Movement, Maps and Monsters
by Joel Gn
When Pokémon was first released in the 1990s for Nintendo’s Game Boy console, few anticipated it would evolve into the augmented reality sensation we are witnessing today. Despite the simplicity of its graphics, the video game’s unique blend of exploration, acquisition and social interaction has rapidly spawned an extensive media franchise that still continues to captivate and engage fans across the world.
Concerning the gameplay, little has changed since players were first instructed to capture and train the adorable combat monsters inhabiting the fictional world of Pokémon. Pokémon Go, the latest release by Niantic, uses the GPS on mobile devices to convert the player’s natural surroundings into a playground for acquiring these virtual creatures. Instead of controlling an avatar on the screen, Pokémon Go requires players to physically navigate a fictitious space in real time. A player, for example, would be standing in the middle of a football field not to engage in the sport, but because a Pokémon is located there.
As such, the augmented reality in Pokémon Go not only enhances earlier affordances of the console game, but effectively renders a different interpretation of geographical landmarks and spaces, insofar as players must re-explore their surroundings through the lenses of the Pokémon narrative. In a world where sociocultural boundaries are gradually being effaced, Pokémon Go would be an example of a digital de-territorialisation, given it bypasses the structures and customs of earlier spaces for the rules of the game system.
One does not simply forget a familiar place, or encounter a conflict of worldviews through this experience of augmented reality. Instead, players become conditioned to adopt one narrative at the dangerous expense of another, for what is deemed attractive and playful on the surface, is likewise an infantilised subversion of the places it maps onto. While the medium of the console preserved the fragile boundary of our affections in and out of the screen, Pokémon Go speciously intrudes into a social order already compromised by all manner of inequity, by glossing over the complexities of convention with the abstractions of entertainment.
This is not to say that places, along with their customs and codes of behaviour should not change, for the narrative of Pokémon would be considerably preferable to a district filled with crime or cruel exploitation. On the contrary, our sense of place is progressively reformed through the exchange of values and concerns, where groups and persons resolve differences through the alignment of common goods. Government buildings, hospitals, schools, churches and parks are built to respond to a diversity of needs, based on a common recognition that they contribute to our place in this world.
Pokémon Go, on the other hand, is oblivious to any lived difference, for everyone who consents to play is subjected to the game’s system. Without a negotiable space, the world in Pokémon Go is not only sealed within its own artificiality, but proceeds to augment all other structures that came before it. All sociocultural differences are effaced with this pervasive interpretation of space, as players become reduced to captors who are blind to all but the creatures on the screen.
This mediated desensitisation also constitutes the brutal transcendence of these digital technologies. Like the internet and its derivatives, Pokémon’s values of exploration, acquisition and social interaction are modelled after paradigms applied in military operations: the creature is your target, and it must be captured, in order for it to be used to battle other creatures. Yet in contrast to ground troops, the Pokémon player is analogous to a drone operator, who in fighting within the sterile distance of a screen, becomes detached from the dilemmas and horrors of actual combat.[i]
When it is no longer restricted to the pixelated graphics of a world substantially disconnected from our physical reality, Pokémon Go colonises our movement with a different map, where a data-driven landscape is embellished with an abundance of lovable images. Players survey their surroundings for creatures to capture; but they also become objects of surveillance ceding information, with much pleasure. If the maps of the past were preceded by our explorations into unchartered territory, the cartography of the present probes into the un-coded facets of our lives, through a reconfiguration of human experiences as data.[ii]
So regardless of where the next creature may be found, there is little doubt that Pokémon Go will thrive as the viral domain of the fantasized other, even as we relinquish our shared sense of place to a technological apparatus. Perhaps with no little irony, the success of Pokémon Go lies not in its augmented reality, but in the parody that it makes of its own players, for one must first be caught, before one can catch them all.
[i] Liel Leibovitz, ‘PETA vs. Pokémon: Does The Video Game Make Kids Cruel?’ New Republic, October 12, 2012, Accessed 27 July 2016, https://newrepublic.com/article/108500/peta-vs-pokemon-does-the-video-game-teach-animal-cruelty
[ii] Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, trans. Sheila Faria Glaser (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press), 1-2.
About the Author:
Joel Gn obtained a PhD in Communications and New Media at the National University of Singapore, with a dissertation on the phenomenological implications of cuteness in technological artefacts. Joel’s work centers on philosophical engagements with design aesthetics, new media and East Asian popular culture. He currently teaches at SIM University, Singapore.