This article originally appeared on the Hong Kong Review of Books.
Academics are usually late to the party, left to thrash out all the detail from the brittle corpse of an event through dry biopsy. When I saw Pokémon Go explode onto social media, I immediately recognized that the game was creating ways of enjoying the urban landscape that I had never previously seen on such a large scale. So, being a devoted pseudo-academic, I got off my armchair and went out on the streets to watch Pokémon Go take effect, to embrace it in all its strangeness before it became familiar to those playing it. I cycled to the Opera House, where one of the world’s largest Pokémon Go congregations was passing through. I shook off all scepticism and reserve and started interviewing people.
The question I sought to answer- is Pokémon Go a form of psychogeography?
When Guy Debord and the Situationists conceived of psychogeography, they were looking for new, radical ways to inhabit the urban spectacle of mid-century Paris. According to Jacobin’s piece on Pokémon Go, ‘Marx sees a way out of alienation in the intentional exercise of consciousness on the world. And this free, spontaneous, transformational exercise of species-being really does take place all around us…nobody could see in children pretending to be explorers or bank robbers the chains and drudgery of alienated work.’ The Jacobin piece then goes on to outline ways in which Pokémon Go’s thin layer of virtuality does little to cover up the material structures of commodification and exclusion that underlie the city, and therefore does not succeed in transforming our experience of urban space at all. This lazy armchair critique emerges in response to this, from the failure to treat psychogeography as anything more than an exercise in vulgar escapism.
In many ways, the Situationists were preceded by the concept of the flâneur. Walter Benjamin, in his study into the development of the Parisian Arcades that were the home of the flâneur, laid out the following manifesto:
Accordingly, we present the new, the dialectical method of doing history: with the intensity of a dream, to pass through what has been, in order to experience the present as the waking world to which the dream refers! (And every dream refers to the waking world. Everything previous is to be penetrated historically.)- Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project
In other words: the city is an idea, a dream we must wake up from in order to experience its material reality. The only way to wake up from this dream is to pass through the dream. Consider furthermore this fragment of commentary on Benjamin from Graeme Gilloch:
The historian thus recognizes that the dreamworld of the metropolis contains the moment of awakening itself, hidden in structures which are hollowed out, scorned, seemingly bereft of life and abandoned without hope.
To add to the above manifesto: In passing through the “dreamworld of the metropolis”, we encounter abandoned pockets of material reality that interrupt the flow of the dream, and from these spaces, the waking moment erupts. Pokémon Go, rather than keeping us in a dream, could potentially produce these moments of Benjaminian awakening.
Similarly, the Situationists were attempting to uncover the material realities of the city through the methods of dérive and detournement, which involved tracing the contours of the city’s attractions and the limits of its accessibility, and using the spontaneity of life to erupt the spectacle. This became a good model for understanding other forms of reappropriating the city, such as Parkour, geocaching and urban exploration. Alongside Benjamin’s manifesto, this is how we should understand Pokémon Go.
My afternoon-long ethnography of Pokémon Go involved interviewing various groups of players, which had anywhere between 2 and 10 trainers, and playing the game alongside them. Though it was a short study, I made a range of observations that can be summarized into three conclusions.
Firstly, the game altered players’ experience of time and space. I heard a lot of stories about how one would walk for what they thought was a few blocks, and end up kilometers away, or in a different suburb. Or how hours would pass as one completely lost track of time. Or how they would take unexpected routes in search of Pokémon, and in the process find lanes or walkways they never knew existed. This parallels various accounts of a Situationist dérive, in which the usual experience of traversing a city, whether on foot or on transport, is transformed by paying attention to the ambience of each location, or the paths that call to us, and how they alter our perception of time and space.
This highlighted for me a dimension generally missed by the online coverage of the game. Where online coverage has tended to focus on the events resulting from the game and on the (mis-) appropriation of particular places (see all the embedded Twitter photos of congregations of players in popular locations and suburban parks), the experience of the game is just as much concerned with movement. The game itself had its virtual temporality, but the experience of finding one’s way to a foreign area, or back to a familiar area, or playing alongside a bunch of strangers each with their own moods, was a continuous experience of movement that for many players was radically different to their usual experience of the city. What the flâneur or psychogeographer aims for is a stream-of-consciousness experience of the city, in which one experiences not just the wholeness and continuity of life, but also the weirdness that comes through in the moments we normally neglect. Playing Pokémon Go evokes some of this sense of passing through.
Secondly, players felt significant agency and critical engagement with the activity. I heard a range of discussions on topics ranging from the demographics of players to how the game, as an exercise in Augmented Reality, diverged from the recent trend towards Virtual Reality games. This wasn’t just the case of talkative nerds happy to share their thoughts, but rather of people very much aware that they were interacting with something new that shouldn’t be taken for granted.
Not only are players thinking critically about the direction in which this game is shifting society’s enjoyment, but they themselves are determining their own course through the game. A particular story about a friendship that had been created through the game made me ask the following question- given that the game is predicated on a form of distraction and idleness, how should we regard distractions and deviations from the game itself? The story made me realize that players will often put the game down when it leads them to something to which they attribute inherent value, even if it would not have been discovered without the game. Thus, what one sees when one watches large groups of people playing the game is the world of players’ sociality as much as the world of the game
On another level, the way players spoke about the locations of Pokestops as well as the game’s predecessor, Ingress, would suggest that they see the game as part of a long process of player involvement in world-creation, much like in Second Life or Minecraft. The superimposition of a virtual map onto the urban topography would have been impossible for Niantic to achieve on its own; it relied on the sheer volume of player contributions about places of significance. There are very real concerns about how the mining of this information may in the future contribute to new forms of surveillance, but the present is full of moments of players realizing that the city is a world of their own creation.
