Pokmon Go: why our dark world needs escapism more than ever

The wildly popular mobile game is a Poktopian fantasy that has flooded our world with good feelings and timing could be everything behind its success

What has technology offered us in these dark days of violence and fear? Silicon Valleys technologies are more pervasive than ever, its dark and toneless luxury gadgets, its social media amplifying the atrocities and raw pain of the real worlds problems. And yet among all this was born the phenomenon of Pokmon Go, a pure escapism that may well be the most successful mobile game of all time.

The first time you look at a road or park through your phone camera to see a fictional creature standing feels like a little bit of magic that makes familiar spaces feel exciting again. Pokmon Go uses your smartphones camera, GPS and map functions to overlay the gentle, simple veneer of childhood adventure over your everyday world; as you navigate your surroundings and a parallel world opens up in your phone screen, one where creatures and supplies exist to be discovered if only you wander in their direction.

You could view it as almost too convenient, this idea we can just escape into a child-like community ideal presided over by a consumer culture brand, united under a red-cheeked, grinning Pikachu. The Pokmon Go boom stands to attract exploiters almost as quickly as fans some of these are icky but inevitable, like retailer events or promotional tie-ins that invite you to catch critters at McDonalds. Others are more worrying, like reports of would-be Pokmon trainers walking off cliffs, into crime scenes or worse. Wandering around with your phone out in areas you dont exactly belong could be dangerous whats more, it can be more dangerous for some people than others. Writer Omari Akil highlights the dangers faced by black Americans perceived to be in the wrong area or to be doing something suspicious.

A balm against the evils of the world?

Maybe Pokmon Go is an equalizer, a well-timed balm against the evils of the world. Yet arguably it changes nothing, merely overlays a soothing distraction. Our nation collectively cringed when Hillary Clinton awkwardly hoped aloud that the game could help people Pokmon Go to the polls, but its not entirely out of line to wonder if all of this mass self-soothing, this collective urge toward a simpler and kinder age of tech community, can actually lead us somewhere, can inspire real collaboration and positive change. What can we learn from the success of this app? What else can we do with these ideas?

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In Hanover, Germany, some 1,200 players participated in a Pokmon Go night walk through the city center until midnight. Photograph: Alexander Koerner/Getty Images

From its US and Australian launch on 6 July, Pokmon Gos servers struggled to meet the demand of at least 20 million people trying to play the game. An influx of feelgood stories and images are proliferating across social media, almost like an antidotal injection against the usual order of viral anger and sadness. Users with mental health issues say theyve benefited from the encouragement to go outside and interact. A childhood friend told me that shes met at least 30 new people in her tiny town in the past week alone (I didnt even know that many people my age existed in this town, she says). Countless tales of people overcoming age, social and racial assumptions to make new friends or form fleeting but comforting bonds with other players abound. Away from the seedy purposefulness of hookup apps, Pokmon Go romances blossom. Here a user encourages others to deposit their in-game lures at childrens hospitals, so bed-bound kids can join the fun. Heres an adorable entrepreneurial boy whos designing and selling light-up badges so others can be safe playing at night. Pokmon Go could be leading young people to rediscover their national parks. The stories can be wild, shocking and wonderful, and they keep coming a pure, almost nostalgically utopian vision of technology and play at a time when the world seems to need it more than ever.

The history of Pocket Monsters

Pokmon a sort of Japanese shorthand for Pocket Monsters began in 1995 as a portable Nintendo video game series published about capturing, training and battling whimsical, cute little creatures. Children of the 90s furiously collected Pokmon trading cards, watched its TV showss and movies, and today there are dozens of games using the 700 Pokmon characters, making it arguably the most popular games franchise since Super Mario.

But while Pokmon Go may leverage the standard abilities of modern mobile hardware, its actually something of a throwback in more ways than one: it includes simple, nostalgic graphical representations of only the original 151 characters from back in the 90s Pokmon heyday. Neither the technology nor the implementation are particularly new, either.

Augmented reality dates back to the 1990s

Augmented reality (AR) the idea that real-world user behavior, hardware and devices could be implicated in fictional experiences dates back to the mid to late 1990s. One early AR game called The Majestic, from Electronic Arts, promised to call, fax and email players with spooky real-life intrusions intended to enhance the game experience. It did not do well, launching just before the events of 11 September 2001; the format was quashed by fears that it might be a bad time for strangers to receive unsettling pretend faxes and calls. Another was the marketing campaign for seminal found-footage horror film The Blair Witch Project, which placed materials online suggesting the events of the film could be real, drumming up cult theories and fan participation.

