The Landscapes of Pokémon Go


Creatures encountered during my walk around my neighborhood lake.

I will go on the record as pro-PoGo.  Pokémon Go has taken the globe by storm, leading to reactions of delight and panic from observers.  While not the first, and certainly not the last, “augmented reality” game that uses real world space as the backdrop for digital entertainment, it’s clear that this is the first to burst into the consciousness of the general public.  Businesses, churches, parks, and recreation centers are scrambling to discover if and how the phenomenon could aid their missions.  And lawyers, law enforcement, and private citizens are scrambling to deal with the real problems of trespassing and public safety.  To be honest, as a game, I don’t expect it to have too much longevity.  It’s certainly not an in-depth strategy game or 100-hour role-playing game (my usual tastes), but then again, most mobile games aren’t.  Now that the concepts are out there, we will likely have dozens of other attempts to capitalize on augmented reality that will surpass this one.  But it is definitely a “happening” if not a gargantuan shift like the growths of MMO’s over the last two decades.

I’ve spent some time wandering around my home town and around my place of work (after work, of course, ahem) hunting for the cartoonish creatures that can spawn almost anywhere.  I think I was just slightly too old to get hit with Pokémon fever when the card game first came out, and I confess to not really knowing what to do with these creatures other than collect them and level them up.  I may screw up the courage to try to battle another creature one day, or I might not.  So, I don’t really yet grasp the difference between Rattata and Pidgeotto.  But I took the opportunity to explore the game world, talk to other players congregating around lures, and just trying to process the experience.  There’s a lot people are talking about, including the social potential of the game, possible health applications, and the unintended criminal use of the app.  What has interested me most, however, has been the effect of the augmented reality map on the experience of space.  It inverts how the player may typically value the places and objects around him or her.  The TLDR historical marker transforms into a place a succor, and the half-rotten picnic table down the street becomes a site of epic conflict.

The first thing that jumped out at me in the app was the map design.  The basic map is essentially the standard two-dimensional Google map with a cartoony color palette and simpler shapes for streets and buildings.  But hovering cubes emerge three-dimensionally out of the surface, which represent the pokéstops where players can resupply when they are in close-enough physical proximity.  On the horizon rise frenetically-rotating ornate towers, reminiscent of Dr. Manhattan’s Martian palace from Watchmen.  These are the gyms, points of contestation where the three teams into which players divide themselves (red, yellow, blue) pit their Pokémon against one another for dominance and temporary ownership of that gym.


Carptastic Bench

The gyms tend to be placed at prominent public gathering places in the real world: parks, school playgrounds, rec centers, shopping malls, etc.   However, the choices of where to place the more numerous pokéstops strike me as nothing short of inspired.  Sure, many of them are no surprise: popular retail stores, churches, government buildings, smaller parks, and playgrounds.  But a significant number of them are “landmarks” that usually fall beneath our notice and thus don’t really “mark land” for us in any meaningful way.  They are benches dedicated to loved ones, plaques beneath trees planted in someone’s honor, overgrown milestones, historical markers, sites or buildings designated of historical or cultural significance (but maybe not much to look at), and, yes, even cemeteries (more on these below).

In his comparative work, the historian of religion Jonathan Z. Smith often makes use of the metaphor of the map vs. territory.  In somewhat simplified terms, territory is relatively undifferentiated space.  The creation of a map requires choosing a perspective with which to ascribe meaning to the territory.  Such and such a myth, historical event, or even simply the name of its discoverer/mapper makes this mountain different from that mountain.  It is no longer space, but place.

I’ve often thought of Smith’s discussion of the connection between map and territory as our modes of navigation have transformed so rapidly in the past two decades.  Differences in navigation styles have traditionally been ascribed to gender (though we should take all that with a healthy dose of salt).  Women are said to prefer to navigate by landmarks (“Take the road through the center of town by the strip mall, turn left at the gas station, and go just beyond the Episcopal church”), while men are said to prefer more mechanical directions (“Go north on Route 32, turn west at Malcolm St., and go two more blocks”).  But with Google maps and in-car navigators, we have moved more and more in the “male” direction and perhaps even beyond it.  Landmarks and, in some cases, street names themselves are no longer necessary in a GPS-guided navigation system (“Go straight for two miles, turn left in half a mile, you will arrive in 200 meters, you’re here.”)  It’s only the numbers – distance, traffic density, speed, direction – that matter.  One of the effects of this has been sense of dis-place-ment.  Point A and point B are important, but the path between them is determined more by efficiency than scenic interest, sensory comfort, or narrative possibility.  For many of us, the spaces between become as good as featureless.

