The Politics of Pokémon Go
Pokémon Go is not just a game; it’s a vote of no confidence on reality.
Pokémon – A Copernican involution
Contrary to popular opinion, ‘Pokémon Go’ – by very recent estimates the biggest mobile gaming phenomenon in the world – has been in development for almost 600 years.
First, for the 13 people on the planet who may not yet know what this phenomenon is, or might have been caught in the outer rim of the thickening web of its memetic ubiquity, Pokémon Go is an augmented reality, location-based game for handheld devices. Created by John Hanke, one of the engineers behind ‘Google Earth’, the game basically pits you in a collective hunt for virtual ‘pocket monsters’ scattered around your physical environment – colourful, spritely monstrous things with names like ‘Pikachu’ and ‘Venusaur’ that are only accessible via the vicarious presence of your smartphone and its inbuilt camera. Launched on the 6th of July 2016, a mere eleven days ago, Pokémon has already been downloaded more than 10 million times in the US alone, and now has 21 million daily active users – each spending an average of 43 minutes running down the street, thumping through fields, face-stained by the immaculate milky glow of mobile screens.
In a potent sense, the game is an eminent figure of our desperate times: the cyborgian spectacle of hundreds of people tripping over themselves to claim a virtual prize (watch these videos to get a sense of the frightening virulence and immense popularity of the game: https://vimeo.com/174821377 and https://www.facebook.com/LADbible/videos/2778910052156167/); a hundred articles excavating ‘success secrets’ from the entrepreneurial journey of its creator, and analysing the Wall Street implications for a game that has made its company (Niantic) 27 billion dollars richer; an American presidential candidate struggling to boost voter participation by bringing Pokémon to rallies. Games are ‘no longer’ innocent playthings. They’ve never been; nothing comes without its world. Pokémon’s curious, surprising entanglements with politics, criminology, espionage, psychological health and even the way research is conducted are a testament to that Baradian adage, which insists that the world is made of relationships, not things.
Indeed. Pokémon’s tentacular entanglements stretch all the way back to that seminal moment in 1512, when a Polish church administrator turned the Ptolemaic system of astronomy on its head. In a short manuscript called the ‘Commentariolus’ – literally ‘little commentary’ – Nicolaus Copernicus argued for a heliocentric system, a universe with the sun as its centre, not the earth as had been taught for more than a thousand years before that. Copernicus, reclusive and eccentric, proclaimed seven axioms, the third of which observed that “all the spheres revolve about the sun as their midpoint, and therefore the sun is the centre of the universe.” Up until then, the church – the dominant institution at that time – had held up the biblical story of Joshua praying to God to stretch the day longer (by holding the sun still in the sky) as proof that the sun was indeed one of earth’s satellite. Moreover, it was simply more in keeping with the larger story of man’s centrality to believe that his planet was also the most important planet in the divine scheme of things.
By pointing to the stars, Copernicus’ revolution arguably galvanized the largest evacuation in history. Earth was no longer significant; our place was in the stars. Not in the bumps and grooves and rolling messiness and triviality of our telluric circumstance, but in the creases of the cosmic and the universal. In the distant. In the perpetual longing for the fixed, the absolute and the self-evident. The earth became hollow, a mere holding place for the visiting soul. That which was significant was now to be found in scale, in size, in distance, in permanence and in noble utility. The church may have been slow to recognize it, but Copernicus’ treatise did more to cement the discourse of anthropocentricity than its Ptolemaic counterpart. The sun, life-giving and dependable, shone as a brilliant figuration of deity – innervating politics and reorienting technology. Some fifty years after Copernicus died, the telescope would be born. Another fifty years later, Rene Descartes would publish his ‘Meditations on First Philosophy’, declaring his famous ‘cogito ergo sum’ (I think, therefore I exist) as a first truth – context, ecosystem, material world be damned.
What Pokémon is made of
I do not have the time or space to elaborate on some new materialist arguments to the contrary, some of which have been articulated with great sophistication by Karen Barad and her work with quantum entanglement, Vicky Kirby, Jane Bennett, Donna Haraway and other feminist counterarguments to the phallogocentrism of Cartesianism. Let it suffice to say that the closer we examine the world, the more inadequate our explanations are for how it comes to be. It is not enough to account for a ‘thing’ by breaking it down to its supposed constituents; such reductionisms are the reasons why ‘we’ tend to think of wealth in terms of GDP, or disease and health in terms of isolated viruses. There are no independent things. In short, a ‘thing’ is an ‘aggregate’ of ongoing material/discursive agencies. To account for a phenomenon, we must lean into what is at stake, and how boundaries are enacted to the exclusion of other possibilities, other worlds. Every event is thus already a world-breaking event; every ‘thing’ is already monumental. In this sense, it hardly matters that Pokémon is being used by tens of millions of people: Pokémon is world-altering because it is more than a collection of pixels and circuits and blinding cash: it is a murmuration of desires; an extension of a certain kind of inbred distrust – the kind that ennobles our attempts to cosmetically enhance our surroundings to compensate for their dourness.
