I remember the first time I saw Abney Park chapel. I was already in a state of wonder, having discovered that behind a busy high street, not 10 minutes from my flat, a vast forested cemetery lay silent—cut through with dappled paths, lined with ancient graves. But on top of that, to discover the chapel with its derelict spire, its empty rose window and sprigs of green that grew between bricks and tiles and stone, was to enter another world entirely. Elegant and abandoned, Abney Park chapel seemed to be a rare ruin in London’s busy landscape. To come across it without knowing it was there was a rare pleasure, a discovery from childhood fantasy, an adventure from when the world was big.
So, when on launching Pokémon Go for the first time, I discovered that Abney Park chapel was a gym, with a huge Golbat glowering atop its spire, I couldn’t help but smile. Transformed by this digital overlay, the graveyard would become a dungeon, its winding and confusing paths a potential set of trials for the adventurous trainer. The chapel would make the perfect centerpiece, a dramatic setting for the deciding battle. It was hard not to imagine Abney Park redrawn in the crisp pixel art of Pokémon Red or Blue (1996), or perhaps the utopic colors of the animated TV series. Both had provided rich backdrops for imaginary adventures during my childhood, and the idea that a child now might wander into Abney Park, aiming to conquer the chapel gym, and discover the winding paths, the ancient graves, the dappled ways that appear like paths to other worlds, felt like a wonderful realization of those childhood dreams.
I don’t imagine for a second that I am the only one to have these thoughts. The huge and still escalating popularity and impact of Pokémon Go demonstrates that, for me and others of my generation, this is an actualization of a powerful and long-held fantasy.
an entirely virtual world, mapped to our own
Pokémon has always threatened to bleed into the real world. The Tamagotchi-like experience of raising and training monsters in the debut Game Boy titles Red and Blue was expanded in sequels Gold and Silver (1999), along with a new feature that saw both the time of day and the day of the week in real life affect which Pokémon were available to catch. This became a series standard, and in Black and White (2010), the series added changing seasons that cycled each month. Alongside this blurring of the games’ reality and the world outside, came a set of accessories, which started with the 1998 Pokémon Pikachu, a virtual pet and pedometer that allowed the user to earn “watts” by walking in real life, and then spend them on in-game items. The 2009 remakes HeartGold and SoulSilver (2010) even came with a similar device packed in, the Pokéwalker, allowing players to transfer Pokémon and gain experience. However, perhaps its most interesting feature was the ability to catch Pokémon on the device, which would appear after a certain number of steps. Like a highly simplified version of Pokémon Go, this allowed players to wander the streets of their hometowns and catch their favorite monsters at the same time.
For this reason, Pokémon Go didn’t come as much of a surprise. I, like perhaps many others, have discussed with friends for years a hypothetical Pokémon MMO which would bring these ideas, inset into the series, together. What is surprising is that Pokémon Go may well be the most significant piece of virtual reality software we have ever seen. Its user numbers, which by many reports are surpassing the number of users of ubiquitous services like Twitter, eclipse any VR or AR project ever, marking it out as a uniquely widespread paradigm of virtual reality. In a year when VR is making its biggest hardware push in history, with a whole marketplace full of headsets and technology to match, it’s also surprising that this transformative game runs on existing, unremarkable tech.
It’s so disruptive, in fact, that many have missed Pokémon Go’s status as a VR paradigm. Instead, the game is widely understood as a piece of augmented reality due to its use of the player’s phone camera to overlay creatures directly into real environments. However, the optional nature of this feature, easily turned off in-game, should indicate it as being simply a superficial, but effective visual touch—an image on which the fantasy of being a Pokémon trainer hinges, but which the practical functions of the app do not rely. In reality, the central functionality of Pokémon Go is based around its use of location tracking and mapping software, which it uses to build an entirely virtual world, mapped to our own.
The idea that virtual reality can only exist within the constraints of a headset is a limited and widespread one. In actuality, many experiences engage with virtuality in such a way as to effectively render themselves as virtual realities without the headline tech. For example, Duskers from Misfits Attic, whose command-line interface I wrote about earlier in the year, cuts out the middleman, and rather than having the player control a drone operator in deep space, simply puts them at the controls. The trick is that it does this through matching its interface to the hardware the player has in front of them: a computer keyboard. The game’s director, Tim Keenan, referred to this as being “1:1”. This 1:1 is the ultimate goal of any virtual reality experience. Whether that means matching the movements of a player’s head and body to their corresponding digital avatar in headset VR, or matching a world map to the map of our own world as in Pokémon Go. The principle is the same: the inseparability of a virtual and “real” experience.
