The various discourses around Pokémon Go led Barnamala Roy to explore the ramifications of mapping an individual propelled towards his/her destruction within the spatial dimensions of the game and the negotiation of that space by the users.
‘Half of my high school classmates are getting married and having kids and the other half are out chasing Pokémon. What a time to be alive.’
Amidst the onrush of articles in leading dailies and memes making the social media rounds, the above underlined the very dilemma of my soul, myself belonging to no craze camp.
The Pokémon creatures developed by Satoshi Tajiri and Ken Sugimori in 1996 Japan were entrusted to Niantic Labs in Silicon Valley for smart phone conservation and the launch of the game on the model of its lesser-known precedent Ingress has proved an instant hit accredited mostly to its varied aesthetics and themes. A few quick clicks reveal that the popularity of the game has not only escalated death tolls caused by breaches of street rules but also ensued warnings from police departments about the proliferation of crimes associated with Pokémon Go.
The threats posed by Pokémon Go narrated by accounts of Missouri Police Department where a teenage group lured victims to isolated areas to rob them at gunpoint by appropriating a function that allows fellow gamers to send beacons encouraging interaction and trading are countered by socially constructive possibilities based on the game’s mission.
One of these entails a Syrian media campaign espousing gamers to replicate the Pokémon Go spirit in locating children trapped in the war stricken cities of Habib and Idlib, as reported by The Guardian. The various discourses around Pokémon Go led me to explore the ramifications of mapping an individual propelled towards his/her destruction within the spatial dimensions of the game and the negotiation of that space by the users.
Let us look at the interrelation between two memes circulating widely on social media:
- Pikachu is the pied piper leading a faceless herd of humans armed with their cell phones swaying to the tunes of the flute aka the developing features of the app.
- Pikachu is riding the saddled neck of a user bent over his phone-his snaky neck lengthened by repeated use.
The image captured by meme (2) is parallel to the condition of the protagonist, Caden in Kauffman’s Synecdoche, New York where propelled by the (artistic) egotism of his uniqueness he is led to shirk familial responsibilities, enraptured by notions of himself and his death but, with the unfolding of the film, he realizes how every human mirrors his condition -“you are not special”. Thus, situation (2) culminates into that portrayed in Meme (1) where he mingles with the faceless herd.
Again, Meme (1) may culminate to Meme (2), marked by the gradual mental dissociation from the herd that follows Pikachu’s tune. Superficially, each gamer in his quest of Pokéstops in their localities and dashing off to collect a Jigglypuff behind a lamppost is yards away from the speculations of mortality. But the solitariness of the journey, notwithstanding the knowledge of millions of fellow journeyers, is always colored by the premonition of an Orwellian space by allowing a hijack of not only personal data in the access to Google accounts but also of the self. Not only is the obsessive participation with the impeding risks of hacked accounts evocative of the willingness towards self destruction or ‘death drive’, each participant can be viewed as Heiddegger’s ‘being-towards-death’. The ‘being-towards-death’ faces the certainty of death while not evading or even naturally falling towards it. Engagement is not restricted by recurring accidents and crimes within the game and from a journey that started as an entry into a community of fellow-gamers (who can be named as Heiddegger’s ‘they-selves’), the ‘being-towards-death’ gradually dissociates from them. The dissociation may also be informed by the awareness of our disparate cultural, gender and racial identities that make the game differently perilous for its various users.
The game is potentially more dangerous for coloured people, as has been identified by a player Omari Akil, who thinks his act of venturing into building complexes to catch a Pokemon might be misinterpreted enough to attract police attention and given the racist history of unjustified killing of the Blacks in America by law enforcement, the game might prove fatal.