This is the tale of Icarus, soaring away from the ground; the tale of the Holy Spirit, brooding over Genesis waters, maybe not quite touching it; it is the Copernican revolution in pixels, our over-saturation with the familiar and lust for heliocentricity. This is escape. It is now easier to envision a world where the vaunted interface between the virtual and the real breaks down its pretensions to solidity, and we make our days, our lives, shape emotiveness, act in urgency, mediated by pixels (wait, aren’t we already there yet?).
With Pokémon Go, the Copernican disgust with the world we inhabit comes around even more forcefully. Despite Hanke’s comments that the game was designed to ‘make the world more interesting’, Pokémon, like the telescope before it, is a product of its time – a particular yearning diffracted through time and space; a longing to bridge the haunting chasm that supposedly divides us from a world we have characterized as dead, mute, and only enchanted by dint of our inherent genius to convert vestigiality to utility.
Flowing through the game’s circuitry are electrifying discursive proposals about making the world more interesting. It works because we really do think that the world (or at least the immediacy of our surroundings) – left to its own devices – is not so important or interesting. Pokémon’s not about making the world more interesting, it’s about perpetuating the anthropocentric myth that it has to be so. That the world is there to work for us. To be beautiful for us. To be useful for us. It is the promise of putting us in touch with reality – as if reality were a distant trope, as if we are not already embedded and enfolded and entangled in context. As if we actually left for the stars when Copernicus pointed to the glistening firmament.
A crisis of touch
Pokémon is a crisis. A crisis of touch.
No, no, I do not mean to sound alarmist or to stretch your credulity any further than it needs to disturbed (though there is something more than a bit distressing watching videos of people shoving each other, stomping on hallowed grounds, clawing past human obstacles, and running in orc-like hordes in order to ‘catch’ something that isn’t quite there). By ‘crisis’, I do not mean it in the frightening sense of saying “there is fire on the mountain, run, run, run, run!” I mean to be curious about the texture or the onto-epistemological warp and ethical woof of our lives, the colours we fail to notice, the voices we do not hear, the fences we have set up, the creatures we have shut out, the spirits we no longer commune with, the technologies now missing from our cultural lexica. The stories we are not telling.
Pokemon is not an interface, it is a product, a vector, an agent, an ‘object’ with its own historicity. The world of Pokemon is a world of disenchantment – where the crisis is one of distance – where by virtue of our transcendence and linguistic fittings, we are above the mindless fray of nature. This is the crisis configuration that gives birth to Pokemon: a yearning to connect, an unwritten plea for magic, a thirst for some entheogenic promise in the banality of our increasingly routinized lives. The game is a collective quest for the more-than-real, a vote of no confidence on reality, so much so that we take refuge in the augmentation of pixels – pixels that are pregnant with electric bits and emotive cravings not fulfilled by our rectilinear hopes for utopia.
A crisis of touch speaks of a culture that struggles with questions of significance and longings to connect with and touch that which its own narratives have set at an irreparable distance. Descartes struggled with this too: if mind and matter are separate, how do you reconcile them in the human being? Some hocus pocus with the pineal gland was how he avoided the devastating implications of his philosophical system. Somehow, confronted by questions of our own (what do we do now that we are stuck with the rotting cadaver of our world?), we have inherited those postures of avoidance.
In fact, like Descartes (who summoned the spectre of some virtual middle ground to explain the bridge between the brain and consciousness) and the church (which summoned the eschatological spectre of some virtual middle place called Limbo to explain the plot holes involved with original sin and dead babies), we seem to be investing more in the ‘toxic virtual’ as a means to circumvent our Cartesian fixation with gaps and impasses. Where the television set has summarily colonized the ‘inside’, Pokémon Go looks like a good candidate to sterilize the ‘outside’. Yes, the very ontology of the ‘outside’ is changing. Is it a great imaginative stretch to consider the cyborgian/economic implications of a setting where mobile apparatuses become things of privilege, and collected monsters serve as currency?
