On a relatively clear July evening in Central Park, dozens and dozens of New Yorkers—men and women, some teenagers, some even with children in tow, across a surprising spectrum of racial identities, gender expressions, and (presumably) backgrounds—flooded a section of the park in search of a single Pokémon. The members of the "mob," as some on YouTube called it, were all users of the new Niantic app for Android and iPhone, called Pokémon Go, which allows players to use geolocation on their cell-phones to "catch" and train over 140 different Pokémon. The Pokémon in question in this particular moment and location? A Vaporeon, a Water-type, one of the three evolutionary possibilities from Eevee (all pictured below in their cutesy glory).
Vaporeon and the other Pokémon are the outgrowth of a pair of video games from GameBoy’s Satoshi Tajiri, both released in 1995, and a popular anime TV series from 1996. Both the games and the anime have spawned its own series of evolutions into spinoffs and other platforms, toys and apparel in a number of variations and market-groups.
Even if you've never played a Pokémon game, or seen an episode from its many different series, some things Pokémon are essentially household names: gotta catch em all shows up in advertisements and store windows, and a fair number of people in so-called civilized society know Pikachu.
Pokémon Go, however, is something else entirely. Since its July release in 3 countries—Australia, New Zealand, and the United States—it has seen a user base of nearly 100 million and has added more than 50 other countries in worldwide availability, including Japan. The app hasn't even been released in India or China yet, where (if it indeed is released) the projected increase in users will no doubt be impressive. Niantic made over $200,000,000 in its first month alone, this according to CNBC. Its success is staggering.
And baffling, mostly to news outlets. Pokémon Go has been prompting stories from its earliest release.
Gamespot reported on August 1st that the game had “nearly destroyed” a quiet Australian suburb; and Karen Zraick of The New York Timesreported in July that countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Russia had issued general warnings to characterize Pokémon Go as an anti-religious, anti-national and moral menace. One U.S. pastor believes the game is Satanic, according to Hillary Hanson of The Huffington Post; apparently, the game spawns “cyber-demons.”
Some sources, of course, name more than bafflement or vague nonsense as their issues; Japanese law enforcement outlets issued safety warnings to gamers after Japan saw its first Pokémon Go-related accident within hours of the release. Other law enforcement, transit, and community safety agencies have issued similar warnings throughout the world. Niantic included its own safety messages to its loading screen following an early August update. And Niantic has also been forced, amid outrage, to un-list certain sites as PokéStops in the game, having drawn players to areas of assumed reverence—such as Arlington National Cemetery or Holocaust memorials. Yet more generally, a lot of people just don’t understand the appeal.
Yet the users, young and old, new or thoroughly initiated into the world of Pokémon with years of experience, have plenty to say themselves about the bemused or bizarre charges laid against the app. They claim it creates and bolsters community, even pointing to instances where players assist in reporting or stopping crimes—such as the players who reported an arson in Kuna County, Idaho. Bloomberg reported in early July that the game had already affected local businesses, citing crowds and higher profits as players visit particularly popular locations (i.e. PokéStops).
Other praise for the game is more anecdotal, with players citing the game as an aid to depression, social anxiety, or simply, exercise. (See the excerpts from Twitter at right.)
Personally, I like the game. I like the game way more than I expected to like it—after downloading the app at the insistence of a friend of mine, Lee, himself a long-time fan. I can relate to the folks from Central Park a little: I have followed the impulse to, say, hop off the bus a few stops early to walk and play on my way home from work; or to leave the app buzzing in my pocket as I grab lunch, figuring the extra steps will help me hatch an egg. Pokémon Go does get me out more, but it also gets me thinking about my habits or interactions in different, even surprising, ways.
I’m only half-embarrassed to admit that I’ll legitimately ask myself, “Will I see my first Snorlax if I plug in right now?” (Still nothing, btw, as of writing this…) But the game, with its uniquely physical mechanics, its augmented in-the-world nature, also has me thinking more deeply. It seems, apart from confusing some of us and bringing others of us together—at least in the loosest sense of “together,” into perhaps new or irregular places or following novel patterns—the game begs some psychological, even societal questions, about the new people and world these technologies are creating.
Some of my questions, at least, include: What does the Internet know? What does it keep? And have we truly given it permission to do all this?
Admittedly, they aren’t wholly mine; they’re actually questions modified from psychoanalyst and social theorist, Sherry Turkle, and her book, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. Published last year by Penguin, the book uses social and neuroscience, plus a healthy dose of literature and common sense, to suggest that something has been lost by moving steadily away from face-to-face conversation. Turkle tracks this loss through families, friendships, workplaces, and romances to prove that no digital trade is a true replacement for in-person conversation; she makes it clear that productivity, listening, focus (not its more-alluring-but-less-effective cousin, multitasking), and empathy are the human costs to our less-than-perfect exchange. Turkle suggests that, having built technologies to assist in solving real-world problems, we’ve now paradoxically noted their shortcomings and also agreed to turn to them again in full-force for a solution. Our faith and trust continues to go to these technologies, despite their deficiencies, as the human element is increasingly excised.
