Pokémon GO and the cultural sector

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If the mantra of the cultural sector is now: “Gotta catch them all!”, then Pokemon make particularly pertinent representatives. 

Gotta catch them all?

Many of you will remember the original Pokémon phenomenon: my cousins, who were small boys during the height of the craze, would frequently watch the show whilst visiting our grandmother. There were the usual anime tropes: “big eyes, small mouth”, the Americanised theme tune, and lots of cheering. With its catchphrase ポケモンGETだぜー!which translated to “Pokémon Gotta Catch ‘Em All”, Ash Ketchum (the lead character, known as Satoshi in Japan) and his array of friends, who changed regularly across the seasons, sought to capture and train some of the huge array of Pokémon – 729 named varieties – so that they could be made to fight one another in stadiums, in front of huge audiences.

I’m not sure I’m comfortable with the subjugation of an entire species for the entertainment of another, even if that species is fictional, but hey ho. In any case, “Pokémon is the second-most successful and lucrative video game-based media franchise in the world, behind only Nintendo’s Mario franchise“. To me, it certainly wasn’t as good as the cartoons from my childhood: She-Ra, Mysterious Cities of Gold, DuckTales. There seemed to be altogether too many close-ups and freeze frames: it was over-bright, and what the Hell was that yellow thing? Bear in mind, this is coming from a woman who was quite capable, in her youth, of suspending disbelief enough to watch Biker Mice From Mars. 

It was, and is, easy to dismiss the phenomenon as a means of making money (and it did, through its swap cards and Nintendo games, make billions of Yen) but aside from the fact it is fantastically entertaining and clearly a huge pop culture experience, it also has fascinating connotations with religion. In The Guardian article entitled If Pokémon Go feels like a religion, that’s because it kind of is, Hannah Gould, an anthropologist, wrote:

Shintoism, Japan’s oldest religion, teaches that the world is inhabited by thousands of kami, or gods. When made offerings of food and incense, kami bestow good luck in business, studies and health, but when disrespected, they can turn vindictive.

Pokemon are akin to these kami: they can be found all around us, capricious as any gods. And the adulation children still have for the Pokémon universe is often as powerful as those who believe in an afterlife. 

More fascinatingly, Gould cites Anne Allison, a scholar of contemporary Japan, and her work Millennial Monsters, when she comments that Pokémon:

demonstrate(s) a kind of ‘techno-animism’, which imbues digital technologies with a spirit or soul…This type of animism is embedded in commodity consumerism, where emotive ties between people and things are used to push products. But it is equally a means of fighting the dislocation of modern life by allowing consumers to create meaning, connection and intimacy in their daily routine.

I would suggest that Pokémon GO is an extension of this desire to reconnect with the “real”, as so much of it is dependent upon a participant’s activities in the physical domain. It muddies the waters between here and there, by using a phone’s GPS system to project an augmented reality onto the real world as seen through your camera lens. It is the sort of juxtaposition between the real world and the digital that captures, albeit fleetingly, our needs and desires. Perhaps, in this currently confusing world of BREXIT and 24-hour news, we need to have virtual reality in the form of a grinning, yellow, hyperactive Pikachu, transposed onto the world as we pass through it.

Capturing a Charmeleon: using GO in the cultural sector

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Taking the old and making it new: the essence of the digital humanities.

One of the key elements of Pokémon GO are the significant stopping points within the app, designated by the designer Niantic and often being monuments, libraries or other sites of historic or cultural and local interest.

So how can the cultural sector ride this phenomenal wave of interest that’s currently being borne out? In the first instance, as a venue, you would need to determine whether you’re near a PokéStop or a Gym. If you’re on the map as a stop, then you are very likely to see an increase in visitors, whether they’re coming through the door or walking around the grounds. At such stops you can collect Pokéballs, or snacks for your creatures, or receive medical treatment. 

If you’re a PokéGym, then your venue will be a place for users to fight and train their Pokémon. You can also take over these venues, if your Pokémon are strong enough. I’m not quite yet (you have to be a Level 5 trainer), but you can essentially capture the flag at these Gyms, and become the anointed trainer there. 

The National Archives in London is one such cultural organization designated as a Gym in the Pokéworld. 

One GO user, Alex Finnis, has written an article on areas he’s tracked them through London. St Pancras Station is a PokéGym, for example, and Hyde Park is a rich hunting ground for the creatures.

You can also lure Pokémon to your location: once you have set a Lure, then Pokémon will be drawn to it and thus, those who seek them will soon follow. Some businesses in the United States have enticed players into their businesses by offering discounts on products for those who set lures; the more Pokémon, the more people trying to catch them, and visiting your business or cultural organisation.

Niantic are yet to accept submissions for businesses to become portals, as each stop or gym needs to be a public space and to be permanent, but monetising this must surely be the next step.

Hell no, Pokémon GO!

You may, of course, feel that engaging in augmented reality dumbs down the cultural sector: entertainment disguised for our consumption as education, but nothing more than crumbs allocated to us by the superior classes. With our faces glued to a smartphone screen, we rarely look up; and now, when we do, a corporation controls what we look at.

There are certainly arguments against its use. The US Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Arlington National Cemetery, both designated PokéStop, have asked that users avoid playing the game at the sites, as doing so was inappropriate to the sanctity of those places. And the Academic Medical Centre (AMC) in Amsterdam has asked that hunters avoid the hospital, after players were found wandering around restricted areas.

Are those the sorts of visitors we want to our libraries, our exhibitions, our rare collections? The answer is, most assuredly. Tech-savvy participants in the cultural experience are what push us forward. 

But engagement is, of course, more than simply packing numbers through the door, but also encouraging them to really immerse themselves with our collections. But how best to incorporate it into an exhibition? How can it be used appropriately, and effectively? 

I’m not necessarily suggesting that we plonk a Jigglypuff in the British Library, but there’s absolutely nothing wrong in using GO as a means of making  gamers familiar with cultural institutions that they would never have dared enter previously. And augmented reality has been used to great effect by organisations such as the Museum of London in the past with their StreetMuseum app. 

One of the interesting things about the Pokemon GO phenomenon is that, whilst using AR can often feel like an isolating, individual experience (one is usually bound to a particular area in a museum, or wearing Google Glass), there are a significant number of users reporting on the way in which hunting for the virtual creatures has actually brought people together in the real world. 

Tonight I caught a Bulbasaur. It was clinging to my lounge curtains, so I threw a ball at it and captured it. It was a singularly edifying experience, as experiencing culture should be. I am hooked. 

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