Many articles about the game assume on many levels that players are just passively following the latest fad. This article, for example, took this as its starting point in its deterministic account of how Pokémon Goforeshadows further technological developments, and how it is just replacing old spectacles with new ones. Yet the experience of the game suggests the opposite. Furthermore, the below-average online reviews of the game itself somewhat miss the point, but in a very important way– the game’s design is at times poorly executed, but as such it is a very thin layer that gives way to real-world experiences.
Thirdly, players had unexpected, spontaneous encounters with the city. On one level, the game’s Pokestops also include fragments of information about each place, often historical plaques, and take the player through new lanes and walkways where art and dereliction may be discovered. On a more fundamental level, discovery also becomes lodged into players’ direct experience of the world. A significant proportion of the people I interviewed described moments when they would be walking along streets, parks, or commercial areas with their eyes on their screens, when suddenly the game would glitch, or they would be suddenly startled by a car horn or a tree or animal.
The Jacobin article makes the claim that Pokémon Go leaves the existing world untouched as it lays out a gameworld of pre-determined paths based on the usual landmarks and routes one takes through a city. Other commentary has highlighted how the game does little to include people subject to structural oppression, such as the bodily impaired, black people whose movement through the streets of American cities would arouse suspicion and violence from the police, and those geographically excluded due to poverty.
In making this argument, the Jacobin article uses the Heideggerian concept of Geworfenheit, or “throwness”, which in the article stands for the indifference of the material city to our attempts to reappropriate them for something more fun, or progressive. Yes, we are thrown into an indifferent world; yet it is the character of being thrown that matters here. The following account of the moment of Geworfenheit points us to this:
When we become acutely conscious that we exist, we catch ourselves already in the world.
When a player’s experience of the game was interrupted, they would look up from their phones and find themselves in an awkward place, or with a disjointed sense of perspective. These moments, if occasionally marked by the risk of physical harm, make the passage between the gameworld and the real world unpredictable, and give players the sense of being woken up from one’s experience by material reality. The game’s glitches have been highlighted as a flaw characteristic of Nintendo’s traditionally poor adaptation to new technologies, yet they play the same function in creating these moments of stark contrast between the fragile virtuality of the game and the latent materiality of the city. While there is no guarantee that players will find places or experiences that contain an awakening from the spectacle of the city, the “throwness” of these moments open up their minds to these aspects of material reality they might otherwise have ignored.
This same perspective allows us to understand the role and experience of the young black person playing Pokémon. Teju Cole’s 2011 novel Open City introduced a new figure into the literary tradition of the urban spectator: the black flâneur. Julius is a German/Jamaican psychiatry student who walks through the streets of New York in an urgent, melancholy and evocative exercise. Two moments in the novel are relevant here- one in which he finds himself trapped in a fire escape and searching for a reference point; another in which he is mugged by a group of young black men. Both of these moments highlight the limits of the flâneur’s journey through the city.
Yet they are at the heart of the flâneur’s experience, for it is through these limits that the contours of the city may be drawn. In particular, Julius’ sudden, violent encounter with black men with whom he exchanged a glance of kinship parallels the general insecurity black men experience in an American city, preyed on by police whose duty it is to defend them. His subsequent reflection on how campus police would report the incident: “the subjects were male, black and young, of average height and weight” also points to this .
The fact that people are put in danger as a result of playing the game should not obscure us to the fact that they take that risk because they find value in the act. And by doing so they become more keenly aware, and make the rest of the world more keenly aware, of the limits of the city. Although their experience is more bipolar in that stepping on the wrong side of that line can have serious consequences, the experience of the flâneur is nonetheless theirs to claim.
Signs of the Subterranean Streetscape
The power of the moment of waking, and thus the political value of the flâneur, lies in the simultaneous experience of an urban setting as, on the one hand, something alluring and intoxicating, and on the other hand, something that binds us into an alienating gaze or set of relations. In other words, it is a critique of commodity fetishism. This moment can be found in experiences of urban dereliction, as well as in the bipolar, risky experiences that the black flâneur confronts. It can also be found in the realisation that, among a series of sporadically overlapping virtual and material worlds, no urban experience is unitary or coherent.
Knee-jerk high-brow dismissals of Pokémon Go may rest on the suspicion that it allows players to enjoy the act of participating in a virtual world all the while ignoring the oppressive reality of the city. This may be in some cases true, but it ignores a very important fact. For the flâneur, or psychogeographer, as much as the player of Pokémon Go, the experience of being thrown into the world points to another experience- that of a moment, however brief, of awakening to the realization of how and why the city limits and constricts us as it does, and even to the realization that another world is possible.
So it is with no intention of gentrifying over racial oppression and resistance to it that we can claim that the black flâneur revives an authentic element of the flâneur, neglected since Benjamin made the flâneur a key figure in the way we think about modernity. And it is with no intention of encouraging Pokémon Go players to uncritically enjoy the game that we can say that Pokémon Go is a form of psychogeography.
During a lunch break, I went out to Darling Harbour to munch and read on the water’s edge. Groups of teenagers would amble along behind me, occasionally boasting loudly about their latest Pokémon catch. Suddenly, I heard a young boy shout “look! A crab!” I turned to my left, and saw him crouched down among the mooring poleto look for the creature beneath a ledge. “It’s gone”, he said. He got on his feet and ran to catch up to his friends.