Hugging our monsters
Whatever our prophecies about the kind of future we might have – given the present stickiness of the Pokémon premises – it is quite undeniable that other complementary worlds and possibilities have been edged out of reckoning. Our monsters – not the cute, tame, agreeable Pokémons now straddling the thin divides between neighbourhoods, virtuality, and hyper-commercialism – lose.
When Dorion Sagan wrote (in his essay, ‘The Human is more than Human: Interspecies communities and the new facts of life’) that “we are being stressed by what is repressed”, he was paying homage to the nonhuman, the motley crews of mangled critters, alien bodies, preposterous dalliances, Lilliputian others, and hypersexed organisms that utterly refute the fixity and purity of the Anthropos. There is a sense in which chasing Pokémons could be said to be distracting us from the ‘real’ work we could be doing: hugging our monsters is coming to terms with our unevenness; it is decentering human ethical subjectivity and learning to see we are not ‘good’; it is composting our narratives of agentic peculiarity and queering our stories of failure enough to recognize that the places we fall, the obstacles on our paths, the deep troubling shadows that haunt our efforts at psychic equanimity, and the environment filled with toxic externalizations of capitalism, are aspects of ‘our’ ongoing selfhood.
Is Pokémon Go another ‘structural conspiracy’ to keep us tethered to the doldrums of commercialization? Perhaps. Is Pokémon Go a flattening vector, levelling the specificity of localities underneath the hooves of its little digital monsters? Yes, it seems so.
And yet, my critique is not that Poké-monsters are fake, and that we should be attending to ‘real’ ones. I do not say Pokémon presents a falsity and therefore we must return to the real; this hodgepodge of words is a contestation of the attractive idea that we were ever away from the real, thus needing to get back to it. Pokémon’s monsters are ‘real’ (it turns out that ‘virtual’ and ‘augmented reality’ are inadequate descriptors); they are the ongoing materialization of a specific discursivity, one which champions the bridging of a Cartesian divide – and the urge to re-enchant the world we are supposedly disentangled from.
I think the growing addiction to this game is symptomatic of a deeper quest to make amends with monsters. With our queer, distended, disassembled selves.
Yes, Pokémon is an agent of a particular patriarchal culture textured by a longing for smooth terrains, a hunger for flat homecomings, a vision of intact humanities, a desire to tame the monstrous other, the need to repaint the world in terms that are central to our notions of beauty, and the psychopolitical promise of dealing with our devils and gaining the upper hand (the triumphalism of positivity). Pokemon Go drives us into the streets, our eyes glued to little screens, our pace quickened with the promise of meeting an electric ghost. We are undone; our cherished notions of wholeness, about what it means to be human, evaporate into clouds of irony. But, there is no age of innocence to return to, no ‘pre-Fall’ milieu to discover, no larger whole to resolve into, and no Cartesian promise to enact. Reaching for a pre-oedipal holism, for a new age where things are ‘saner’, where we are not so compromised, where ‘technology’ is not as needed because we are ‘love and light’ is ironically to further that ancient quest for pure grounds that has somehow summoned this curious game.
Pokémon is yet another testament to the fact that “we are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism”. We are gestating children, ‘illegitimate offspring’ of this patriarchal capitalism, to which we will not be faithful for long. The self is not whole; it’s never been. Now, when we examine the ‘self’, we would have to account not only for nonhuman organisms, but for Pikachu and his/her cohorts. Maybe we would need to gaze at mobile screens and scavenge the tattooed continents of ‘augmented reality’ to meet parts of ourselves we do not know yet. And to know measures of hope not yet imagined.
 Jim Reeves, the American country singer, would express this sentiment with stark lyrics in a 1950s song: “This world is not my home, I’m just a-passing through; my treasures are laid up, somewhere beyond the blue.”
 I trouble the ‘we’ here and elsewhere to signal my distrust of my own tendencies to over-generalize in my analysis. By ‘we’, I do not refer to all humans everywhere, most of which are still embedded in cultures that valorize more embodied, non-reductionistic notions of wealth and wellbeing.
 “Late twentieth-century machines have made thoroughly ambiguous the difference between natural and artificial, mind and body, self-developing and externally designed, and many other distinctions that used to apply to organisms and machines. Our machines are disturbingly lively, and we ourselves frighteningly inert.”
― Donna J. Haraway