That’s why the map in Pokémon Go and perhaps in its future augmented-reality successors strikes me a potentially revolutionary.  It’s returned a sense of place and imposed a map on territory we’ve begun to ignore, and it’s using the very same GPS technology that has tended to pull us in the opposite direction.  Suddenly that rusty looking water tower has become a place of interest, a place to retrieve virtual supplies and perhaps capture an elusive monster hidden from the mundane eye.  It would be too hyperbolic to say the game is re-enchanting the world, but I think it is awakening many to the realization that technology has caused us to move about the world in increasingly alienated ways, making us forget the times as a child where wonder could lurk behind every bush, and we want to remember.


Pokestops are the blue cubes dotting the landscape; a monster to capture is center left; and the towering gym can be seen toward the horizon.  (from article


One of the more scandalous stories to emerge in the game’s first weeks was the designation of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in DC and Arlington National Cemetery as pokéstops.  I don’t think anyone would disagree with the museum’s insistence that the game is not an appropriate activity at the site, and they already ask visitors to minimize the usage of digital devices in general, which can distract other visitors.  But as I’ve taken a look at the patterns of the game’s landscape, I’m beginning to think that the designation was the unintended consequence of a design feature rather than a design flaw.  Much of the map has been inherited from Niantic’s previous game, Ingress, another augmented reality game with a science fiction setting that has two teams establish their territories by controlling portals (pokéstops) through which an alien energy is seeping into the world.  Players in the early stages of Ingress’ development were encouraged to submit suggestions of local sites of cultural, artistic, or historical importance for portals, and many players seem to have taken a no-stone-unturned approach to unearth interesting and neglected places in their community.

I’m reminded of the Miyazaki film Sprited Away (arguably his best film) in which the young Chihiro is reluctantly moving to a new home with her parents.  On the way, they become lost in a landscape peppered with spirit shrines leading to an abandoned theme park.  But the same location is also a vacation spa for spirits, and Chihiro soon finds herself trapped in the spirit world, requiring courage and friendship to escape.  While landscapes dotted with spirit shrines or adventures in a parallel spirit world are hardly unique to Japanese culture, there does seem to be a certain Japanese aesthetic flavoring the map of Pokémon Go (as perhaps could be expected, given its origins).  But the aesthetic translates in unexpected ways.  We’re not really accustomed to thinking about park benches or memorial tree plaques as “shrines” exactly, but it wouldn’t be wrong to call them that.  And one doesn’t really need to know the story of Edna Petunia Crumplebottom, to whom the bench is dedicated, to sit on it, play around it, and simply appreciate the fact that this place is/was/can be important to someone.

Human beings honor their dead in such vastly different ways, from keeping grandma’s bones in the living room to scattering ashes at a distant location of importance to the deceased.  American cemeteries have increasingly become rationalized and rule-bound, placing limits on headstone sizes & shapes, what kinds of flowers can be placed and when, when flags are or are not appropriate.  Some of this stems from the economic realities of maintaining a cemetery.  Memorials flat on the ground make a riding mower more feasible.  And roaming around disposing of stinky dead flowers at random times may not be the best use of the custodians’ time.  But it also reflects the ethos of our gated subdivisions, in which egalitarianism is equated with uniformity.  You can’t have a pink roof, because then I’d have to get a purple roof, and property values will plummet!  So grey rooves for *everyone*.  While many of us visit the graves of loved ones or explore historical graveyards out of interest, cemeteries are mostly things that retreat into our daily space, forgotten, and current design trends seem to facilitate this.  They are no longer located around new churches or city centers (again, partly but not completely, for practical purposes).

But there are many cultures around the world and many American sub-cultures that approach the necropolis differently.  They are places to visit, have a picnic, decorate, and embellish. (While a different time and place entirely, Peter Brown’s Cult of the Saints discusses how early Christians’ tendency to perform so many communal activities in proximity to their dead disgusted the necrophobic pagan Romans.  These tensions are not new.)  While I would be more than cautious about letting hordes of pokéhunters trample across our nations’ cemeteries, I wonder if it’s not worth pushing back a little against the reflexive tut-tut at the thought of fun happening in our public memorial spaces. Cemeteries need not be morose locations, even if we don’t want them to become amusement parks either.

Certainly in places where the weight of death overshadows the memorial of life – the Holocaust museum, Arlington Cemetery, the Vietnam Memorial – it makes sense to ask visitors to have courtesy for other visitors in somber reflection (and these places already do – no need to make special poképronouncements beyond reminders of existing protocol).  And I imagine Niantic will soon have a mechanism allowing places to request removal as a pokéstop, just as they are working on allowing businesses to get added to the list (the landscape of consumption is another topic altogether!)  But places like the Lincoln Memorial, our national parks, the zoo, and so on, already play host to hosts of screaming children.  They can certainly handle some Pokémon trainers.  And including local memorials dedicated to a community’s past citizens in an enchanted game map need not be a desecration, but rather a way to keep our dead (collectively if not individually) among the community of the living.