Pondering Pokémon: Scholars of Culture & Media Offer First Impressions

We have shared a planet with Pokémon Go for about one week. Real live people have taken to the streets in shameless pursuit of imaginary monsters. What are we to make of this? Trying to get beyond the “kids these days!” and “technology these days!” strands of media chatter, I asked a few academics trained in the critical study of media and culture to share their first impressions on Pokémon.

Scholar-types like to think long and hard about a topic before they say much about it. They like to read and research and review before making a claim. This is what makes scholarship scholarly. But here I’ve invited our learned contributors to offer provisional perspectives on an emerging phenomenon.

The goal is to raise questions, spark conversation, and encourage critical engagement — to playfully explore what Pokémon allows us to think and say, without worrying too much about getting it exactly right.

Some of these scholars actively research video games, some focus on other aspects of culture and media. Some of us have played Pokémon, some of us have avoided it. All of us have been trying to make sense of it.

Contributors

  • Michael Mario Albrecht is an assistant professor of Media Communication at Eckerd College. He writes about popular culture, television, and politics.
  • Dan Faltesek is an assistant professor at Oregon State University, where he supervises GameLab. His primary research area is social media.
  • Atilla Hallsby is an adjunct professor of Rhetoric at North Carolina State University. He is currently writing a book about rhetoric, secrecy, and American politics.
  • Michael Lawrence writes and thinks and teaches in Chicago. He has a Ph.D. in Rhetoric and Public Advocacy, and has taught courses on communication, media, and cultural studies at the University of Iowa and Columbia College Chicago.
  • Gerald Voorhees is an assistant professor at the University of Waterloo. He teaches courses on digital culture and media in public life and writes about culture, gender, and digital games.

Q: Where were you when you first heard about Pokémon Go? What was your first thought?

ML: I was overhearing conversations on the bus, people trying to explain this thing to each other, and doing a very poor job at it. It’s hard to explain things that are partly unreal, but which nonetheless have an impact on the real world. Which is maybe why we have love songs. I got my first real introduction to the game when I ran into some friends playing it near a subway station. I may have muttered something about being “embarrassed for humanity” when they started pointing out all of the other humans in the vicinity who were obviously playing the game as well. Turns out the station was a “gym” in the game, and someone had planted some “lures” nearby.

DF: My students had been abuzz about Pokémon Go for months. It was clearly going to be something. I didn’t think it was going to be this big, this fast. Keep in mind, I work in a New Media program and work with a GameLab, so my students tend to be very tuned into the trends. When it actually hit, my first thought was: how much did they pay for the Pokémon license? Not to distract too much from the discussion of the interface or the social experience of the game, my first thought was: Pokémon is the greatest property ever in this space, this might be the beginning and the end of this all at once.

MMA: There are people playing Pokémon at the Starbucks as I’m writing this. I don’t know exactly what they’re doing, but they’re definitely playing. I think maybe this is a gym? My favorite brew pub is a gym, and one of my regular bartenders hates the game, even as it’s ostensibly bringing more customers into her bar. I had caught a whiff of Pokémon Go last week on social media, but like many things in my life, I was properly introduced to the game in a bar. I immediately thought that some kind of augmented reality bar crawl should be a thing, and it sounds like it’s going to be a thing. Maybe then I’ll catch them all.

AH: I don’t know if I can point to a single place where I heard about Pokémon Go. Pokémon Red and Blue, as well as the television series, has been buzzing in the background since I was in high school. When the game was first released, I did not notice. It caught my attention only after it caused controversy on my Facebook feed, either when a child discovered a corpse by accident or after the new prohibitions installed at the Kremlin and the Holocaust Museum. I was surprised today to hear about an incident that involved almost all of these things all at once: Pokémon Go, a corpse, and a Holocaust Memorial in New Hampshire.

Q: As a cultural phenomenon, what’s new here? What’s not new?

GV: So hard to answer this question. Pokémon has been around since the 1990s and in video games since 1996. Location-based augmented reality games and the technologies used to play them have been around for a little while too. The game itself, if you are to view it structurally as a set of mechanics, has been around since 2012. (Others have already observed that Pokémon Go is just a reskinning of Ingress, also developed by Niantic.) But the rate of adoption is new. The amount of cultural capital that Pokémon brings to the mobile, locative game is new. The media attention to the game, and the way this attention is having a snowball effect on the adoption of the game is new. In short, the triangulation of factors that have enabled Pokémon Go to emerge out of geek and/or game cultures and into the mainstream is new.

DF: The idea of this as old stuff combined is really important. This is a new product made by the General Motors approach. A u-body with a new style package. Just like how Pontiacs were made. Publics put so much stock in the idea of a magical seat of ingenuity — they put it in Silicon Valley. This is an augmented reality game (old concept), with old intellectual property (old enough to vote), built with the metadata from a five-year-old game (less old, but still). I am interested in the idea that we could really see the start of a new era where various parts can be effectively plugged together to make the hottest new products.

