In July 2016, I was one of those people.
Head down, mesmerised by my mobile, and trotting all over town hunting for animals from Niantic’s augmented menagerie.
At the time, I was working evening shifts, and usually spent my mornings and / or afternoons studying, or in the gym – sadly, a Pokémon-free area.
While the game didn’t disrupt any of my usual routines (other than my unusual state of alertness to the potential presence of said Pokémon), it did lead me to a range of areas I didn’t usually frequent.
Curiously, one of the most active Pokémon gyms in my home town, a churchyard near the town centre, was already one of the most popular areas for daytime drinking. This resulted in an unexpected combination of the young, the young professionals, and the seasoned alcoholics arranging themselves in individual congregations around the churchyard. These people became my “familiar strangers”, in the sense of Hjorth and Richardson (2017, pg.5).
One of the most fascinating aspects of being part of this ‘phenomenon’ was actually observing how people interacted with one another; schoolchildren on summer break challenging battles to office staff taking a prolonged lunch, and people going through a routine of waiting patiently, leaving solemnly, and suddenly rushing excitedly back to locations to catch who or whatever had appeared. It was akin to watching a band who’ve been around for decades; everybody was there for a different ‘affectation’, with various levels of emotional engagement, or ‘nostalgia’ (Hjorth and Richardson, pg.9).
I can’t honestly say I was any more or less aware of what was going on around me, in what admittedly was a very short time, while playing the game. However, I certainly experienced my urban environment differently. If I was early for work, I’d spend time with a colleague hunting in nearby fields, or one of the many automobile showrooms near our office, pretending to look at cars while we were secretly routing out digital animals. It could be said that I was ‘reinvesting’ otherwise ‘wasted minutes’ with something active, and (at the time) productive (Foth, et al., 2016, pg.17). I communicated with people I would usually have no reason to, met new people I probably would have never encountered, and even bumped into an old friend at ‘the gym’.
However, as Horta and Richardson pointed out, there were also negatives to my experience. Break times at work were spent training Pokemon, and talking about training Pokemon. This is where I understand their analogy of the Internet as a playground and a factory, when related to the game. Many of us, myself included were so consumed that our free time became thinking and planning for our extra-free time, when we could roam and collect (2017, pg.7). I found it interesting that the game had more of a hobby quality, than other online, multiplayer games I’d become involved in. I believe this was because the game was more of a talking point, rather than an experience of interacting with others. De Souza e Silva alludes to the actual lack of social connection within the game itself (2017, pg.22), and my own experience of this was that the game became a talking-point, as opposed to something I used to interact with other gamers. I did interact with people because of it, but not through it – even in the sense of talking to people who didn’t play it, about what it was and why I was so engaged by it. This is what Humphreys would call the ‘indirect facilitation’ of social interaction the game produced (2017, pg.16).
Despite this, however, I would disagree with Foth, et al’s argument that it becomes easier to ‘stop partaking’ in one’s immediate surroundings, due to mobile games and technology (2016, pg.17). In the instance of Pokemon Go, at least, I found myself looking at my surroundings in new ways, and was more attuned to the world around me than I would have been were immersed in a Podcast or iTunes playlist. This is certainly a subjective, and intrinsic perspective, but my experience nonetheless.
Similarly, and even though I received the odd curious glance from Darlington’s local drunks when I was hanging around their own ‘gym’, I didn’t encounter any of the ‘risks’ that Hjorth and Richardson describe (2017, pg. 9). Darlington is largely white-British community, and a small town in comparison to nearby Newcastle or Leeds. It is a place where one doesn’t feel out of place or particularly threatened in any one area (although, again, this could be subjective – I might feel different about his were I still the young teenager who partook in Pokemon for the 2nd generation Gameboy).
I also don’t believe that a great deal of gamification, as described by Hjorth and Richardson (2017, pg.9) occurred within Pokemon Go. The game had no sinister qualities (other than the odd Psyduck materialising in my parent’s bedroom while they slept), and felt more like an opportunity to combine a forgotten childhood imaginary with modern technology. I prefer to look on the positive side of the game, and know that I spent one summer as a Pokemon-obsessed adult, more engaged with my urban environment, than I ever did as a Pokemon-obsessed child, for several summers and winters before.
De Souza e Silva, A., (2017). Pokemon GO as an HRG: Mobility, sociability, and surveillance in hybrid spaces. Mobile Media & Communications. 5, 1, pp.20-23.
Foth, M., Hudson-Smith, A., & Gifford, D., (2016). Smart cities, social capital, and citizens at play: A critique and a way forward. Research Handbook on Digital Transformations. Edward Elgar Publishing, UK. Pp.203-221.
Hjorth, L., & Richardson, I., (2017). Pokemon GO: Mobile media play, place-making, and the digital wayfarer. Mobile Media & Communications. 5, 1, pp.3-14.
Humphreys, L., (2017). Involvement shield or social catalyst: Thoughts on sociospatial practise of Pokemon GO. Mobile Media & Communications. 5, 1, pp.15-19.