Augmented reality, meanwhile, seeks only to expand the real world with extra features, but while still maintaining the established hierarchy of real over virtual. Established AR tools and games clearly show this, with apps like Blippar (2011) or Aurasma (2011) adding interactivity to advertising and print content, or Yelp (2009) and Field Trip (2012) providing navigation and service-finding tools. More inventive uses of AR, like Star Walk (2008), still tend towards an informational role: annotating real experiences with helpful or interesting details. Pokémon Go does not follow this approach. While it may use physical reality as the foundation from which to build its experience (much like VR headsets use the human body and senses as its founding element), Pokémon Go pursues an entirely virtual experience. A walk planned entirely to capture Pokémon, collect items from Pokéstops, and battle at gyms is not an augmented experience, but a virtual experience mapped onto reality. If we think of the HTC Vive’s room-scale experience as a reference, we might term Pokémon Go “city” or even “world” scale.
Even in the short time since Pokémon Go’s launch, this has become evident. The most startling example is perhaps the footage of mass groups of players descending on a single location after reports of the appearance of a rare Pokémon, including a Charizard and a Vaporeon. This kind of imagery perfectly demonstrates Pokémon Go’s ability to create entirely virtual experiences whose impact is felt in reality. Unlike the AR paradigm which simply augments pre-existing experiences, this is truly virtual reality. Without understanding this distinction, we have no chance of understanding how Pokémon Go marks an unprecedented take up of virtual experience and a new implementation of VR. Already emerging as having the most concurrent users of any mobile game in U.S history, the initial effect of Pokémon Go’s popularity is likely to be a powerful naturalizing one on the medium of VR. As prominent media theorists Lisa Gitelman and Goeffrey Pingree have suggested, new media require a process of “naturalization,” which allows the status quo to be adjusted to include their rule sets and systems. And so, Pokémon Go, as it sends scores of people off on imaginary monster hunts, transforming physical reality into an instrument of virtual experience, marks an important waypoint in the naturalization of VR as a socially accepted and even encouraged form of media. The fact that it seemingly carries few of the perceived negatives of VR, in particular isolation and inactivity, only makes it a more effective evangelical tool.
the inseparability of a virtual and “real” experience
But Gitelman and Pingree also have a warning: “Once they emerge and become familiar through use, media seem natural, basic, and therefore without history.” The effect of this is that, “when we forget or ignore the histories of each of these new media we lose a kind of understanding more substantive than either the commercially interested definitions spun by today’s media corporations or the causal plots of technological innovation offered by some historians.” That makes this moment, before the naturalization of the paradigm Pokémon Go presents, an important one. It’s from this vantage point that we can try to understand the nature of the thing presented to us. It’s times like these when it remains important to avoid outrage, to hold back both cynicism and optimism, and instead to examine the cultural object we are presented with.
Pokémon Go may be VR, but that doesn’t mean we fully understand its implications. Unlike the more visible and known world of headset VR, where players manipulate their own body to interact with the world, Pokémon Go functions around the manipulation of space. The player need only be in the right place in the right time in order to succeed within its world. Headset VR, as we have seen and experienced over the past year is a powerful tool. By its very function is to manipulate the user contained within its projected reality. If a collectible is placed up high the user must reach, and if a threat swings low they must duck. This choreography of the body through virtual stimulus is complete—the VR dictates how the user moves. If we extend this idea to Pokémon Go’s wider vision of VR, we can see how it might seen as a way of choreographing space. Pokémon Go does not care where you are looking, nor the precise position of your body, it only cares where you are. And by incentivizing your location, it manipulates it, guiding you, by accident or intention, towards particular spaces and along particular routes.
