Pokémon fans have been clamoring for an MMO based off their favorite franchise for years. Whether or not that would actually work in practice is best left to another discussion, but the fact is that fans may finally get their wish, in an indirect sort of way.
The app that will make that dream become a mostly-reality is called Pokémon GO. For those who haven’t heard about it, Pokémon GO is an augmented reality app that will let players find, share, and battle their digital companions directly from their phones and with others in public.
The announcement of Pokémon GO surprised me a little, since Nintendo isn’t exactly known for being up to current generation standards with regard to their home gaming consoles, let alone with current social media trends (they tend to be the type of company that defines trends, though, and saying they’re completely clueless perhaps gives them too little credit for popularizing technologies like gyro controls for gaming controllers). It’s not directly made by Nintendo, though, since The Pokémon Company is collaborating with a former Google startup named Niantic that is best known for another augmented reality game called Ingress, which places players directly in the midst of a government conspiracy that they must uncover through cooperation with other nearby players in real-time.
At first, it seems like there isn’t much different about Pokémon GO than a regular Pokémon game. You’re still sharing monsters with one another, battling them, finding them out in the wild. The big selling point that Pokémon GO’s creators are pushing is that you’ll be able to find Pokémon in your immediate world, underneath a bridge or out in an open field. Now as far as I know, there’s no footage of the actual interface that Pokémon GO will use, so it’s difficult to make judgment calls about just what the app will offer to the world of gaming or the world of digital interactivity in general. But I would like to make a few initial observations on what augmented reality does for contemporary human cultures, and how it helps us realize desires we’ve always had but are quickly becoming aware of in the 21st century.
Terms like The Internet of Things (a digital climate in which entities are labeled with unique identifiers and constantly access and upload information to one another without requiring human-to-human and human-to-computer interaction, mediated by monitoring technologies like heart rate sensors and the like) and Fourth Platform Computing (which uses the aforementioned sensors to track and pool data from digital communities to create shared, evolving social networks and knowledge bases) are thrown around quite a bit in computing circles, but there are a few things crucial to understanding those frameworks that will define how we will stay interconnected, cultivate those connections, and become more aware of those eternal connections in the coming years.
The first of these is empowerment through embodiment. Let’s use Pokémon GO as an example. As I mentioned previously, there doesn’t seem to be much of a difference between playing Pokémon GO and regular old Pokémon. But what Pokémon GO does for users through augmented reality is place them directly in the role of the intrepid Pokémon hunter/trainer. Users no longer have to turn their Nintendo DS on and immerse themselves in a world clearly demarcated from his or her own to build their Pokémon collection. The chance event of finding a Pidgeot in a bush, or a Snorlax on a bridge is directly integrated with the perceived real world, a fixture in the daily flow of life. Pokémon GO users can then directly share the fruits of their conquest with others in their immediate vicinity, who they may or may not know personally. Of course, players don’t have to literally tussle with said pocket monsters in the dirt of their backyard. Nor is public sharing a new idea, either, especially not to Nintendo (who has used it on their handhelds for a while now). But it’s that immediacy, the potential for an unexpected catch on your way to work, that ups the level of embodiment as a Pokémon trainer for players. In short, making the act of hunting Pokémon a part of daily life naturalizes the virtual activity and blurs the boundaries between the two.
This leads us to another aspect of augmented reality that is incredibly important for us to understand as consumers of digital media that illuminates the blurred boundaries between humans and their artificial creations. Augmented reality apps like Pokémon GO allow players to partake in an evolving world not too far from their own, one that they can shape with their own hands, and one that they share with others who also possesses the vision to peer into this alternate reality space that runs concurrent with and affects what we normally perceive as reality. Games have always provided us with creative spaces for individual or community interpretation, but the closeness to the real world that an augmented reality app provides makes that geogenesis more tangible than ever before.
As for the subject of Pokémon itself? It’s a new form of nostalgia. Many of the people who will be playing Pokémon GO are likely those who grew up playing the game for the past ten years or so, and this app will be the evolution of their childhood memories that, like their owners, have grown up and adapted to a dynamic world with them. Never doubt the power of recursivity, for it allows us to gain new identities and become beholden to the identities of a group that shares our pasts. Which, to many, is security.
So perhaps we can see augmented reality as a new form of security. A digital sanctuary embedded in the everyday. Augmented reality doesn’t just spruce up our ordinary lives by peppering them with beloved cartoon companions. It directly involves us with the creation of new communities and worlds that previously lay just beyond our own. It provides us with the vision to peer beyond what we take for granted and to discover new realms, new dimensions. Metaphorically, it lets us discover these cartoon worlds. In reality, the cartoon worlds guide us to the realization that we, as humans, have always shared bonds across time and space with one another, and that we have the power to shape those webs of connections with our own subjective creativity. Augmented reality allows us to become our own shaman, traversing between and blending worlds with others in a grand act of generation. Operating in augmented space is a life-affirming act, as it forces us to acknowledge what we are and are not – our nostalgic pasts, and our non-Pokémon presents – through the power of representational play.
That is the source of embodiment in augmented reality. Security and power through alternate realities. And who said that video games were mere escapism?
This does, of course, raise questions about how augmented reality could be abused somewhere down the line. Will it be possible to fabricate conspiracies and falsehoods that, through like a digital snake oil, will convince less-perceptive or desperate users of a secret knowledge that only they possess? Will technologies become advanced enough to distort reality even for the keenest of us? Real concerns, sure, but perhaps augmented reality will take on forms that we cannot even anticipate in the near future.
More will become clear as Nintendo reveals just how Pokémon GO will work. I doubt crowds will gather outside Times Square to embark on weekly Mewtwo hunts, but grouping with strangers on the train through your phone to take the 151st ‘mon down will at least be an engaging activity as you pull into work.
And who knows. Maybe we really all will gather in multiplexes to defeat digitized monsters together in the near future, for the safety of our favorite digital worlds and of our own in the so-called ‘real’ present.