Pokmon Go is developed by San Francisco-based Niantic, a company with close ties to the heritage of real-world play. Before it spun off from Google in 2016, its best-known work was a 2012 game called Ingress, a science fiction-themed app which aimed to get users out of the house and interact with real-world locations and formed the foundation of Pokmon Go.

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Spearow, a Pokmon character, appears in a London street. Photograph: Olivia Harris/Getty Images

Niantics CEO, John Hanke, has said Ingress saw over a million installs, but the cultural penetration of the game remained indistinct, beloved mostly by eggheads and inventors who already believed in the dream of AR. The alternate reality space has long been attractive to designers and investors alike because it makes so much sense whats not to love about unintrusive but engaging overlays that make daily errands more fantastical, more social, more physical? Around the same period Ingress launched, prominent game designer and lecturer Jane McGonigal released her book Reality is Broken, wherein she argued that adding gameful elements to otherwise non-magical behaviors and tasks could motivate and inspire people.

Mainstream augmented reality?

Until Pokmon Go, there had been no killer app for mainstream AR; a few modest successes had been marketing efforts, including McGonigals I Love Bees which was created by a team aiming to sell Microsofts XBox game Halo. Gamified apps, like Foursquare and its ilk, have been successful, but have also fielded criticism from major design communities for promising that an endless parade of inane digital badges could be meaningful rewards, or substitute for tangible ones. Since the Pokmon video games have always been about collecting and exploring with a dash of optimistic pro-social messaging often mixed in with the storylines industry folk have long thought a Pokmon AR game could have the potential to cross over into the mainstream.

No one ever thought Nintendo would go for it, though. The company is known for strictly guarding its brands, avoiding social features that might be risky for young players, and resisting the popularity of mobile gaming in favor of pushing its own devices, like the Nintendo DS. But Nintendo, which is one-third owner of The Pokmon Company and now also an investor in Niantic, was reportedly put at ease by the vested authority of the Google infrastructure and by the success of a 2014 April Fools joke whereby tiny Pokmon appeared to users during normal use of Google Maps.

The power of a beloved, longstanding cartoon and game brand was all it took, along with some design simplification that made Pokmon Go a little less sophisticated than Ingress, and therefore more accessible to a wider audience.

How long will the phenomenon last?

There are also plenty of legitimate reasons to be skeptical about the game. Pokmon Go launched asking for a worrying range of access and permissions when it comes to users Google accounts possibly interesting in light of the amount of Google DNA in the games origin stories. Hankes former company Keyhole, which developed the product that would become Google Earth, was indirectly funded by a government-controlled venture capital firm focused on geospatial intelligence, so theres plenty of hooks for surveillance anxiety to catch on here. The privacy policy is also wildly liberal; you provide it with access to your location, your movements and any images you capture, and all of it can be given to law enforcement or private parties.

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figcaption class=”caption” caption–img caption caption–img” itemprop=”description”> A Pokmon Go release party in Toronto, Canada. Photograph: Cole Burston/AP

Niantics PR firm didnt respond to my request for an interview, but perhaps pragmatically has already released a fix for the apps overly broad permissions demands. Ultimately this isnt much more access than weve given Facebook or any other app in our modern data-mining dystopia, but it is strange timing, as musician Kool AD points out, for people to suddenly volunteer themselves for surveillance and proximity to law enforcement.

Theres no real way to predict how long the popularity of Pokmon Go will last. The game hasnt even yet launched in Japan, where mobile gaming is generally a greater part of the fabric of daily life than it is in the west, and a more sustainable infrastructure, with special events, cross-promotion and even sticker design elements, could be in the games future. Yet the game is fundamentally very simple, and is still struggling to meet demand, so users casually drawn to the craze this week might be bored with it by next week.

And its no small feat, finally proving the viability of the AR dream. Its also a sudden and fascinating contrast to all the investor interest in isolating, solitary and expensive virtual reality headsets. We can expect a new wave of AR projects and product inspired by Pokmon Gos success.

Maybe some of them will be for something greater than play and fun. Or maybe they wont. Maybe fun is enough in these times.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/jul/19/pokemon-go-success-augmented-reality-escapism

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