Pokémon Go Exposes the Friction Between Virtual Worlds and Reality

Pokémon Go is a free-to-play game for Android & iOS from Niantic. It’s an update of the massively popular and long-running Pokémon franchise, where players roam around a whimsical world collecting and training wildlife they force into lives of brutal combat. Except now, using GPS-enabled mobile phones, Pokémon Go replaces the fictional world with our own, sending nostalgia-heavy young adults rushing out to parks, shopping centers and other landmarks in search of virtual creatures.

Although the game has only been released in Australia, New Zealand and the US, developers are “pausing” release in other regions until the inevitable launch issues are resolved. However, players have found ways to enable and play the game in other regions, and popularity has skyrocketed.

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Mixed-Reality Games

Although it is primarily identified as an “Augmented Reality game,” Pokémon Go is actually an example of a “Mixed-Reality Game.” The key is the interweaving of a virtual game world. Real places develop additional meaning, so now your local lake may be a breeding ground for both real carp and virtual Squirtles.

Mixed-reality games are compelling because they give this new and exciting narrative layered over the mundane and everyday. Several Pokémon Go players have taken to Twitter to say how the game has had a positive impact on their mental health, by giving them a reason to get outside and get some exercise.

Back to Reality

However, mixed-reality does bring some issues, especially in games such as Pokémon Go that have a global scale. Obviously, Niantic has not visited every place that appears in the game to ensure its suitability and safety. It relies on data drawn from a third party, such as Google Maps, to identify landmarks and other physical attributes of the players’ vicinity. The reliability of such data sources is not perfect, and this leads to mix-ups and confusion.

For example, in the US, someone living in an old converted church has found his home routinely visited by Pokémon trainers since his home has been incorrectly tagged as a gym.

Position in Not Location

There is an issue for mixed-reality that these events highlight. Position is not location. Places have complex social and historical associations that are difficult for computers to understand beyond their latitude and longitude. In this way, we end up with Pokemon at war memorials across the world, including a holocaust museum in Florida and the 9/11 memorial in New York. These, and other missteps from the game are collected in the “Pokemorbid” Tumblr.

In 2002, while studying the mixed-reality game Botfighters, scholar Olli Sotamaa predicted that such games would run into trouble over the flat way technology understands locations in contrast to the rich way we experience them in the real world. Pointedly, he notes out that this is problematic where “in some cities the territorial organization can produce virtual no-go areas for certain groups of people depending on for example race, class or gender”. Sure enough, a Pokémon Go player has this week pointed out that the game could get them killed, as a black person “looking suspicious,” given the current political situation in the US.

While there is no doubt that Pokémon Go is a great game, and lots of fun, we should be prepared for more friction as the demands of the virtual world rub against the realities of the complex and socio-politically rich environment on which the game uncomfortably rests.

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