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Pokémon Go Re-enchants the City

Can a mobile video game bring people together in the civic commons?
Pokemon Go Scranton guy

Teenagers are exposing themselves to sunlight, and walking in parks. Young people are congregating in public, instead of communicating solely by text message. Citizens of all ages are filling parks, sidewalks, and local landmarks, with their smartphones held high. What is the cause of this sudden explosion of circumambulation?

Pokémon Go, the latest video game in the 20-year-old uber-popular Nintendo franchise, is a mobile phone application that uses smartphone cameras and augmented reality (AR) to overlay cute, catch-able digital creatures called Pokémon (the electric yellow rodent Pikachu is the most famous of these and the mascot of the franchise) onto the real geography surrounding players. In the quest to “catch ‘em all,” players collect the creatures and spar them against each other in dedicated “gyms.”

Released only just over a week ago, the game became instantly massively popular, with an estimated 7.5 million downloads and counting. It is currently surging ahead of dating app Tindr and giving Twitter a run for its money in app markets. So what does this runaway popularity mean? And what is it uncovering in New York City?

Pokémon Go is reshaping pedestrianism in Manhattan. Unlike many video games, it is not played by someone indoors and stationary, but by people walking around and interacting with landmarks and with other people—players will greet strangers in the streets to share tips about where to find specific Pokémon. Pokémon Go transforms urban environments into arenas of communal play and discovery, by turning points-of-interest like public art and monuments into hubs where players converge, united by their shared project. In this way, it renews the original purpose of civic space by drawing strangers into a community. This Pokémon game is the best proof-of-concept for a reinvigorated public sphere in the digital age that I have seen.

As in most Pokémon games, players control a customized Pokémon trainer who walks the earth in search of creatures to catch and train—only instead of exploring a virtual map on a console, players are physically exploring the real world with an AR garnish (the app uses cell phone cameras to overlay creatures onto the world seen through the screen). Young people in Manhattan are navigating a cityscape re-enchanted by the monsters of their childhood—there are suddenly magical rules and significance to every architectural detail, historic plaque, or house of worship. The game is like a strange booster shot of civic connectivity. I can walk into Union Square Park, spot someone staring at his phone by an equestrian statue, and confidently strike up a conversation with him about our respective Pokémon quests. Like the chessboards present in that same park, Pokémon Go invites us into a public space to play a game together—but it casts its net even wider, and engenders not only friendly competition but also cooperation. The potential of this reality-reshaping technology is astonishing.

In practice, the game is very buggy, with servers frequently down and a confusing battle system. Nonetheless, the basic gameplay of walking around outside, collecting resources from landmarks, and catching Pokémon when they appear is quite addictive—the fact the game uses the original set of 150 Pokémon from the first games in the franchise increases the nostalgia factor for millennials. The game’s millions of players are generating stories both heartwarming and horrifying. Pokémon Go certainly contributes to our milieu of constant technological distraction, as people traverse the city with their phones out, tracking imaginary creatures. But at least, unlike most video games, it requires one to spend time outdoors and in motion (which has, anecdotally, been good for players’ mental health), and it motivates one to look up often from one’s phone. This game can’t be consumed by someone ensconced inside. The experience requires you to take to the streets and get to know the city.

In the game, you control an avatar traveling on a simplified GPS-generated map by walking around yourself. The map is littered with PokéStops, where you collect vital resources like the Pokéballs that allow you to catch Pokémon. PokéStops are tied to real-world points of interest, which you must approach to reap their bounty: players are on a journey collecting not only Pokémon but also knowledge about the public spaces that surround them. Larger sites of interest, like the Flatiron Building in midtown, serve as Pokémon gyms where trainers battle for supremacy. The game helped me discover Nikola Tesla’s plaque at the Radio Wave Building, as well as a Lutheran Church just around the corner from my apartment that I had never previously seen.

brar_j / Flickr Life seen through the Pokemon Go lens
brar_j / Flickr Life seen through the Pokemon Go lens

This aspect of the game raises the most exciting questions: will AR apps like this help people in cities all over discover the local treasures of their neighborhood? Would city designers cater to gamers interested in spots like public fountains and parks that are conducive to AR gameplay? And the community-building! Players of Pokémon Go can use special items to turn PokéStops into beacons that attract Pokémon and, therefore, other players. Parks often become hubs of game activity when multiple PokéStops are activated this way. Players also choose one of three teams to sign onto, and the teams jockey back-and-forth to “control” gyms: essentially a family-friendly gang war. I was excited to run into my teammates on the Red team while out and about. Could using Pokémon to occupy local landmarks help foster neighborly camaraderie? The game is seeding the city with points where spontaneous interactions can occur—or rather, it is highlighting the focal landmarks that were already there, waiting for their potential to be activated.

PokéStops fight back against the flattening of the cityscape. Players of the game are being trained to orient themselves towards the sort of monuments and “decorations” that ennoble our habitat. The AR makes more literal the idea (advanced by luminaries like Henry Hope Reed) that luxurious decoration of a public square enriches the city and its people. Perhaps it is a touch absurd to re-learn a communal love of these repositories of art and history because they provide us with virtual goods. But it is better than passing by them heedlessly, as if the city were as bleakly characterless as a modernist’s daydream. Better to be searching the nooks and crannies for monsters, and find civic flourishing along the way.

Unfortunately, like a rare Pokémon, the blessings of AR are sometimes as elusive as they are attractive. Niantic, developers of the app, relied on largely-unfiltered user-submitted content from their previous AR game, Ingress, to designate PokéStops and gyms. So some in-game sites are wildly inappropriate, while others are simply out-of-date. Madison Square Park is full of PokéStops representing public sculptures that have been replaced, so it is haunted not only by digital creatures but also by ghosts of its old artworks. The game motivates us to be receptive to our surroundings, except, sometimes, they’re not really our surroundings at all. This AR’s reach exceeds its grasp—and perhaps we wouldn’t be looking to augmented reality for salvation in the first place if we weren’t infected by the techno-futurist idea that plain-old reality is boring and requires augmentation.

Pokémon Go asks players to stretch their freedom of movement and explore their world, but (sadly) the ability to do this without fear is not evenly distributed. And the game’s use of monuments as PokéStops also raises some troubling questions—cemeteries and memorials to historic tragedies are designed for reflection rather than play. Perhaps the creators of this game are not quite ready for the responsibility of remolding our socio-spatial reality—but they have given us a taste of how it can be done.

Pokémon Go’s players are eager for their city to be a place again, somewhere dense with meaning and conducive to shared delight. Perhaps the greatest service of the game’s augmented reality is pointing us back towards the things in real reality that can foster that place.

Alexi Sargeant is an assistant editor at First Things. “New Urbs” is supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.