AH: I’m on the fence. On the one hand, I’m inclined to agree with Ian Bogost, who compellingly makes the case that Pokémon Go is a later evolutionary stage of early 1990s internet-based paranoia cyber-fiction (check out Edward Furlong and Frank Langella in the 1994 BrainScan for an example) and re-skinned, previously developed geocaching software (Google’s Ingress). In that sense, the idea behind Pokémon Go is not new, it’s the product of decades worth of programming and online role-playing game market capital. But that’s not entirely true, on the other hand, because this incarnation of the Pokémon game has caused a notable stir, unlike the other releases before it. Equally compelling to me is the idea that what’s new about Pokémon Go is the way that it connects different, always present threads in the history of programming together. What’s different isn’t the experience, the programming, or even the interface; what’s new to me is their combination.

What’s different isn’t the experience, the programming, or even the interface; what’s new to me is their combination.

MMA: Pokémon Go points out the contradictions of mediated society, and portends a future in which the boundaries of the mediated and the real are continuously re-negotiated. All that is solid melts into air, and such. There was an observational comic in the ’90s or perhaps early ‘00s — in the earlier days of the internet — who noted that it was odd that he used the same device to email his grandmother as he did to masturbate. The humor of course derives from the ways in which the virtual world de-differentiates spaces that would be clearly differentiated in the “real world.” Pokémon Go takes this logic to another level, as the logic of virtual space, which previously resided in the computers and smartphones, has extended to “real” spaces and is consequently de-differentiating those spaces and colonizing them in the name of the digital.

Q: What academic conference panels and dissertation proposals will we be seeing about Pokémon a year from now?

ML: I’m most looking forward to the queer studies projects that situate Pokémon Go within a cultural history of cruising. While we wait for the grad students to get around to that, listicle writers are on it: here’s 5 Reasons Why Pokémon Go is the New Cruising. I’m serious, though, that there will be worthwhile ideas to explore about the way this game, and whatever comes after it, transform how people move around and interact in urban spaces. This is of course still very much evolving, and quickly — the first days after the game launched, I noticed a lot of people out playing it, but mostly by themselves. A week later, I’m seeing more small groups roaming around the city together. There’s something to be said about the idea of the flâneur — so I was just pleased as Pidgey to find this post about “the traîneur” from The Atlantic’s City Lab. And I’m also curious about these pairs of dudes I’m seeing who appear to be out on Poké-chasing strolls together. I’ve already seen the term “Pokébro” in a few headlines. Plenty to talk about in terms of gender, which is of course connected to the public space question. Consider how rapidly and dramatically Uber and Airbnb have changed city living and urban travel in the last few years. Now add this.

GV: I’m interested in hearing about how the game brushes up against civic and commercial ideologies and either entrenches or reorganizes them. In other words, since the game locates PokéStops at notable locations, will playing result in a reimagining of these places with new affective attachments? Will the discourse and representation of the game colour or even rewrite the meanings assigned to these places? Or will Pokémon Go simply entrench (or even revitalize) patterns of movement or ways of organizing populations that benefit the state and institutions of neoliberal capitalism.

DF: This is a developing scenario. They just debuted a new form to request new PokéStops and the removal of some. The editorial process by which the meta is designed will be the topic of many academic panels. Perhaps good ones. Also, lots of really thin textual readings of the game without regard for political economy or circulation. Pokémon is interesting because of the ways in which it molecularizes (the technical term for people engaged in coordinated movement on social media), not because of the individual compositional choices made in a given frame.

House money. The best dissertations and everything else need to get to the idea that Pokémon Go is one of the first times when we can really see the impact of capital in this market totally running the market. I hope that chance encounters out on the Pokétrail lead to meaningful conversations and perhaps even activism. How do we understand participatory culture when any hope of alternative participation is so utterly locked out by the power of old capital?

Also, a presentation in some panel on organizational communication on deploying lures for fun and profit. This will be the highlight of my conference, if I should happen to see it. The combination of argument and tone will be spectacular.

AH: I think there will be a broad tendency to paint Pokémon Go in one of two ways. Many folks will take a position that the “augmented reality” fad poses a real threat because it allows the public to live out all kinds of violent fantasies. I believe it’s already happened. Not that these would be dissertation topics, but some have already pointed out that blatant racism ensures that not everyone who plays can do so safely, or that it can be used to lure unsuspecting minors into crimes. For me, these criticisms resemble the 1990s anti-violence campaigns against games like Mortal Kombat. They’ll point also and legitimately to the dangerous potential of “augmented reality” for persons of color, perhaps as symptoms of a deteriorating public. The other perspective on Pokémon Go we’ll get will be more rosy and optimistic. I think that there will be some attention to the haptic, FitWare, and public-making side of Pokémon Go; not just how folks interact with the game, but also with public spaces they may not otherwise have visited and the exercise they may not have done. I believe the strongest work on this subject will take stock of both of these positions before coming to any conclusions about Pokémon Go’s public importance.

