The Landscapes of Pokémon Go

Pokecaptured

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.

CarpBench

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.

android-device-screenshot-map_custom-eb0530f22c3b2e3011e13ac1c58b1c187b182472-s400-c85

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 NPR.org article

POKÉPILGRIM

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.

 

Questioning Fictional Violence

The Sandy Hook tragedy seems to have resulted in one of the more sustained public conversations about gun violence in many years. A month has passed, and it’s still very much on everyone’s minds, televisions, and browsers. This time around, some more attention has been paid to the larger culture of violence and problems in mental health services, and not just to gun control. There’s also been an unusually good deal of self –reflection in the media. One area I’ve been following has been the conversation on video game violence.

The anti-gaming diatribe of the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre has rightly been met with a good deal of scorn, a transparent deflection to anything other than a serious discussion of gun control. That being said, gun control on its own can only be part of the solution. We need to look at other cultural factors. One can point to Switzerland, which has incredibly permissive gun laws but low incidence of gun violence. One could also point to Japan, which does have very strict gun laws but consumes massive amounts of graphic sex and violence through the media. When you control for only one variable in this kind of societal comparison, you get really strange and contradictory results.

I am a consumer of violent video games, but I’m not really sure I could throw an effective punch (having never felt the need to try), much less handle a firearm beyond a Super Soaker. I get squeamish at the sight of blood, so I’m not likely to stab anyone, either, or hit them with a hammer. However, in high school, I did write a series of haikus that had my classmates getting dismembered in amusing scenarios, in an Edward Gorey sort of way. These days, such things would probably have gotten me sent to a psychiatrist rather than garner literary praise. I’m glad I wasn’t pathologized in such a way, nor were the proto-engineers in my class who designed and built bombs to blow up squirrels in the back yard (and who grew up to be well-adjusted, model citizens).

But while I’m certain violent video games haven’t made me, at least, more prone to violence, I’ve nevertheless been thinking a great deal about what things in these games make me uncomfortable and why. Too many people ask the question, “Do violent games and movies cause violence?” The obvious answer is no, at least not directly, but they’re not asking the right question. Fictional violence, like real violence, always has a context by which we judge it. What distinguishes legitimate violence from illegitimate violence is a fuzzy and constantly shifting line. The number of children in Yemen and Afghanistan killed by U.S. drone attacks in the name of fighting terrorism hardly elicits an American tear, after all, even though it probably should.

But let’s stay in the fictional world for now. I’m not expecting to provide any profound answers here, but I’d like to suggest a couple questions that ought to be included in our national discussion.

Dishonored: How to separate the guilty from the innocent?

AREN’T YOU A LITTLE SHORT FOR A STORM TROOPER?

How do the faces or the facelessness of the victims of violence in games affect the narrative?

The bad guys in our fantasy and sci-fi epics are usually masked in both sameness and otherness – other than us, but all the same to one another. They’re hordes of aliens, orcs, dark-skinned savages (I’m looking at you, Tolkien), clones, robots, or space Nazis. They look different from us and therefore do not count as human. The conventional wisdom is that by dehumanizing the enemy the audience is spared having to delve into morally ambiguous territory. And even enemies that do have a face are bereft of human relationships. Does General Tarkin have any children? What’s his favorite color? How much poker money does he owe Vader? Will anyone mourn him after his horrific death being burnt to a cinder on the Death Star?

Not all games and movies take this route, however. A recent game by Arkane Studios, Dishonored, could be classified as one of the most hyper-violent games this past year, but is simultaneously one of the most thoughtful games I’ve seen when it comes to violence. You play as an assassin who is framed for the murder of an empress and must hunt down the real killers and rescue the princess, all set in a grisly plague-ridden Lovecraftian steampunk dystopia. You can beat the game by slicing off the heads and limbs of your enemies, but you can also beat the game without shedding a drop of blood and sneaking stealthily by your enemies.

While lurking in the shadows, you can overhear the burly guards complaining to one another about their work hours and making plans about what to do when their shift is over. There are also innocent people strewn across the levels you must traverse. While getting seen sometimes puts you in a bad spot, most encounters require you to choose life or death on a case-by-case basis. A maid might see you and cower in fear. Do you spare her and risk her alerting guards? You also have the option to knock her out and hide her in the bedroom. In this game, it is the player who wears a mask, a nameless terror to the denizens of the world. If you choose a more violent path, the plague gets worse and the more zombies get thrown at you by the end. The peaceful path is actually more challenging tactically and more satisfying. As it turns out, I suck at games, so I tried to be peaceful, but the guards always saw me and attacked. Despite my intentions, the game labeled me a pretty reprehensible bloke by the end.

I’m not sure which approach is “better.” Faceless enemies allow you to forget that you’re committing violence or stylize the violence so that it’s aesthetically divorced from the consequences. Enemies with faces force you to confront that you’re committing violence, but the visceral closeness can cut both ways. The exaggerated gore could be taken as a reward, a chance to giggle, as in a Peter Jackson battle scene. Or it could engender a twinge of digital guilt or at least disappointment that you didn’t play it right.

Left Behind: Yes, this really is a game. No, I don’t think they’ve sold that many copies . . . at least I hope not.

YOU’RE NOT IN KANSAS ANYMORE

Is violence depicted in the here and now different from violence long ago and far away?

I’ve always shied away from games set in the contemporary world or that portray current conflicts. World War II is about as close as I want to get, either that or 50 years into the future. I wonder why this might be. In the case of games depicting the “War on Terror,” they just smack of jingoistic propaganda or military recruitment. So I guess you could say I find them politically distasteful, but I also worry about the possibility of dehumanizing real groups of people. Dehumanizing Nazis is one thing – that conflict is over and we tend to get along pretty well with the Germans of today. I think for me that “fantasy buffer” is important for my enjoyment of a game. I don’t want to be reminded of real violence happening in my world.

