Yet to date, videogames have largely been conceptualised through political and cultural representations, or non-representational forms of ‘affect,’ without accounting for these embodied social geographies which they engender. Pokemon Go challenges these typical conceptions, as it not only blurs boundaries between real and imaginary, but is representative of what Donna Haraway refers to as an “ontological bleed” between human and non-human forms of hybridity. With AR, human-digital interactions are embodied in the physical environment rather than on abstract representations on a computer system. We can only ascertain that Nintendo, together with Niantic Inc, selected a phone app for this very purpose, given its longevity and futurity in videogame technology. It enables Pokemon Go to ‘become’ portable, accessible, and hence more addictive when compared to redundant and spatially fixed video-game consoles. Down-sides to this of course, are that communal-style games have been supplanted in favour of personalized and individualistic game-play which, instead of reciprocity, instil competition and forge in quintessential Capitalist fashion, a community of individuals. Compared with traditional 2-D computer and arcade games, AR offers its’ users a very different form of spatial experience. Among many traditional videogames such as World of War-Craft, the player is invited on a journey into a fantasy-like world, whereas in Pokemon Go, role- reversal can be observed, as fantasy creatures are instead invited to join us on our daily journeys. Mobile phones become the necessary spatial instrument to warrant this journey, as screens become the eyes and ears of the player, closing down the Cartesian distance between player and avatar. In this way, immersion in the gameplay becomes a form of geographic practice in itself. And where Pokemon Go lacks in its gaming features, it makes up in a general sense of “experience” (The Guardian, 2016). As clever marketers are all-too aware, the universal imperative of happiness is found not simply in possessions, but in ‘moments’; think Coca Cola’s recent advert – “taste the feeling”. Thus, the game draws our attention to the increasing forms of commodification, and even exploitation, of sensorial experience. As Choek et al (2002) find in their survey of university students from Singapore, immersive videogames are more enjoyable and exciting because being ‘in the game’ becomes part of its emotive appeal. It is conceivable however, that AR technology is merely a means to an end. After all, the ultimate purpose of Niantic Inc and Pokemon Go is to incentivize movement. The catch of Pokemon Go is that the game cannot be played without kinaesthetic involvement, thus rendering bodily performance an integral and indispensable element of gameplay. As Ash (2009) has noted, “video-games are never politically neutral.” While Pokemon Go boasts a diversity of players; both young and old, racially and culturally varied, its normalizing practices are found not simply in subtle sanctions of violence, or heternormative impulses, but in its adoption of what Millington (2007: 621) has referred to as “consumer bodies.” Users who take the initiative to physically move are rewarded with special Pokemon ‘eggs’ once they have effectively logged a 2, 5 or 10 kilometre walk. Just like the Wii Fit, Pokemon Go is therefore characteristic of this trend towards active video-gaming which intervenes at the site of the body in order to responsibilize and produce healthy citizens compliant with a normalcy of bodily standards (Millington, 2009).
Secondly, the game ties goals and challenges to particular place. The ultimate aim of Pokemon Go’s mobility, is of course, to catch Pokemon; a goal that in itself, can never be fully realized thus forever keeping us hooked into play. The practice and sense of challenge associated with catching Pokemon, is premised upon an engagement with players surrounding sense of place. One’s local area becomes a sort of grid of reference wedded into virtual regions where possible Pokemon can be captured. Sensory vibrations and acoustics evoke a sense of realism and authenticity indicating that a Pokemon is present. When confronted with creatures in this form of spatial encounter, one can either choose to capture or evade it using digital tools such as the Pokeball. Such digital aids enable users not only to experience, but in fact to master space, thereby affording them with a sense of control not only within the game, but in fact over their entire material surroundings (See figure 3). In this way, players learn to associate achievement with place. Some reports even suggest that moving beyond one’s immediate locale is the only way in which to capture more ‘exotic’ Pokemon, reminiscent of Colonial and Orientalist encounters’ which mimic cultural perceptions of traversing borders in our offline worlds (Brewster, 2016). Yet we are reminded of the dangers and associated limitations of place-based challenges, too. As we know, place is a contested concept. Introducing the digital as a way in which to mediate and navigate place, further complicates and challenges how it is both produced, lived, and experienced. For some, immersion in the rhythms and movements of Pokemon Go has endangered bodies in their material environments. Multiple injuries and car-crashes have already been reported, prompting creators of the game to insert the disclaimer “always watch out for your surroundings” in its updated version. Cockburn reporting in the Independent (2016) recalls how one teen from Wyoming America, was led directly to a dead body in a river as her virtual quest for “water Pokemon” took her on a journey more than she bargained for. This traumatic find subsequently caused the girl several hours of emotional upset, and indeed, she was not the only one. Armed robbers have additionally used the games’ geo-location feature to prey on users’ vulnerability by luring them to isolated spots (Yuhas, 2016). While videogames occupy niche-spaces with purposeful narratives and/ or desired practices, creators cannot always predict the various ways in which the game is acquired and spatially manipulated, thus rendering it more than a mere leisure activity, but an integral device for navigating and strategizing in our material present.