MMA: One initial pearl-clenching reaction that people have had is that they’re worried Pokémon Go will collect their data. I suppose this is a fair critique, except the game is played on a smartphone, which has already collected all of your data. Unless you’re working on living the Ted Kaczynski lifestyle, someone (corporations, government, the illuminati) already has your data. The more interesting question (and low hanging fruit for a dissertation) is how Pokémon Go inverts the logic of surveillance culture. If most surveillance technologies try to track where you go, then Pokémon Go leads you towards particular spaces. If you buy that it’s easy to maintain a well-disciplined subject by watching what they do, then you can create an even more efficiently regimented subject by nudging them to go in particular directions. It seems like that nudging can turn towards coercion without too much effort. Kind of related, studying drones seems to be an important thing to do in an era when drones kill people all of the time, and few seem to care, save for those on the receiving end of the drones. I’m sure that the logic of Pokémon Go will be militarized if it hasn’t already. “Catch ’em All,” except by that I mean to find and destroy the Other. Also, if I can take a moment to plug my friend’s book on drones. I haven’t received it yet, but she’s wicked smart, so I imagine the book will be as well. Violent Subjects and Rhetorical Cartography in the Age of the Terror Wars

Pokémon Go inverts the logic of surveillance culture. If most surveillance technologies try to track where you go, then Pokémon Go leads you towards particular spaces.

ML: So, Pokémon Go and spaces, bodies, cities, communication, political economy, racism, gender, fitness, violence, activism, surveillance, and drones. We’re clearly going to need a conference, not just a panel.

Q: So, is this the thing we should be worried about, as far as downfall of civilization goes?

AH: Nope.

ML: Phew.

MMA: There’s a backlash against Pokémon that seems extreme considering how innocuous the game appears to be. The high point of the pearl-clutching backlash was the observation that people were playing Pokémon Go at the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC. The Washington Post piece about the phenomenon reads like an Onion article. The seriousness of the Holocaust museum is represented by the museum’s communications director who affirmed that “playing the game is not appropriate in the museum, which is a memorial to the victims of Nazism.” In an effort to present a balanced journalistic take on the experience of playing Pokémon Go in the Holocaust Museum, the piece concludes with a quote from a thirty-seven-year-old Pokémon enthusiast who proclaims (perhaps ironically?): “It’s not like we came here to play…but gotta catch ’em all.” A week-old trend is operating in the same physical space that demands reverence for an historical event that is supposed to be remembered and witnessed for all time lest it be forgotten and its horrors replayed.

Q: It’s hard to ignore the fact that Pokémon Go comes out at a moment when a lot of public discourse was having to confront really challenging and weighty questions about race and gun violence. Is there a connection to be made between the buzz about Pokémon and the buzz about the most recent shootings of black men by police, the momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the killing of police in Dallas? Is Pokémon just a distraction from the real issues?

ML: The terms by which our culture makes sense of any one phenomenon end up slipping around and shaping the way we talk about other things. There are going to be shared metaphors, terms, assumptions. But before we even get to the subtle details, we can look at the explicit overlap between the things we talk about when we talk about Pokémon, and the things we talk about when we talk about BLM and gun violence: Who enjoys freedom of movement in public spaces? Who can congregate, and where, and with what in their hands, without being perceived as a threat? I’d also add that I’m very glad Pokémon Go doesn’t involve shooting things.

GV: True, no shooting, ML. But as Mattie Brice has observed about Pokémon generally, there is a rather disturbing process underlying the games. Brice undertook an experiment in which she logged her experience with a Pokémon game and replaced the word “Pokémon” with the word “Slave” and the word “Trainer” with “Master.” It gets disturbing very quickly. Even absent the substitution of these terms, fans have long suggested that Pokémon is essentially a cockfighting simulation.

ML: Wow.

GV: The connection (or rather contradistinction) has already been made between Pokémon Go and BLM, and also, though overlooked, there is something to be said about the sort of mobility presumed by Pokémon Go and the lack of mobility that women and queer folk experience. Of course, this not an inherent. It is a wonderful thing that activists and public intellectuals are making these connections and engaging in this discourse. And in addition to enabling players to perform their privilege, Pokémon Go makes possible the comparisons that amplify the arguments of BLM and even disseminate those arguments into previously unreached cultural fields.