I’ve also had trouble getting into the Grand Theft Auto Series, although I hear they are some of the best roleplaying games made in terms of complexity and writing. But then I’m not attracted to gangster films very much either. I think I find the type of masculinity depicted to be kind of vile. But that’s more about my own taste, perhaps, than the games’ violent content.

I wonder, though, how people construct their “fantasy buffer.” I was already in my 20’s before I really played a video game in any seriousness, although I was a total D&D nerd (several video game genres owe their very existence to Gary Gygax’s idea that an exciting narrative can be determined both by choice and the randomized roll of the dice). So the separation of fantasy and reality has never been a serious issue for me. I may overindulgence my escapist fantasy life, at times, but I never confuse the two.

I wonder if children and younger teens experience games the same way. Obviously, mass shooters have other psychological problems going on. But do “normal” kids growing up on video games end up perceiving real world violence differently? The fact that military technology seems to be more and more game-like does make me worry that the fantasy/reality divide is shifting for many. One of my high school gym teachers used to tell us about how he strangled an enemy in Vietnam with his bare hands (he also egged on several fist fights between classmates – I was not a fan. Violence in video games? Let’s talk about dodge ball as a mechanism to socialize violence in children!) But I wonder if having to physically confront your enemy and contend with his body, rather than pushing a button to blow up a blip on a radar screen, alters your perception of violence, and in what way? I suspect that something is lost, and something is gained, but I’m not sure what. And this clearly isn’t an issue limited to video games.

Mass Effect: Violence for the future of the galaxy: Truth, Justice, and the Organic Way

THE ANTI-ANTI-HERO

What traits make a hero a hero?

Most violent video games are simply the latest iteration of adolescent male fantasy from Homer to comic books. We want to be heroes. As kids, we use superheroes as a way to imagine being in the world. What do we want to be like? As adults, we may continue to be fascinated by superheroes as symbols of the paths we might have taken or as ways to honor the simpler time of our youth. We also seem to be in the age of the antihero, someone who tries to do right but is hampered by human flaws and frailties. The superhero phenomenon has helped many kids deal with feelings of marginalization. Superheroes are different from normal mortals but they save the day for everyone – a fantasy, perhaps, but one that fosters positive self-image. But on the darker side, superheroes tend to be vigilantes, technically, operating beyond the limits imposed on law enforcement. Alan Moore’s brilliant Watchmen tackles the thorny of issue of vigilantism among our superheroes.

Many video games, particularly in the roleplaying genre, engage the player in shaping heroic traits. BioWare’s games like Mass Effect and Knights of the Old Republic or Lionhead’s Fable work a “morality meter” into the mechanics of gameplay. Selfless actions tend to bump you toward the light side, while cruel actions bump you toward the dark side, each unlocking new gameplay options if you’re consistent. But even games without such a meter often present the player with complex moral dilemmas. Do I save the damsel being carried off by the dragon, or do I save the villagers in the village set aflame by said dragon? Even if you indulge the darker choices for the sake of playing a role, you’ve still engaged your ethical thought process, to the degree acting on pixels can be considered “ethical.” Some of these games have had writing on par with some of the best speculative fiction and can be aesthetically and philosophically satisfying.

Another genre, the pure “shooter,” strikes me as more problematic, sometimes, at least. Often there is no context given for the virtual carnage you inflict. It’s all about the adrenaline rush. That, in itself, might not be a bad thing, although I usually don’t find such games to be engaging enough – I want my narrative! In shooters, your targets are usually hordes of “others” – aliens, demons, Nazi cyborgs, etc., although I have heard of a Left Behind shooter where you convert people to Christianity or kill the recalcitrant unbelievers amidst the social chaos of the apocalypse – a troubling worldview to say the least.

I think games that put you in the role of hero have the potential to get the player to reflect on virtue, however simplistically, in the same way that the genres of epic and tragedy have since humanity first starting spinning fictions. But not all games succeed in placing violence in a meaningful context. The difference may ultimately be an aesthetic one, rather than a legalistic one.

NATURAL BORN KILLERS?

If we’re honest with ourselves, we’d have to admit that pretend violence is close to the core of what makes a game a game. Sports, cops and robbers, even chess engage our predatory instincts and thirst for competition, however stylized or abstract. In earlier eras, it was how societies remained prepared for war or passed on hunting and survival skills. It is even a behavior that can be understood across species. I play with my cat through pretend violence, and we are both aware of the difference between the real and the not real. That’s truly amazing when you think about it. No matter how rough and tumble we have gotten, he has never broken my skin with teeth or claws (although not all cats have such self-control). Games are not just about violence, they are also about engaging our social skills – even games we play by ourselves require us to think strategically and imagine how our real or virtual opponents will react.

That being said, some forms of pretend violence seem to cater to our baser instincts – vengeance, bloodlust, Schadenfreude. I think most modern societies would agree that the Roman coliseum “sports” crossed an ethical line, no matter how entertaining they were found by the audience. Just because fake violence seems to be instinctual doesn’t mean we always need to give it free reign.

Human beings are violent, and probably always will be, but we survive because we establish mental lines – between fantasy violence and real violence and between acceptable real violence and unacceptable real violence. Such lines shift, of course, and may differ from person to person. But we have a long way to go before truly understanding how such lines are built, reinforced, or undermined in a developing mind.

Some posts on this topic by friends of mine:

Faded Epiphanies

The Yogi Gamer