Nevermind Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality will bring a whole new WTF level to everything, and by WTF I mean that it will make many people aware of the different kinds of reality they live and question what even is ‘real’. Pokémon Go, an AR geocaching game turns the whole world into a playing field. You can catch Pokémon wherever you are, little and big (mostly) public spots become Pokestops or Gymns. In this way AR frees gaming of the geographical limits not only of where you can play (which is what mobile devices have done), no: AR adds a layer of gaming to your whole physical world, the gap between gamer and avatar becomes smaller.
Just like the fascination with snapchat filters with Pokémon Go it is the mix of the known and the unknown, the acquainted and the new, that’s part of making the fun so accessible for so many people. The geocaching element makes you experience your environment in a new way – everywhere could hide something to be discovered. You discover things in your environment you’ve never payed attention to before and things you know suddenly become charged with new meaning when you discover that they are Pokéstops or Gyms. Of course it also helps that Pokémon are part of pop culture mainstream: thus the new AR layer has something you are already acquainted to. So you can experience your neighbourhood streets as something new and because the AR layer has these cute creatures you already know it has a reassuring element, is not only a strange new techy thing.
This acquaintedness, an air of nostalgia even for the older ones, might be why even though it has only been released for a few days by now P-Go seems as the ice-breaker for the uncanny valley of AR tech. If Google Glass had been released after P-Go things would have gone better for it. Some might be interested in the Pokémon fever because it offers new ways of marketing stuff to you, and yes, Pokémon Go of course is about making money, and the ways in which it can be used for making money via marketing might be what we will hate about it soon. Just as with almost every new tech thing we let into our daily lives. Capitalism is why we can’t have nice things for long.
I find the side effects more fascinating than the possible ways of exploitation. As if by accident P-Go might be something that help a lot of people realize how deeply tech is interwoven in their daily life. So it might be one more step contributing to end digital dualist thinking: One more step towards an end of thinking online and offline as either/or. Weirdly, when I turned on P-Go while I was on a walk lately I not only cared for the AR creatures but somehow it also seemed to sharpen my eye for the birds and squirrels that crossed my way. For some people it has a similar side effect as the smoking ban brought in my experience: I have gotten to know so many new people thanks to the smoking ban because it made us leave the circle of friends we go out with and it makes us leave the loud clubbing area for a cigarette or two. This has created new small social spaces. A friend of mine said he doesn’t get P-Go because he games because/when he doesn’t want to go out (which I fully understand). P-Go players suddenly go and meet each other. As an Inverse article puts it: “Remember when you were told not to play with strangers? In 2016, everything has changed.” Or as Danah Boyd describes it “In New York City, they ran into their neighbors who, on similar hunts, laugh and joke as they show each other their phones and share a moment. This game invites people to wander around their physical environment and see their surroundings in a new way — even prompt a “see something, say something” response in our security-obsessed world.”
Taking gaming to the streets has another side effect though. I don’t know if the game makers are aware that our cities aren’t neutral places. My bet is that they don’t care. This geocaching AR game reminds us of limits in public space that are set by our place in society. Starting with having money for a mobile data rate to play it while walking through the city. If you follow #blacklivesmatter or #reclaimthenight you are very aware that public space as equal playing field that democratic states seem to guarantee is a very theoretical and fragile thing. Last week-end on my way home from a show I realized quickly that a woman walking the streets alone at night will not hunt down her Pokémon as carefree as a man. Omari Akil has written about how playing it as a black man actually could put his life in danger. That’s just two of hundreds of examples.
We agree on a societal consensus of how we talk about our realities and what is acceptable to talk about, I think in journalism it’s called the Overton Window. This middle ground is only the lived reality for some, for an imaginary middle. We often don’t talk about our different experiences because we are so used to them that we take as given that everyone knows. First blogs, then social media were a massive step in making these different realities visible, for breaking the Overton window. The more different people started voicing their opinions and experiences, the more confusing the world got for those who live closest to the imaginary middle ground. The further away your lived reality is from it, the less problems you might have with a society that suddenly realizes that there is not one single objective fixed reality but that there are many fluid ones instead. The closer you are to society’s middle ground reality the scarier the world has become. Which might be one of the reasons for the big right-wing movements growing: For them giving the realities of minorities more space and more justice feels like their safe narrow world gets taken away. In this way social media have tought us a lot about social tensions, about community forming, about power relationships and much more.
Many people though don’t realize that social media – just like AR – already are a new layer that augments our lives. Geographically seen, social media is an invisible layer – AR makes it a bit more visible. And humans are visible creatures. Pokémon Go is just a silly little game but with its step into using AR as a visual layer over an environment you know it helps understanding in a casual fun way how deeply digital technology is interwoven with our everyday lives. AR taking us outside, connecting us via actual public spaces, taking the digital networked experience to the level of collective experience on the streets seems to hit a nerve. When we discuss platform politics of Facebook, to most people it seems like a “take it or leave it” thing, a neglectable theoretical dispute. Leave Facebook if you like it. That this can mean being detached from an important part of social and work networking still is quite incomprehensible for many people. AR might take social justice discussions to urban space, join them with the discussions about online spaces. When a woman complains she can’t write something publicly on the web without getting a wave of abuse and thus feels restricted in her movement it seems theoretical, ‘virtual’ to many. When she says or shows by a video that she can’t walk along the street without getting harrassed it isn’t. If it takes a silly game to unite people in ways that make them realize their different experiences of the same space it’s a good thing. And if it makes gamers aware that games are real social spaces, I won’t complain. When this gamer is worried about P-Go because “we should absolutely expect everything that happened in MMOs to happen here, because AR is an MMO” I wish he would see that a) life is an MMO and b) MMOs are life (things that happen in the social spaces of games affect real people). But his text shows how deeply this little game already inspires some people to think about how digital tech and life are intertwined.
There’s rightful criticism, of course there is. Pokémon Go shows the power and disruptive carelessness of companies. If your house becomes a Pokémon Gym, it has consequences – P-Go is great alone for all the discussions about public space it sparked. Should there really be Pokémon in Auschwitz? Are Stolpersteine okay? Should Pokémon be allowed to funerals? Should cats or parrots or other cute pets be? And so on. On the other hand the usual conservative criticism that tries to police the careless fun of exploring new tech also has already set in. From calling it not real hence anti-social, and some new kind of narcissim, and writing things like “people don’t have time to go to protests but they wander the streets playing Pokemon”. Why compare these things? It’s not either/or. Play is not not caring. Protest is caring and caring is only the other side of careless fun. As Ted Leo has put it in a song about St. Feliu, “Costa Brava”: Take some time off, drink some wine, (play Pokémon Go!), and “we’ll forget the fright and remember why we want to be brave and that there’s something to save.” So let’s enjoy it, let’s embrace the fun AND the critical tensions of public spaces on&offline and privacy and commercial pressure this little game might make us aware of until all the capitalist leeches will kill it. And, to quote Danah Boyd yet again: “Rather than responding out of fear, let’s step back and start thinking about how we can create more opportunities for young people to be meaningfully connected in an augmented way.” Just as this article on Pokémon Go as the future of learning does.