Even in these early days, we have seen how effective this process is. The game’s manipulation of bodies in space has led to corpses being found, people walking off cliffs and even traffic accidents. There has been some panic in the reporting of these events, an eagerness to demonize the app itself forming an ominous undercurrent. The response, and defense, has been to simply pass off these events as everyday stupidity, simply thrown into the news by their relationship to the newest craze. The truth, as ever, lies in a midpoint between these two positions. These events do stem from freak accidents and careless behaviors, but their significance should not be ignored. What they point to is a reversal of the established order, a subsuming of physical reality in the realm of the virtual. These acts were caused, for better or worse, by people who have given up their agency to a virtual world, who have allowed their physical selves to be choreographed by it, manipulated by it, for their own gain. They are like a user of Google’s web services signing up to allow their data to be processed in order for their daily experience to be improved through suggestions, guidance, and targeted advertising. Pokémon Go’s countless trainers are giving up their agency for the sake of, well, what?
arbiters of a new kind of social planning and manipulation
The answer seems to be an innocent fantasy. This fantasy is one that, as a child, I would have accepted hungrily, and many will. But I am no longer a child and I now know the dangerous properties fantasies can possess: to blind, to distort, to deafen. To allow Pokémon Go to exist as a fantasy alone is to miss the systems that drive it. And it is impossible for these systems to be innocent. One of the quirks of Pokémon Go is that it is built on a foundation provided by another game, the AR hacker fantasy Ingress (2013). Built by the same developers, Niantic, the positioning of the game’s Pokéstop’s and gyms is reputedly based on data submitted by Ingress users. This approach has already led to what some are calling “accidental redlining”—a process that refers to the denial of service to areas based on their ethnic makeup. The theory goes that Ingress was played by a majority young white audience, and so the data that Niantic acquired from it was focused around the locales of that demographic.
Whether this claim is accurate or not, it brings into the focus the reality of placing a pin in a virtual map and then driving users towards it. This act can never be innocent, nor apolitical, it is inherently hierarchical. By privileging one area and not another, by driving users to one business and not another, Pokémon Go’s seemingly fantastical monsters become arbiters of a new kind of social planning and manipulation. It’s not that this is done through hatred or bad intentions, it is simply the side effect of creating this software. However, this side effect has not gone unnoticed by the makers of the game. It has already been confirmed that Nintendo plans to offer “sponsored locations” and there are reports of a partnership emerging with McDonalds. The nature of these partnerships are unclear, but we can expect that they will be designed to drive players towards locations based on the availability of exclusive or ultra-rare Pokémon. If can imagine the scenes above of people tracking a Vaporeon in central park in a retail environment, then you can also imagine why businesses are rubbing their hands at the prospect of Pokémon Go partnerships.
If it all this manipulation seems a little too simple and easy, then we have to try to understand how Pokémon Go is achieving such an effect where others have failed. Certainly, there is no precedent for a game, as widely used as Facebook or Twitter, that directs users to perform tasks within their local environment. However, when trying to understand why people would perform these tasks in service of a virtual world—a fantasy—there is plenty of precedent. We might turn, for example to Destiny (2014), a game that asks players to perform repetitive actions for random rewards while exposing players to a changing marketplace of relative values. Or perhaps Diablo (1996), World of Warcraft (2005), or even FarmVille (2009) and Club Penguin (2005). The systems that drive these games are well-documented to the point of cliché, and Pokémon Go certainly stops short of their often extreme tactics of manipulation. However, what they do demonstrate is a simple exchange: time for symbolic currency. In Destiny, the symbolic currency is weapons and “light levels,” in Club Penguin they are digital clothes, furniture, and pets. The audiences of these games are often motivated by the desire to access this symbolic currency. In fact, the more potent the symbolism of the currency—dictated by both “rarity” and “power”—the more likely the players are to go to extensive lengths to get it. You only have to read the stories of what happened when the rarest and most powerful gun in Destiny, the Gjallarhorn, went up for sale. The reactions and the lengths players went to to acquire the gun paint a clear picture of how a symbolic currency influences behavior.
Pokémon, as Pokémon Go proves, are the ultimate symbolic currency. Earlier in this piece, when I traced the series history of Pokémon Go, I pointed to the Tamagotchi-like process of raising creatures, and the sense of the game world spilling into the real world that was contained in Pokémon Gold and Silver. There is, however, another history that applies to Pokémon Go, one that is all the more telling than the pedometers and the virtual pets.