AH: I think there’s a strong temptation to say that Pokémon Go is unrelated to these other events, that it’s the new shiny object we’re drawn to so as to distract us from a bigger picture of mass violence and police brutality. If the public is drawn to distraction, that by itself is enough reason to colonize Pokémon Go as a topic relevant to these other contemporaneous issues. So even if it’s unrelated, I think it should be. The public love affair with Pokémon Go and the visceral brutality of anti-black police violence make for a striking contrast. I’m inclined to think that there may be a connection to be made, for instance, between the growing popularity of GPS-locating apps and camera phone recordings of police violence. When you purchase a cell phone now, it comes with two contracts: one you pay monthly, the other each time you’re called upon to bear witness.

The unseriousness of the game circulates against a collection of current events that are dead serious.

MMA: Perhaps the backlash against the game comes from its decidedly unserious nature; it is ultimately a game about nothing. (I suppose all games are games about nothing; or rather, games follow their own internal logic that doesn’t necessarily reflect the logic of the “real world”). There’s no reward in the “real world” for catching them all, just monsters that can be pocketed. The unseriousness of the game circulates against a collection of current events that are dead serious. Questions of police brutality and transnational terrorism are unquestionably serious issues that should be treated seriously; yet the same device with which one can read about the bombing in Nice, or the sniper-shooting of police officers allows you to chase digital monsters — in your own neighborhood no less. The Holocaust museum stands in for that which is perceived as the most serious thing perhaps ever to happen. If anything “means something,” then it’s the Holocaust, which in the twenty-first century is an event to be revered unquestionably. Yet, as the public discourse frames it, these disrespectful Millennials and Xers are wandering through the sacred halls of the museum searching for something ephemeral and whimsical. Ephemerality and whimsy are most definitely not experiences that one should associate with the Holocaust museum. A similar media brouhaha emerged when a couple of dudes took a selfie outside of Auschwitz. I’m sure that people have taken pictures of the death camp for decades, but the term “selfie” implies ephemerality and whimsy rather than the staid permanence that comes from a Kodak Instamatic.

Q: New cultural phenomenon help us see old patterns in new ways. What is Pokémon helping us see, beyond the little monsters? Or put differently: You’re going to use Pokémon in your classes as an example to illustrate what bigger point?

ML: Part of my point in putting together this post, and in talking about popular culture with students at all, is that seemingly fluffy cultural events and texts can — and do — help us have meaningful and sophisticated conversations about all kinds of important issues. So anything we might discuss about Pokémon is an illustration of this ‘meta’ point, but more specifically, I’m thinking about some possible conversations about how we act in public spaces, about nostalgia, about the ways in which our reality is always “augmented” — by discourses and practices and ideologies that enable us to “see” certain things in the world around us and ignore others. In his documentary A Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, Zizek makes a point about ideology using the film They Live as an illustration. The clips he uses are uncannily evocative of Pokémon Go, so I can imagine having some fun with that.

AH: The next class that I’ll be teaching will be about Communication Ethics, so Pokémon Go will likely serve as a recurring example. I think, for instance, it provides good context for the question about one’s ethical obligation to witness — if, for instance, one is out and about playing Pokémon Go and happens upon a violent crime in process. That raises the question for me as to whether one’s being in public already presumes an ethical responsibility. It also provides a good example for the care we should take before rendering final judgment about the phenomenon of augmented reality as such. Put into the history of other objections to emergent technology, Pokémon Go is only one of many new-fangled gadgets that have bifurcated public opinion. Pokémon Go is neither unequivocally good, nor the harbinger of dangerous things to come, but both. Knowing the new obligations that come with technological progress is indispensable to understanding our future communicative responsibilities.

Pokémon Go is neither unequivocally good, nor the harbinger of dangerous things to come, but both.

MMA: A person playing Pokémon Go posted a picture on my Facebook feed of a Pokémon character nesting on her crotch covered only by a pair of quite short shorts. A great degree of care and forethought went into her perfectly situating her body so that the character appeared to be atop her mons pubis. I don’t know exactly how this connects, but it struck me as interesting or important or bizarre. Perhaps it’s because the photo forces the viewer to associate Pokémon Go with sex, and sex is another one of those deadly serious things that should be revered and taken seriously. One can easily imagine a version of Pokémon Go that involves sex or virtual sex, if that distinction even means anything in the post-Pokémon universe. I assume that coders in Silicon Valley are already working on a derivative of Pokémon Go that is all about sex, and that in the future our sex lives will be enriched and/or depleted by loveable characters. I’m sure they’re also working on a version of the game that is appropriate for the Holocaust Museum — some kind of virtual space that allows one to bear witness properly and to revere wholly the enormity of the Holocaust. The ultimate fear of course would be that those spaces would merge, that de-differentiation would be so complete as to allow for a future reality involving cartoon monsters, sex, and the Holocaust.

Illustrations by Michael Lawrence.