Turkle's solution? Reclaim conversation. And more specifically? Admit our vulnerabilities and be smarter about how we use our tech. Turkle insists that we can and must design technology “that demands that we use it with greater intention.” Turkle claims that smartphones and other digital tech might be regulated intelligently or be more thoughtfully designed—she says, “instead of encouraging us to stay connected as long as possible, would encourage us to disengage.” It’s a tall order, especially given Silicon Valley’s profit margins; to echo the ethicist, Matthew Crawford, technology is not “politically neutral.”
Yet the book shows a wide concern, across socio-economic boundaries and political lines. People are concerned, some of them CEO’s, many of them just regular people like you or me; if anything, there’s hope to reclaim, to take back a human sense of self. Turkle even provides a socio-political precedent, citing the Noise Control Act of 1972, where citizens, communities, and even local businesses insisted on spaces for solitude and privacy away from the increasing noise of changing neighborhoods and growing cities.
And as for Turkle’s other suggestion—that we make our apps smarter, in an evidently human way—then maybe Pokémon Go can serve as a stepping stone or half-measure, a small example of foiling our normal expectations of the way things are.
First, there is the obvious: Pokémon Go has a lot of users, including (like me) many users who are totally new to its world. We walk around purposefully or aimlessly, we visit PokéStops that teach us about our communities and neighborhoods. If we keep AR switched on, the app’s augmented reality setting, we literally have to look up to see the Pokémon in front of us: they appear, through the camera’s phone settings, as if in the world. We talk to strangers. We meet people, as much engrossed in the hunt as we are. We patronize local businesses. We even occasionally stop crimes. Yes, we’re only talking to each other marginally more--those folks in Central Park wanted a Vaporean, not each other’s company--yet this is still a kind of movement, economy, noticing, even socializing that wasn’t happening before.
Then there’s the fact that some of our more vulnerable populations, people with social anxiety or depression, are getting up out of bed and leaving the house to walk around and play the game. There’s good in that, for certain.
But what I find most encouraging is the way in which Pokémon Go has trespassed unwittingly into the act of civil disobedience. No, Niantic isn’t organized activism: I don’t think upsetting the social order was on their list of institutional goals. Nor are its users freer from their devices; Pokémon Go players are no less connected than anybody else seems to be, and so the app certainly falls short of Sherry Turkle’s prescription for more intentional tech. Yet there is something marvelously subversive about the app’s success and mechanics.
Let’s go back to Turkle’s questions: What does the Internet know? What does it keep? And have we truly given it permission to do all this?
We are all aware, at least vaguely, that both big business and government collect our data indiscriminately. Reclaiming Conversation addresses this, going so far as to characterize our lack of everyday concern for the systemic reframing of privacy by saying:
We turn away because we feel helpless…[people] have to figure things out by themselves, everything from their privacy on Facebook to their sense that their data are being used and they don’t quite know how or why.
We’re simply too afraid to have the conversation, publicly or privately, fearful of what we’ll find.
Pokémon Go sidesteps this anxiety, unwittingly, by making (at least, some of) our data useless. It’s an issue of geolocation. If over 100 million people, in over 50 countries worldwide, are wandering around somewhat aimlessly every time the app is on, then that’s a whole lot of data that tells “big brother” definitively nothing about our movements. While a number of recent articles, such as a July article in Forbes, indicate the usual user agreements to track and share geolocation data with marketers, I’m talking about the nature of the data collected. For now, at least, you go where the Pokémon are—and that’s rather unprecedented. The data collected while you’re going may not have any bearing on your normal movements. Furthermore, data collected on your normal movements has ultimately less bearing when mixed with your gaming data. Yes, 100 million users is a proverbial drop-in-the-bucket; but the app’s market will certainly expand and grow. And the app’s success will surely spawn replicates.
While a sponsorship, say with McDonald’s—like in Japan, apparently a possibility elsewhere—may upset a locally-based economy, and may guide players to new corporate PokéStops or promotions, for now it is mostly local businesses and landmarks that benefit. And benefits to the local economy from the increased foot traffic circle back to benefit the player and the community at large. Statistics show that, for every $100 spent at local businesses, $45 ends up circling back into the local economy—whereas only $14 of that $100 spent at a corporate chain ends up so. Let’s hope Niantic remains committed to a local flavor.
This situation may only be a case of if-god-closes-a-door-he-opens-a-window, a small cosmic irony of the system inventing another one of its own tiny vulnerabilities. Some data is a little meaningless; some human action has unintended consequences that are unexpected good or useless—at least in the sense that it provides no meaningful method from which to drive profit-after-profit. True, I’m by no means ready to declare the battle won for decency, privacy, and conversation: as Turkle says, you don’t really solve these things with more technology. Public and private conversations are needed. As is plain unplugging. Yet I find the situation of the game both revealing and ultimately hopeful. Perhaps Pokémon Go can teach us something, not about how technology shapes the way we inhabit the world, but about how we—as citizens and consumers—can shape it by our collective action.
So if you’re into it, download the app and chase some Vaporeons in your local community. Go talk to strangers. And wander…wander as aimlessly as you can manage.