I can’t remember the exact year Pokémon trading cards appeared in my school, but it must have been around the turn of the millennium. What I do remember is the shiny Charizard that I found poking out of my first booster pack. These random selections of cards, sold in newsagents, gave buyers a random selection of creatures, as well as functional “energy” cards to help stage battles. I am not sure I ever staged a battle with my set of Pokémon cards, but I did sell that Charizard for a whole stack of lower cards and a handful of money that more than tripled the cost of the pack in the first place. Over the next year, driven on by an increasing obsession with the games and TV show, I would make enough to pay for a magazine subscription (The Official Nintendo Magazine, obviously) by selling Pokémon cards, as well as plenty of change on the side. There were a few dealers like myself, and a wide selection of buyers, and kids would regularly go without lunch just to chase the cards they were after. With no battles happening, the obsession was driven instead by the desire to collect—the cards HP numbers being used to roughly estimate the appropriate price. Pokémon cards, in short, were pure currency, ready to be traded at will. By occupying a space between monetary value and symbolic value, they created a strange economy, one where level-headed consumers bought carefully while kids with a burning desire for a single card, usually due to a love of the character in the show, or it being their main battler in the Game Boy game, could be extorted with regular efficiency.
a cast of creatures designed to be desirable to acquire, and worthless afterwards
My first experiences with Pokémon Go instantly reminded me of this seemingly long-dead past. Its monsters, the first 150 Pokémon to exist—chosen surely for their possession of the widest symbolic capital, the highest level of familiarity and nostalgia—have never seemed less like living beasts. Sure, they appear desirably full of character when they leap up out of the world around us and stare into our phone cameras. But once they are caught, and named an appropriately silly name, they cease to have any life at all. Unlike the Pokémon of the main series, who you form a relationship with through their involvement in battles and your careful tending to of their needs, these creatures sit vapidly in your inventory, waiting for you to feed them “candy” and sprinkle them with “stardust.” This is the only way to train these Pokémon, and acquiring the right candy involves catching more of the same Pokémon and trading them in. The effect is the reverse of the series’s typical relationship-forming process, where an anonymous Caterpie or Weedle becomes your inseparable friend through its distinct properties and your shared experiences. Instead, in Pokémon Go, the uniqueness of your chosen creature is slowly eroded by the need to catch 20 more creatures exactly the same as it. And if one of those is more powerful? There will be no hesitation to trade in the original creature for even more candy.
The result is a cast of creatures designed to be desirable to acquire, and worthless afterwards, therefore driving the need to acquire more. For example, my joy at catching a rare Lapras was suddenly mitigated by the realization of how many others I would have to catch to do anything with it. All this assumes you even want to battle others, which, given my experience with Pokémon cards seems unlikely. It seems, instead, that most players will end up as little more than collectors, especially after the gyms are all locked down by players with far more free time and a stronger desire to conquer. What is left, then, is a game designed solely to take advantage of the potential of as Pokémon a symbolic currency—it treats them as such within the logic of the game, but more importantly, it takes the monsters’ established relationship with players and their desire to own them as the fuel for its success. This desire is cross generational, appealing as much to today’s kids as it does those kids that I extorted out of their money almost two decades ago, who are now adults with a disposable income that far outstrips their lunch money.
When trying to place this all-ages fantasy within a context, we might think of Toy Story (1996), a film and series that carries an almost emblematic power, pulling in audiences of all generations. It generated this attraction through its depiction of a widely-held fantasy—the idea that toys come alive the moment you leave the room. This fantasy predates the film and its sequels, and so possesses a kind of purity, a universal quality. By absorbing, naming and claiming this fantasy, Toy Story and its sequels effectively appropriated this fantasy. Pokémon, as a series, has similar roots. Its origins lie in the long insect-filled summers of series creator Satoshi Tajiri. When he created the series he drew on his upbringing in Machira, greater Tokyo, where as a boy he obsessively collected and catalogued bugs. Suffering from Asperger’s syndrome, this was one of his few outlets, allowing him to exist in a world of his own creation. It’s a history I can relate to, having spent many an hour collecting, naming, and keeping insects during my childhood. Given the popularity of Pokémon, it’s a memory and an idea that many others can relate to as well, and yet it is perhaps an inspiration that the series has left behind.
