By Nick Mizer and Jared Miracle
Pokemon Go, the blockbuster new augmented reality game developed by Niantic, hit the US on July 6. By July 13, estimates of the daily active user base ranged from 9.5 million to 21 million (for scale, consider that the peak subscriber count for WoW was around 12 million). About two weeks out from the release, the popular media is still trying to figure out what happened, and they’re not alone. To help me make sense of my own experiences with the game, I’ve enlisted my friend and TGA contributor, Jared Miracle, to offer his expert opinion. Jared is a folklorist whose work ranges from martial arts to masculinity to Mewtwo. He is the author of Now With Kung Fu Grip: How Bodybuilders, Soldiers and a Hairdresser Reinvented Martial Arts for America and is currently working on a groundbreaking book about the culture and folklore of Pokemon.
Nick: So as of the time I’m writing this, Pokemon Go has been out in the States for about a week and a half, not counting server outages, and the news came out this morning that it will be released in Japan, where you are, tomorrow. I know we’ve both been looking forward to this game since it was first announced, but the massive success definitely took me by surprise. When you were beta testing the game did you think, yeah, this will have about the same number of active users as Twitter? What do you make of this level of popularity?
Jared: Niantic, The Pokemon Company, and Nintendo have accomplished precisely what they set out to do, albeit more successfully than anticipated. I believe they underestimated the power of nostalgia, which is one of the prime movers behind Pokemon’s twenty-years of unmitigated popularity. I hesitate to call Pokemon Go a game. Based on everything I experienced leading up to its launch (from beta testing the program to participating in events at the various Japanese Pokemon Centers and the World Hobby Expo), I would say that it has, from the get-go, been meant as a fulfillment of Satoshi Tajiri’s original vision: to wit, it’s a platform for fostering human connection by using digital means to bring folks together in real space. The beauty of this new installation in Pokemon’s arsenal is that not everyone owns a dedicated gaming platform, but you’d be hard pressed to find an adult without a smartphone. People are always trying to find ways of making fantasies as tangible as possible, and the advent of AR on this level is able to do that remarkably well. This is a perfect example of “realia” in action, to us some academic jargon stolen from other academic jargon. I have to ask, though, how you see this kind of technology affecting the fantasy/reality divide. Does it remind you of the attempts to use projection technology for D&D at all? Or do perhaps Tupac being resurrected at Coachella?
Nick: I think that comparison leans too heavily on the camera part of the AR, which is getting a lot of attention in the media and sticks out in popular understanding but doesn’t actually impact the experience very much. I actually had to explain to some people at work the other day that you don’t just wander around with your camera up looking for Pokemon. While it’s fun to take a picture of an Oddish sitting on my daughter’s stroller, that doesn’t really shape my experience of the physical space or of the Oddish. It also doesn’t do much to shape the social interactions that you’ve identified as the core of the experience. On a superficial level, we can share those pictures, but it doesn’t connect with anything else. If, for example, the game was detecting objects and having the Oddish jump around and climb on things, that would be true interaction with the space and it would “really” be on the stroller. Further, a lot of players turn of the AR mode unless they want to take a picture. The bigger impact on the fantasy/reality divide, to me, is the map. The fact that the water tower by my house is a gym shapes my experience of both the water tower and the gym. The location of the gym shapes its social meaning, too, like with the prestige of being a leader at The White House gym or the social activism of putting Clefairy in at the Westboro Baptist gym. A pokestop at a bar is going to be very different from a pokestop in a public park, so the physical is shaping the virtual. If you put down a lure at either stop, it will have real physical and social effects, but the effects depend on the physical and social context. The closest comparison I can think of in role-playing games isn’t virtual tabletops, its larping, where you do a similar layering of physical and imagined reality. There are actually a lot of ways that Pokemon Go is like a larp. When I drop my phone into my bike mount and ride around my neighborhood with the music playing, I’m basically larping as a Pokemon trainer. Besides being the very best, like no one ever way, I think a good chunk of the role of “Pokemon trainer” that I’m adopting has to do with going out and exploring the world. Besides the fostering human connection, isn’t there something about shaping our relationship with our surroundings?
Jared: You’re dead on about the game changing not only our relationship with the landscape, but also our awareness thereof. As you say, this is essentially high-tech LARP in many ways, including the lens through which we choose to interpret our environment. This continues to support the argument that Pokemon Go is a huge step toward the realization of Tajiri’s dream. One of the original impetuses behind the franchise’s early development was not just preserving the bug fighting tradition, but also to make young people more aware of the natural environment more broadly. Bug collecting and “sumo” in their prototypical form require a degree of undeveloped wilderness. With Japan’s urban sprawl issues of the late 80s, the childhood pastime was threatened, hence why a devotee like Satoshi Tajiri wanted to rescue it. That necessitates protecting the landscape, as well. LARP, too, because of most campaign settings, calls for natural surroundings (unless you’re tripping on Mazes and Monsters, of course), and so has the same ancillary benefit of drawing attention to green spaces. I’m not sure that I can get on board with your estimation of the visual component, though. Personally, my favorite moment during the beta test was stepping outside the supermarket to suddenly hear the classic Pokemon battle tune. Whipping out my phone, I frantically looked around until spotting the Geodude coming straight for me. Doesn’t having at least the ability to access such visual forms in quasi-real space excite some sense of wonder? Visual appeal is a big part of Pokemon’s draw, after all.
Nick: There’s definitely something to that, and I’ve had a few comparable moments. I suppose it depends on which parts of the experience you bring to the imaginative foreground. It makes me think of the differences I found in interviewing tabletop gamers, where I learned that there’s a split between people who actively visualize the scene and those who interact with it in more of a conceptual way. I suspect that that there’s something similar going on here, but we’d have to talk to more people to get a good sense. If only there were a discipline that specialized in going out and talking to people to better understand their experiences…
What say you, TGA readers? We’d love to hear from you about your experiences with Pokemon Go. How does the AR play into your interactions with others and with the spaces you’re playing in?