Another similarly divisive component of the game is the ‘PokeStop’ which contains central landmark points that players’ use to restock on free in-game items. At present, there is no official Niantic map that lists all the PokeStop and Gym locations in any given area. But INC Press estimate that it won’t be long before its release, thereby providing a searchable map of various virtual portals on multiple scales, that could be both explored and exploited. So far, these stops are proving resourceful both within and outside the game, as services are grateful for the appropriation and are aiming to leverage this status in order to increase sales and profit in real time. But because many are mapped onto monuments, Churches and other places of material and cultural significance, their elevated status further complicates and/or subverts perceived appropriate uses and symbolisms of place. The Washington Post (2016) documented this unease of the National American Holocaust Museum’s use as a PokeStop; “playing the game is not appropriate in the museum, which is a memorial to the victims of Nazism…we are trying to find out if we can get the Museum excluded from the game.” As Peterson (2016) correctly notes, its divisive impact is enhanced when we consider how real life owners of places cannot weigh in on how their buildings are used within virtual spaces of the game. We imbue places with not only cultural meanings, but associated ritualistic and sacred performances, only some of which are deemed culturally appropriate at particular points and times. Pokemon Go is thus spatially subversive; it challenges boundaries of acceptable comportment and behaviour in place. And what we are potentially moving towards, is a videogame’s ability to assume virtual investment in a culturally constructed space that is at worst disassociated, and at best overlapping, with its offline intended purposes. Having become an everyday and even necessary component of how we live and experience social space, digital ‘leakage’ of the secular and profane has disturbed meanings and textures ascribed to prominent places, and how we seek to isolate, protect and even instil these with certain performances and emotive responses. This digitally –inflected abhorrent reading of the landscape is something which in itself, may hold productive possibilities as we watch professionals scramble to protect an unravelling of place in its momentary rupture.
Fig 2: A warning issued by the American Road Safety Authority, July 2016. Courtesy of Pokemon Go Ireland.
Lastly, I want to finish with some brief reflections on what I believe to be the videogame’s transformative geographies, which we can already see occurring in three vital ways; control, health, and humour. I have already touched upon how the game gives users back a sense of control and achievement over their everyday life-worlds. But in addition, the geographic practice of mobility not only transforms users into ‘active citizens’ but serves to bolster users’ mental health. As we know, even a ten minute walk is known to assist with anxiety, while immersion in natural green spaces can temporarily cure even mild to moderate depression (Khazan, 2015). Drawing from personal tweets, ‘Teen Vogue’ and ‘Tech Mic’ capture praise expressed towards Pokemon Go for incentivizing exploration beyond users homes, something which can be difficult or even intimidating for someone experiencing anxiety or depression- related symptoms. Hence, the gaming app raises intriguing questions for geographers as to how ‘landscapes of care’ may be altered or aided by the digital, enabling ‘virtual therapeutic spaces’ that one need not necessarily have to travel to, but which could be alternatively tapped into on demand. Certainly, this could of course be much more difficult for those that, through no fault of their own, are rendered immobile and cannot experience the full import of the game. Yet even these individuals are invited to be part of a global community that are united by virtue of their commonality, purpose and curiosity for the game itself. In this way, the game scaffolds social interaction that while although is digitally mediated, and in some instances ‘fabricated,’ it is experienced as no less ‘real’ than in offline communities. Furthermore, ‘Pokemon Go’ uses humour to disrupt boundaries between fact and fiction. Virtual communities and digital networks composed of fantasy-like characters such as ‘Pokemon Trainers’, enable players to experience themselves as professional selves with imaginary careers. Part of the joy involves inhabiting these new identities and figuring out what possibilities can be made through the body within spaces of the Pokemon Go world.
Fig. 3 – Examples of game-footage. Catching a Pokemon beside my cereal bowl. Photo by Author.
Fig. 4 –A Pokestop in Arklow, courtesy of Evan Ryan.
Humour is also evoked where bodies and animations collide. For example, it can be rather amusing to observe the range and type of Pokemon that crop up in your grannies nursing home, or as another reviewer asserted, discovering Pokemon behind your couch can be part of its “simplistic and child-like joy” (Kimont, 2016). Bringing the foreign into the familiar in this way, engenders what Schwartz (2007) has referred to as a form of virtual “escapism” whereby the mundane is transformed into the extra-ordinary. Gameplay therefore disrupts a stasis of the everyday, permitting fluidity and porosity between identities and the need for fantasy fulfilment. But of course, it is not really the game itself which promotes positive mental health in this way. Rather, it is how the game enables users to creatively re-engage their surroundings. The immediacy of Pokemon and their aesthetic re-imagining of our everyday environments enables’ players to rediscover and even ‘consume’ place almost as if it were emerging for the very first time. Success of videogame’s such as this may prompt us to think about how various other art- forms can produce the same desired effect, by transforming and shaping spatial relations in new and novel ways. In sum, Pokemon Go is just a fleeting fad. Wary of its short-lived intensity, we can begin to expect a sharp demise in the following months as phone batteries die and people get naturally curious for something else. But in the meantime, what Pokemon Go does do however, is open a creative space of possibility which questions and complicates our limits of the spatial. This makes Pokemon Go an intriguing social artefact not only for gamers, but for geographers alike
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