The Augmented Reality of Pokemon Go

There are little monsters all around us, hiding in the air, crouched in the grass, peeking out of our pockets. They cluster in public spaces, around parks and monuments, drawn by scraps of food, or by the scent of incense hanging on the breeze. They are the same monsters we saw as children, the ones we had all but forgotten, and now they’re back.

Earlier this month marked the highly anticipated release of Pokemon Go for mobile platforms, the latest and arguably the most ambitious in a lineage of games stretching back twenty years, and also one of the first major attempts at what are being ambitiously dubbed “augmented reality” games. Whether or not reality has in fact been augmented, the concept is admittedly pretty genius, seeding a modified version of google maps with the iconic virtual creatures and requiring players to walk around to try and catch them all.

The game promises to fulfill a dream that everybody with a gameboy color had at one point or another in the late nineties, the one where your favorite fictional world opened up to take you in as its chosen hero, the one where your true destiny awaited you just on the other side of that little screen. Having spent much of my childhood dreaming that very dream, I had to give it a shot, so I downloaded the app and walked through the park to the mercado, feeling as though I should at least have some sort of concrete destination for the trip.

My phone buzzed as I walked, indicating that there were pokemon nearby, and I stopped several times to aim my camera around until I found the creatures superimposed over its view. I swiped the screen to toss pokeballs at them, managing to catch a doduo, an eevee, a goldeen, a zubat and a couple of pinsirs on the short walk. All pretty scrubby pokemon, but I could see the appeal.

I ordered a cubano at the food cart and sat down to wait. Two large women in tie-dye dresses stopped for a moment near my table, both clearly playing as well. “He just ran right by!” one of them said, and they hurried off across the street to search around the parking lot. I got my food and walked back to the park, eating on a bench and watching people wander around, staring at their phones. Were they all playing pokemon? Some of them definitely were, the ones who were leaving the paths, meandering about, pointing their cameras at the bushes and trees. One guy looked up from the baseball diamond and we made eye contact. I gave him a knowing nod and he smiled, then resumed the hunt.

Anybody who’s played the older pokemon titles knows that the vast majority of the games are spent wandering back and forth through grassy fields, but it was funny to see it actualized here, and to watch the degrees of self-consciousness with which different people were playing–a group of teens ran around excitedly, shouting about what they had found. A mom with a stroller stopped to catch something, but put her phone hurriedly away when she saw me watching. At the very least, Pokemon Go turns out to be a great way to gauge how visibly nerdy people are willing to be.

The release also hasn’t come without controversy. Drivers have crashed while playing the game. Alarmingly large mobs have formed at the appearance of rarer pokemon on the map. Several teens in Britain got lost in a cave, realizing yet another staple experience of the original Pokemon games. The Holocaust museum and Auschwitz have issued statements about the obvious irreverence of playing the game on the premises of the the memorials. Multiple players have discovered corpses while playing. One kid got shot by an old lady who thought he was breaking into her house. He ended up dying in the hospital.

All of these things are consequences of superimposing a game world on top of the real world, creating a layer of virtual existence that repurposes our cities into habitats for collectible creatures. It’s a strange reversal of the previous Pokemon games, which were constructed as interior spaces for us to explore in solitude, returning to battle our friends with the best our private worlds had to offer. This game lays a new exterior over the spaces around us, allowing players to work together to capture pieces of it, each of us building our own private collection from what we find. Unlike the carefully orchestrated realms contained within the old cartridges, this new world is strange and unpredictable. You could get lost. You could get hurt. You could find a dead body, or maybe even die yourself. It’s no wonder developer Niantic includes a hefty arbitration clause in the game’s terms of service, to prevent potential lawsuits.

Of course, none of these dangers are actually inherent to Pokemon Go. They’re simply remote possibilities associated with leaving your home at all, and buried under all this is the genius of the game’s inside-out design, which turns mere existence into its playing field. More than anything, it’s proof-of-concept that digital landmarks and simulated commodities can be valuable and powerful, especially when attached to the right franchise. Pokemon Go is a harbinger of things to come.

The game isn’t perfect though. Much of the appeal is certainly the novelty associated with being among the first major titles in an experimental genre which at this point is basically just a dressed-up version of geocaching. Beyond the explorative aspect, the gameplay mechanics aren’t particularly deep, and developer Niantic has struggled with overloaded servers and gps tracking issues since the release. The game also takes a leaf out of the freemium game guidebook, allowing you to buy Pokecoins with real money so you don’t have to walk around so much. Its primary draw is undoubtedly the nostalgia associated with the franchise, but for people my age, people who grew up in the heyday of the Poke-Frenzy, that draw is irresistible.

I went back to the park later in the evening. Most of the people had gone. It was just me and a few other dog-walkers, a jogger or two, a woman going through the trash for cans to return. Then two guys materialized, phones in hand. “Dude, the lure is over there,” said one, pointing, and they walked off into the gathering dark. I sat at a picnic table, watching ants crawl over the cracked green paint. I pulled out my phone and a moth fluttered towards its faint light. I stared at the screen, watching the grass ripple around me, and I waited for something to appear.

Henry Whittier-Ferguson