As far as I can tell, Pokémon Go knows nothing of these summers. The fantasy at its heart is not the fantasy of childhood adventure and innocence, instead it is the self-created fantasy of being a Pokémon trainer. With a 20 year history behind it, the series no longer needs to pay lip service to its origins, instead it can draw on the fantasy it has created, and nothing else, as if Pokémon and their capture were something essential, ubiquitous, pure. Sadly, they are not. The word franchise comes to mind, that self-fulfilling fiction that, in an entropic fashion, seeks to expand to cover all it touches. Assimilation is the process of the franchise, just look at Marvel, at Star Wars. They grow in an ever-expanding fashion, pulling in disparate properties and ideas, blessing them with inclusion in their world, and the profits that come with such a gesture. To give a recent example, when a Battlefield TV series is proposed, it is not because Battlefield contains some unheard of filmic potential, instead it contains the ability to assimilate filmic potential, to absorb and re-categorize already existing categories of war film and TV as franchised objects, to be branded, absorbed and, ultimately, profited from. Pokémon Go, however, takes that absorption one step further.
The paradigm of Facebook is one that will mark our generation’s place in history. Spawned off the back of social networks that kept a clear demarcation between the digital and the real, it disposed of those rules, opening up the possibility of soft borders that might exist within our “real” and “internet” friend groups. I, like many others, joined Facebook at university. In my case it was to get access to a set of pictures from a particularly chaotic Halloween party, but for others it was to trace the names of friends half-forgotten, potential relationships lost in the drunken stupor of freshers week. For new students, the service it provided was invaluable: here was the closed social group you had just blindly entered, ready for your browsing. The biggest success of Facebook lay in this; its total absorption of social experience into its systems. There’s a sense that Mark Zuckerberg and the founders of the site recognized that human-to-human relationships were the most powerful symbolic capital that might exist, the most likely reason for anyone to join a service. But once Facebook had proven itself, it no longer needed to attract users on the basis of this functionality. It could instead attract users by establishing itself as a norm, by making itself a regular, invisible part of social life.
dangled in front of players like a golden carrot
If Facebook found its success in achieving this through the annexing of valuable real-world relationships, then what Pokémon Go is doing is a similar act of absorption. But rather than annexing relationships, it is annexing experience itself. If that sounds like a broad claim, let me provide an explanation. Pokémon Go is an exceptionally conceptually-simple entity. It places some things you want on a map, and then it encourages you to go find them. In terms of an experience, it provides very little, just the framing of a walk or trip, a reason to leave the house. However, in its obscurity, its masking of which objects and where and how you might find them, it complicates the process. And these complications, when mapped onto the real world 1:1 have huge implications. You might, for example, follow the shadow of a legendary Pokémon you see on your tracker, eager to find it. Or perhaps you set up a lure at a Pokéstop, bringing Pokémon from the area to you. Both have simple in-game results: in the first you either find the Pokémon or you don’t; in the second you have an opportunity to catch more Pokémon for a short time. But by taking place within the context of our everyday reality they become complex emergent actions. Chasing a legendary Pokémon might lead you to a place you have never been, for example, or bring you to a dangerous part of town. Equally, setting up a lure might bring people to your location, start conversations, alliances, relationships. In either case, Pokémon Go is absorbing the experience, by providing the framing, in a sense, it owns these experiences, orchestrates and controls them. It’s the purpose by which they occur.
This makes Pokémon Go hugely influential. Like the power wielded by Facebook to affect your relationships, Pokémon Go’s power manifests itself through its erasure of the boundary of the virtual and the real. As we live now, our Facebook friends are our real friends, and in Pokémon Go our virtual experiences are also our real experiences. The sense of possibility is almost dizzying. In cities defined by routine and segregated by class and ethnicity, the idea of an entirely virtual force that could upset the balance of people, space, and power seems incredibly potent. Businesses seem to have already noticed the potential of Pokémon Go as a way to attract customers, announcing the activation of Lures or the availability of rare Pokémon on Twitter. But what if urban planning, government campaigns, or charities were to attempt outreach programs through this system? Might the empty downtowns, the dying high streets, the forgotten corners be saved by this unlikely process?