The claim of identifying the Pokémon Go player as a ‘being-towards-death’ is barely as absurd as it sounds, but the absurdism of it is striking nevertheless. The absurdism is governed by an ultimate technology-induced communication-gap between humans in the 21st century. Take the case of a central Londoner for instance, who started interacting with a couple of night prowlers spotting a lure around a Pokéstop mistaking their friendliness as affinity of a co- Pokémon Go user only to discover they were lining up cocaine on their devices. This user’s susceptibility will be succeeded by his suspicion towards anyone marked by a similarity of gesture (taken captive by the phone) leading to a continuation of Camus’ 20th century distortion of human communication captured in his notion of ‘absurdism’ that divorces man from his life, the actor from his setting. The continuation is qualified in the digital age, though, when the ‘why are we alive’ question posed by Camus lightens to ‘what a time to be alive’ exclamation. We are defined by the absurdity, instead, of Sherry Turkle’s ‘robotic moment’ when interactions with humans have been replaced by that of digital ones.Quite in tandem with the logic of a typical ‘cyberblitz’ society, nostalgia for the order of nature is replaced by consumerism embedded in Pokémon Go. In contemplating the structure of Pokémon Go, we can associate the game’s augmentation of reality to ‘absolute space’ that Lefebre illuminates in The Production of Space. ‘Absolute space’ can be ascribed to the domain of ‘nowhere’ (Neverland, anyone?) as it has a strictly symbolic existence in its embodiment of all spaces much like Baudrillard’s simulacra which has repeatedly been identified with Pokémon Go. Simulacra operates only in symbolisms and is identified as the truth that claims that there are actually no truths in an age of multiplying micro narratives debunking the authority of one grand narrative. Let us now see how ‘absolute space’ pervades Pokémon Go:
(a)The myriad spaces of the cultural, mythical, fantastical, political and commercial engage in an interplay of appropriation in the ‘nowhere’ of absolute space as each space is subsumed within the other.
(b) ‘Absolute spaces’ assume meaning through lived and perceived rather than conceived experience.
(c) Absolute spaces abolish the distinction between the public and the private, attributing no special freedom to the private.
(a) The world is increasingly being called a global brain at work in the hyperlinked age and as a solution to the weakening of the app’s Nearby feature causing problems in locating Pokémons, developer Ahmed Almutawa deployed the raw data extracted from the game onto a map. Soon, contributing developers round the world, undeterred by Niantic, started mapping more information till nearby Pokemons could be accessed by Google maps, as The Verge reports. This appears a (real-life!) incarnation of Rowling’s Maurader’s Map (a piece of parchment with moving dots) in the Harry Potter series developed by Moony, Wormtail, Padfoot and Prongs that located all movements within the Hogwarts castle and grounds. Designed by the Homonculous Charm, it has technical limitations very like the breakdown of features in Pokémon Go causing the map’s failure in showing the Room of Requirement. The game around the game of Pokémon Go implanted with crimes of armed robbery and abduction is almost a ‘Triwizard Tournament’ featuring in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire pregnant with trappings like the Triwizard Cup portkeying Diggory to his death at the close of Tournament to be murdered by Voldemort. The ensnaring nature of absolute spaces marked by the lack of one identifiable ideology (in the presence of intersecting ideologies) is thus, quite like the Triwizard Tournament.
Quite a thought-provoking situation where the game based on some fantastic(al) Pokémon beasts refers to mapping another fantasy-world (Harry Potter) on the real life playground of the game, thus, abolishing the real-virtual divide and performing the appropariation and subsumation of one space by the other.
Everyday practice constantly refers from representations of space through maps and plans, transport and communications systems, information conveyed by images and signs to ‘representational space’ like nature and fertility in Lefebre’s ‘abolute space’ as also illustrated by the role of Google maps in the Pokémon Go‘s space.
(b) The hierarchy of the real and the virtual is further broken down in Pokémon Go which, though preconceived pre-launch, manifests into the absolute space by the eruption of infinitude meanings of spaces necessitated by varying participations in it as a gamer or developer. According to Almutawa, 46 contributors unrelated to Niantic had started developing the solution overnight taking cue from him.
(c) The space of the sanctuary is relegated to the realm of the secret, the sanctity of which is sustained by exclusively religious practices within its premises and not penetrated by external eyes.
An article on hyperreal spaces that dwells on the invasion of privacy by accessing information into the users’ accounts presents a hypothetical situation where Islamophobia may lead governmental bodies to suspect terrorist activities within the religious space of the mosque.
Intervening the mosque may be possible through the game’s strategies by sticking a Pokémon inside the mosque hyper-really and an unwitting gamer who wanders into the Pokéstop aiming to “catch them all” can be mediated to provide pictures of its interiority. The space of augmented reality, thus accommodates global threats of foray into privacy of both the individual and the community turning into the absolute space that offers little privacy.
Cyberspace is a terrain enhancing markedly each day while the means to negotiate it safely remains unchartered.
The Romantics of the 18th century especially, Edmund Burke introduced the concept of the ‘sublime’ that is informed by ‘beauty and terror’ and produces feelings of pain and terror in the audience of a piece of art. The digital age has integrated within aesthetics the concern for functionality and Pokémon Go can be said to be marked by beauty-utility-terror. Health tips for avid Pokémon Go have also flooded the Internet while the game champions in providing a healthier alternative to couch potatoes and those glued to their PlayStation’s by reintroducing many to the exercise of walking.
In view of these, the game around the game of Pokémon Go thus, refrains- “What a time to be alive.”