The Philosophy of Pokémon GO – Wisecrack Edition
Welcome to this Wisecrack Edition on the Philosophy of Pokémon GO!
Written by: Alec Opperman
Directed by: Michael Luxemburg
Narrated by: Alec Opperman
Edited by: Andrew Nishimura
Motion Graphics by: Jackson Maher
Produced by: Emily Dunbar
The Philosophy of Pokemon GO – Wisecrack Edition
Hey Wisecrack, Jared in the pale flesh again. Today, we’ve got an episode for you about Pokemon Go, urban exploration, and some dead French guy. You know, the usual. Pokemon Go temporarily gripped the world like an epidemic. The augmented reality mobile game, just days after its release, was installed on 5% of all Android devices and even surpassed Tinder in downloads. to say that we were gripped by Pokemania all over again is an understatement. The media, and now Wisecrack, just wouldn’t shut up about it. Pokemon Go-ers have discovered dead bodies, been lured into being robbed, crashed their cars, and even trolled the Westboro Baptist church.
At the same time, plenty of people were less than enamored by Pokemon Go. Filmmaker Oliver Stone decried the game’s rampant data collection as a new form of surveillance capitalism: Totalitarianism. So is Pokemon Go a nightmare confluence of phone addiction and corporate surveillance? Maybe. Let’s find out. Welcome to this Wisecrack Edition on the Philosophy of Pokemon Go. And for once, no spoilers ahead. At it’s heart, Pokemon go is a game about walking. You saunter over to a pokestop, dash towards a raid, stampede towards a Dragonite, trespass into a neighbor’s yard, stumble into a crime scene, and so on. And while “walking” may seem as philosophically unimportant as an Adam Sandler movie – you’d be surprised. But before we can understand how Pokemon Go radically changes how we interact with physical spaces, we need a little history of walking.
Unsurprisingly, walking played a prominent role in society until the rise of the automobile. Besides getting people from point A to point B, walking was a sort of sport in aristocratic circles. As Frédéric Gros writes in his book “A Philosophy of Walking, well-to-do men and women would stroll around in fancy clothes, occasionally striking a pose to woo potential suitors. It was kind of like the physical manifestation of rich people selfies on Instagram. For others, walking was a holy matter: every year scores of people would undergo a pilgrimage to various sanctified sites. Meanwhile, philosophers like Friedrich Nietzsche saw walking as an invaluable part of the philosophical process. Today, our walking, and movement in general, still serves a social function, though it’s a little more pragmatic now.
Our morning commute, running to the grocery store, picking up Sonny Jim from soccer practice, most of these comings and goings are programmed into our daily lives. We move from place to place, generally unaware of our surroundings, and never venture far from our planned route, all to fulfill our societal obligations. As Gros writes, this kind of rushing around is always in the service of “doing something,” and never to “just be.” Walking, according to Gros, in its purest form is about doing nothing, which allows us to “rediscover the simple joy of existing,” a kind of child-like wonderment with the world surrounding us. Some might argue that Pokemon Go, according to this logic, follows the “always doing something” logic of our time. Frantically running from Pokestop to Pokestop, chasing down Legendary raids, and battling gyms isn’t exactly the kind of exploration Gros is writing about.
We’ll tackle that in just a second, but first, let’s talk about space. Every street, building and open space carries with it an assumed social code. You wouldn’t behave in an office building in the same way you would a concert, you don’t play football on a freeway, and many would say it’s in poor taste to wear your Black Sabbath t-shirt to church. But those social codes change with time and culture. Public bathing used to be a thing, bars used to be a place to find a date, and rivers used to be a fine place to drop trou and do your business. Pokemon Go, and the technology it uses, might change everything by radically recoding the space we live in. The game has literally mapped onto reality an entirely new set of social codes. Parks for hiking? More like a sweet place to battle a Mewtwo.
Churches for worship? Pokeballs for days. Panicked crowd all running in same direction? Could be a zombie apocalypse, but it could be an unown. Museums to memorialize the millions of people slaughtered? Pokemon Go in holocaust museum? More like… ok, seriously guys, don’t play Pokemon in the Holocaust Museum. In short, Pokemon Go has disrupted how we perceive space. There is a common fear with Pokemon Go: Should we really trust a massive corporation with such intimate knowledge of where we’re going and how we’re getting there? Is it a little scary that a company can so artfully tell us where to go?
Niantic has integrated sponsored pokestops, and Starbucks, for instance, as more than happy to oblige. The idea is to get you to buy a Pumpkin Spice Latte once you’ve decided to take a break from catching mythical monsters. So far, aside from some sponsored Pokestops, Niantic has taken the high road: organizing things like beach cleanups for Earth Day. But that doesn’t mean it can’t go downhill fairly quickly. What if you could pay Niantic a couple million dollars to have rare pokemon spawn at your political rally, or worse, your friend’s improv show? For French philosopher Guy Debord, modern capitalism has neatly organized time and physical space.
Where we are, where we’re going, and when we’re getting there is a function of of the totalizing control the economy plays in our lives- we travel through life mesmerized by our commodity-filled environment. We go to work to make money, to a leisure activity to spend money, go home, go to sleep, and repeat, with a sort of systemic pressure to do this in a more and more productive way – work harder, enjoy more, sleep less. You get the idea. For some, Pokemon Go easily fits this dystopic narrative. Yesterday we were mesmerized by billboards and where they told us go, probably some TGI Fridays. Today we’re mesmerized by our phone screens and and where they tell us to go. What is missing from all of this is chance, randomness and discovery.
But before you think we’re being overly paranoid edgelords, those who decry Pokemon Go as the harbinger of some dystopic augmented reality are only half right. Pokemon Go, as Edwin Montoya Zorrilla writes in the Hong Kong Review of Books, resembles “dérive,” a revolutionary strategy proposed by Debord to combat the entrenched and alienated ways in which we move through cities. Dérive, which is French for “drifting”, means abandoning the pre-programmed way in which we interact with cities by performing a sort of experiment in space: wandering around aimlessly. Debord encourages people to walk around, be drawn in by their surroundings,interrogate them, and to give themselves up to randomness. And that’s kind of what Pokemon Go does. Players venture to locations they never would have dreamed of going to — namely, outside. But if you’re anything like me, you’ve discovered new neighborhoods, new landmarks, and even, and this one’s a shocker, made friends. In the meatspace.
Pokemon Go is combating the kind of social alienation that our culture actively promotes. While most games have you glued to a screen with headphones on, Pokemon Go encourages you to explore and make new friends. After the raid system was introduced, you could battle boss-level Pokemon for a limited time with friends or strangers. They also recently rolled out trading, adding new ways to meet new people. Psychologists have even noticed that the game was helping their patients with anxiety and depression by getting them out of the house and socializing. In this way, Pokemon Go actively recodes the space around us in a positive way. In might not be exactly the kind of revolutionary walking that Debord envisioned, or the useless kind of walking Gros writes about, but it’s also better than the alternative that our tech-obsessed society offers us. Who knows – maybe Pokemon Go is a gateway drug for hiking and social interaction? What do you think Wisecrack? Is Pokemon Go society’s savior, or a harbinger of dismal times to come? Or is it just a game about animals in balls?
Let us know know in the comments. Thanks for watching, y’all. peace.