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Go Pokémon GO!: The Social Life of Virtual Urban Spaces

Ethan Kent
Jul 26, 2016
Jan 7, 2018

Since its launch only a few weeks ago, Pokémon GO has become a global phenomenon, and the public’s response to the mobile game has been both positive and negative. This comes as no surprise to PPS Fellow of Digital Placemaking Dan Latorre. “Anytime something heightens a sense of spatial awareness,” he explains, “it excites some people and worries others.” Love it or hate it, Pokémon GO has hit the streets, and it’s tough to deny that people are using public space because of it. But exactly how the game is encouraging people to engage with these spaces has become a major (and heated) topic of discussion.

‍Perhaps foreshadowing its future, here Pikachu (the most famous of the Pokémon) and a Pokeball, floats through the streets of NYC in 2007 | Image by Rian Castillo

In case you’re still out of the loop, Pokémon GO is a free-to-play augmented reality mobile game for iPhone and Android, based on the popular video game series, that has now officially taken the world by storm. To play, money isn’t much of a barrier to entry, considering that only about ¼ of players have spent any money on the game, and nearly ⅔ of those folks spent under $10. The basics: After users create an avatar, the app then uses the phone’s GPS to place the user in a real-world location allowing them to catch Pokémon. The game itself places the avatar in an empty, neon version of Google Maps displayed on the phone’s screen, showing the user walking along streets, through parks, and even into some indoor spaces—similar to how one sees themselves as a blue dot when using Google Maps.

As a player moves about and makes their way along the map on their screen, they will eventually encounter a small burst of little computer-generated leaves signaling a nearby Pokémon to catch (which explains why you are seeing people staring down at their phones, running around your local public spaces). The game immerses itself even further into public space with “Pokéstops” or "gyms," which are usually landmarks or other well-known locations containing even more capturable creatures. Pokémon GO becomes quite detailed from this point, and this site offers a wealth of information if you are now convinced you want to play. In just under two weeks, the game has brought millions of gamers into public spaces all over the world, all scavenging the streets in the hunt for their next virtual critter.

‍Hurry! Pokémon are swarming on the streets around PPS’s offices! | Image by PPS

There are plenty of critiques and concerns about Pokémon GO: dangers, millennials' lack of interaction with the real world, the need to stop staring at our phones, to name just a few. We have to admit, though, that the younger generation may have the stronger case on this one (although you may be surprised by the age, gender, and race/ethnicity breakdown of Pokémon users).

It seems that the growing support and use of Pokémon GO has been a net positive for public space use and awareness. People are exploring unfamiliar areas of the public realm, and in the process, they are also socializing with strangers. This is a perfect example of Holly Whyte’s concept of triangulation.

‍Some argue that we spend too much time looking down at our phones, instead of at what is actually around us | Image by Susan Sermoneta

Triangulation is the age-old process by which some external stimulus provides a linkage between people, prompting strangers to talk to one another as if they knew each other. This is important, because public spaces need to offer more than just design features; they need to bring people together and make them feel a sense of belonging. And from what we are seeing, Pokémon GO is having exactly this effect!

We often think of Triangulation in terms of those intentional elements that have been added to a public space as a way to encourage interaction and activity. But, as this game has shown us, these triangulated connections can also occur organically and unpredictably. This is because using games in public allows for a unique relationship with the urban realm. “Gamifying gives people a feeling of new permissions to explore the city,” says Latorre. Pokémon GO invites us to reconsider not only how people use public spaces such as streets and parks, but also the ways in which technology has woven itself into the public realm. It creates a virtual, online community that in many ways is actual and in public.

‍Exploring public spaces: A group heads towards a Pokémon Gym at the statue of George Washington on Courthouse Square in Scranton, NJ | Image and account by Rich Howells

In some places, locals even remark that the game has formed new kinds of communities; in Boston, the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) noted that “Pokémon... is helping people come together and share in a kind of neighborly pride.” For London resident Max Gayler, the game has helped him meet people in a city where this is generally quite difficult. In countering those oft-groaned about misconceptions that online gaming is the culprit of laziness and disconnection, Gayler explains that “the game isn’t a substitute for real life: it’s a revolutionary new way we can engage with one another, at a time where human interaction is becoming ever more scarce.”

Nerdist contributor Ryan Hill also comments on how the game encourages interaction for those who otherwise cringe at the thought of socializing with strangers: “I don’t like people. I don’t like going out, saying hello to neighbors, or gathering in groups. Everything about social interaction stresses me out, but I’ve been tolerating it, even seeking it out, because of the craze that is Pokémon GO.” Whatever the motivation for playing, it is clear that folks are outside, using public spaces, meeting strangers, and quite simply, just having fun. Isn’t this the ultimate goal of our public spaces?

‍Pokémon players in Central Park | Image by oinonio

If nothing else, the fact that Pokémon GO has brought people out into the streets fits comfortably with PPS’s views about the importance of activities in public space. People need to have a reason to be, and stay, in a particular place, and a great place draws lots of people because it has lots of reasons to be there. Pokémon GO undoubtedly offers one more reason to be out in our communities together. Great public spaces also respond and adapt to the changing needs and desires of communities, and this includes the evolution of technology and the resulting changes in social behaviors and trends. Some cultural organizations know this all too well, and are already ahead of the game, so to speak.

The jury is still out about what lasting impact of Pokémon GO will be on social life in public spaces, if any at all. Will the game die out? Will more games follow suit? While it is tempting to lament the dawn of a robot takeover or an impending moral apocalypse—fears that also accompanied the television, the telephone, the radio and the phonograph—we believe we should, instead, embrace the Pokémon GO phenomenon, while still considering how to temper its most dangerous or inappropriate incarnations.

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