The civic pitfalls and potentials of Pokémon GO

A few weeks ago, I found out that Pokémon GO has taken over Barnsdall Art Park, our flagship community arts center in East Hollywood. Apparently, 1000+ (daily!) GO players have been flooding the premise of our historic art park. Bloggers have noted the wealth of Poke assets to be found at Barnsdall, listing the art park as one of the best Pokémon sites in Los Angeles.

What does this mean for public facilities with a mission to serve communities particularly those in or adjacent to LA’s low-income neighborhoods? What is the civic pitfalls or potentials of the game?

GIF by ABVH

The game governs interactions based on the logic of collecting Pokémon creatures and goods. Gamers come to this art park looking virtual creatures and potions in the park’s outdoor and indoor environments using an augmented reality app made by Nintendo. Participants engage in ways that only make sense for creature hunters. Some of them move recklessly in the space, bumping into people and objects of the built environment. Social interactions only occur when gamers exchange tips. Never mind the rich cultural history behind the structure (the untold story about Aline Barnsdall who with a passion for experimental theater hired Frank Lloyd Wright to design and build an artist colony in 1919). Gamers don’t seem to care where they are, let alone the cultural and historical significance of their sites. Some have even trashed public facilities like the bathrooms.

Pokémon GO is built on top of Ingress, a mobile AR game. Within Ingress, data of public landmarks and civic structures were incorporated to form the AR game world through which gamers navigate their physical environment. Commentators have been optimistic about the social effects about this game, e.g. bringing gamers to discover civic landmarks previously overlooked.

Discovery of civic spaces is one thing, consumption of the public in spite of the public is another. An art enthusiast, annoyed by the inundated park visitors, suggests a redesign of the app that would drive Pokémon players to interact with a purposeful information layer, engaging players with real world challenges linked to the physical/cultural sites that they find themselves in. Others have commented on the civic potentials of building apps to engage residents and citizens in community actions and processes. Ben Berkowitz evoked the idea of leveraging a Pokémon Go API, if it were to exist, to design a an app that crowdsources street or municipal service requests.

The idea of leveraging Pokémon GO as a civic problem-solving platform is fresh, but it comes with some assumptions about its users. Looking more closely, the Urban Institute uncovered the game designers’ assumption of the users as young, relatively affluent English-speaking men. Most of the portals — gyms and Pokéstops — are located in white and mostly affluent neighborhoods. The Urban Institute authors compare the game to analog placemaking projects. “Digital platforms — not limited to Pokémon GO — should strive to be truly inclusive of communities that are often left behind.”

Why not engage with what seems like disruptive technology in equitable and community-driven ways? What if we learn more about how the Pokémon players are visiting/exploring our art centers and offering them something creative and public-benefitting to do on site? Wouldn’t it be cool if an art instructor from our center offers impromptu illustration lessons to GO players? An artist in residence working with the gamers to create a gamified experience with a community purpose like voting, trash pickup, or a dialog about race and difference? Imagine if AR games could help organize civic projects with a social justice mission like #Blacklivesmatter.

Our colleagues in LA Public Library have figured out a way to integrate the Pokemon experience into their services. Actually, it’s super smart: using Pokémon GO as a civic platform to bring youth gamers into library spaces, engaging with them with Pokemon-ready activities while shedding light on library services. They created a list of the library branches with Poke stops, curated media and books that are Pokemon-themed, and shared screenshots of creatures being found between the stacks. Really clever, if you asked me.

We have a lot to learn from how the public interacts through data. The public is rapidly changing and being reconfigured by digital media. While these changes are happening, some of the entrenched social inequities remain unchallenged. Well, the next time anyone refutes the role of the digital in civic life and social equity, I will use this story as counter evidence.