This utopic idea is one that is easy to get hold of, but spend anytime playing Pokémon Go or watching a player and your resolve might begin to falter. The side effect of this powerful process of absorption, the annexing of experiences, of journeys and of adventures, is that they become virtual. The paths traced by Pokémon Go players across the city might appear to be the mass movement of people, the mobilizing of a nomadic citizenry, but they are in fact motivated by the purposeful self-interest of a disparate group. It perhaps says something about the state of our grand urban projects, of the great cities of the world, their centers hollowed out by tourists, their inhabitants wandering to the fringes, that we might turn to such an object as Pokémon Go to find our utopia. In reality, even if every Pokéstop doesn’t become a space for hire, if every Pokémon doesn’t become bought and sold, or dangled in front of players like a golden carrot, the game and its effects will still be limited by its overt sense of purpose.
Purpose is, of course, in high demand in cities. There isn’t a person who, if dropped in a major urban centre, won’t find something to do. Looking around my own city of London in particular, the idea of wandering seems like a strange and foreign concept, breaking as it does with the strongly-held norms of the city itself. London is a place where people are always on their way to somewhere else, moving with the distinct purpose of a body with somewhere to go. Pokémon Go, might, at first glance, seem to subvert this, but instead it simply lays another virtual map of purpose on top of the existing one. Pokémon Go users are as driven as commuters, as eager to get to their locations as anyone else. The only difference is that these locations might lead them astray, draw them away from the thoroughfares of routine. For some this has created the idea that Pokémon Go might create a new generation of “flanuers” or even revive the subversive mapping of the situationists. Both seem like fairly ill thought out conclusions when Pokémon Go is not the revival of public space, or the practice of “drifting” through urban space, but is in fact the opposite. It is the instrumentalization of every street corner, the monetization of public space. It is the tracing of an invisible hierarchical map onto the already multitudinous maps and routes of our cities and towns and landscapes. Sometimes, it can feel like the cramming of more purpose into a world that has already erased every purposeless square from its maps, so that even virtual worlds lead us to the inevitable conclusion of a shop or a restaurant or a today-only sale.
I let my wonder get the better of me
Yet there is possibility here, in this strange new form of VR that might supplant physical logic with a virtual world. Stories are beginning to emerge of friendships made and adventures had, of children asking their parents for the first time if they can go out this weekend, into the city. It’s hard not to feel uplifted by the story of an autistic child socializing through the app, or the reports of people overcoming anxiety and phobias to got out and join the collective fantasy. However, the strength of human character and our desire to make the best of everything should not be allowed to distort the truth. This “world scale” VR might have an impact beyond anything we can imagine, but in the form of Pokémon Go it remains a compromised, instrumentalized and soon to be aggressively monetized virtual reality. If our cities are to be changed for the better, it cannot and will not be found in a breadcrumb trail of symbolic currency, ready to be acquired for no reason other than to own it and say that it is yours.
It seems appropriate that when I finally do head back to Abney Park, smartphone in hand, I find the chapel sheathed in scaffolding, blocked from view. It seems that, without me noticing, renovations have already started on the ruin. It would seem for most people to be a positive step—the building will soon become an arts center, renovated and taken care of, given a purpose once more. But there is something in me that will mourn the loss of the purposeless ruin, that wants to resist the argument that says every piece of this city must have a value, not a quality, but a bankable value, per square foot if need be. For the young Pokémon trainers entering the graveyard, stumbling through the gravestones, and battling at the newly-renovated church I doubt it will matter. They will already be living in a new world, one where it is difficult to imagine what use a derelict church, collapsing into the ground, might have for anyone. Turning away, I can’t help but notice that, despite the works, the graveyard is still as beautiful as I remember it, still dappled with distorting light, its avenues still like tunnels into another, simpler world. And I let my wonder get the better of me, and I go off chasing a Psyduck, who I never catch, and settle for a Ghastly that appears ominously by a gravestone as I wander back out again, feeling refreshed.
Perhaps in our cities, where purposelessness has failed, all we can hope for is this form of instrumentalization that asks us to wander, a virtual world that might take us away from the paths of daily life. Perhaps a graveyard reimagined as a virtual dungeon, for children to delight in, is a worthy step forward. The force that might remake a city like this is certainly something that we should seek to understand, and if we can, bend it to our will. Yet unless this force is open, transparent, equal in access and distribution, it stands to be little more than another map of currency traded endlessly, as people revolve in empty lots, each the hero of their world and none of them citizens.
As I write this I can’t help but feel that engagement and disengagement have never been closer. One seems to lie on top of the other. 1:1.