On Pokémon GO and Psychogeography (and Philip K. Dick)

by Yohan J. John

ControlThere's no real downside to engaging with pop culture. If you happen to get into the latest craze, you can participate in collective joy. If it doesn't quite move you, you can join in with the 'haters' and engage in a different but no less enjoyable communal experience. Either way, you can be part of the Conversation, analyzing the meaning of the mass experience from as many perspectives as possible. So it was in the spirit of social participation that I decided to start playing Pokémon GO. I wanted to see what all the hullabaloo was about.

In the US, Pokémon GO now has more users than Twitter. And it only took them a few weeks to achieve this. Part of the draw of Pokémon seems to be nostalgia. The original game was introduced by Nintendo for the Game Boy in 1995. Since then it has morphed into a media empire, spanning anime, trading cards, toys and all manner of swag. The basic concept behind the game is quite simple: each player (or “Pokémon Trainer”) travels around a virtual world looking for Pokémon — cute “pocket monsters” with whimsical names like “Pikachu”, “Meowth” and “Bulbasaur”. The trainer captures a Pokémon by chucking a magical ball at it — it seems to work a bit like that spectre-snatching toaster from Ghostbusters. Various in-game resources must be used to 'level-up' the trainers and 'evolve' the Pokémon. The Pokémon trainers then compete in vicarious battles, pitting their Pokémon against each other.

No doubt nostalgia (or retromania) is a powerful cultural force these days, but I suspect that it was only the initial impetus for Pokémon GO's popularity. After all, many of the current players are kids who are too young to remember the early Pokémon games and TV shows (plus curious adults like me who were a little too old for them when they first came out). I suspect that Pokémon GO works because its gameplay combines some of the most powerful elements in modern gaming in a package that requires little or no skill.

Pokémon GO is an MMORPG: a massively multiplayer online role-playing game. Unlike it's Game Boy ancestor, which each person played in their own personal universe, Pokémon GO brings all its players into a single internet-enabled virtual world. That's what the “MMO” part means. There are plenty of MMO games out there, but they tend to be complicated and skill-based, attracting the hardcore gamers who have a tendency to scare away the tourists.

Screenshot_20160728-082813More importantly, Pokémon GO is an augmented reality game. Rather than inviting players to explore a separate universe, Pokémon GO's world is superimposed on the real one. When you open up the app, you see a brightly colored map that should look vaguely familiar — it's showing you your very location, stripped of street names and landmarks, but augmented with things like Poké Stops (where you collect resources) and Gyms (where Pokémon fight each other). To play the game you must wander about. You can't just sit in one place like the stereotypical couch potato gamer. The only way to explore Pokémon GO's virtual world is to hoof it in the real world. Pokémon show up at random as you perambulate. When you attempt to capture one, a camera screen opens up to show you your prey: a 2D sprite superimposed on a sidewalk, or a tree, or another person.

So Pokémon draws its users in with nostalgia, kawaii, a critical mass of users, and the promise of enchantment in the real world. The idea of a superimposed world brings to mind the realm of Faerie as evoked by Suzanna Clark in Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. Faerie is not a place you can locate on any map. It exists somehow in parallel with our world. Faerie is just on the other side of a mirror, or on the far side of an innocuous-looking wall. Interpenetrating worlds are also central to China Miéville's The City & The City: a murky detective story set in a city that has been partitioned in two. But unlike Berlin during the Cold War, Miéville's twin cities are conjoined in the most convoluted way possible, their borders not entirely clear: some streets are even shared between the two cities, and are described as 'cross-hatched'.

Screenshot_20160807-181236I often find games to be much less mysterious and magical than the works of fiction that seem to inspire them. Whereas Susanna Clarke's capricious fairies seem to reside wholly outside the domain of rational behavior, Pokémon and their trainers toil in a bureaucratic world: to evolve and level-up a Pokémon, collect 15 candies of a certain sort, and 500 pieces (containers? vials?) of stardust. To enter a Gym, reach level 5. To have any hope of winning a fight at a gym, reach level 20. To gain experience points faster, only evolve Pokémon when you have cracked open a lucky egg. Under the surface of whimsy there lurks a relentless bean-counting logic (which might be traced back to Dungeons & Dragons). It reminds me of filling out tax forms.

But perhaps the numbers are besides the point. It's the walking around that has commentators excited. People are getting sore legs from walking more than they ever have before. (People are also discovering dead bodies in various places, and getting lured to shady alleys to be robbed.) It seems as if the fundamental laziness of the modern westernized individual can actually be subverted: just give people an appropriately 21st-century reason to be out and about, and perhaps the obesity problem will vanish.

In getting people to explore their towns and cities (or at the very least walk around their town and cities while looking at their cell phones), Pokémon GO seems to provide both an illustration and an ironic capitalist inversion of the concept of psychogeography.

In 1955, the Situationist writer Guy Debord defined psychogeography as “the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals.” Situationists fit into what might be called the dadaist sideshow of the Left's big tent circus — it sees the possibility of subversion and liberation in cultural acts that seem rather remote from seizing the means of production. At its most extreme, the surreal turn in left-wing thought seems to associate rationality itself with the oppressive power of capitalism. The only response then is to be slightly mad, and also — if you're a hip leftist intellectual — talk about simple things in as incomprehensible a manner as possible. So Debord defines “dérive”, the key act associated with psychogeography, as follows “In a dérive one or more persons during a certain period drop their usual motives for movement and action, their relations, their work and leisure activities, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there… But the dérive includes both this letting go and its necessary contradiction: the domination of psychogeographical variations by the knowledge and calculation of their possibilities.” [1]

Pokémon GO most certainly gets people to drop their usual motives for movement and action. But instead of inviting people to ruminate deeply on geography, culture, capitalism and suchlike, the game just replaces the usual motives with … cutesy versions of the usual motives. “Gotta catch 'em all” is the Pokémon franchise's catch phrase. So the rat race is 'augmented' by the Rattata race.

A predictable left-wing response to Pokémon GO goes something like this: we must resist having our behavior manipulated by these faceless corporations. By all means wander about town, but do so on your own terms, with a less instrumental approach to experience. [2]

It's worth pointing out that the emotional drives that get people to play Pokémon GO were not invented by capitalism. Surely there were cavemen and cavewomen collecting pretty rocks or crystals or seashells. Or seeking out animals to play with, train, and 'evolve'. And there must also have been bandwagon-jumpers who started their own rock collections just because it was what everyone else in the cave seemed to be doing all of a sudden. The developers of Pokémon GO are parasitic upon these basic human drives: for curiosity, cute-osity, and community.

What is revealed vividly by Pokémon GO is not human motivation per se, but the manner in which desire, often laying dormant within us, can be unleashed by external forces. People have always been able to walk around and collect things or creatures. And since the advent of the internet, the barriers to forming like-minded communities have never been lower. Why is an external impulse needed to get people out of the house and into the streets?

The answer may come from one of the ideas associated with psychogeography, and with left-wing thinking more generally: individuals are not always capable of being 'sovereign selves'. We are, at least in part, socially constructed. We cannot pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps: we seem to need the external world to provide us with goals and landmarks around which to orient our movements. This is why institutions are so powerful: when individual resolve fails, institutional force continues to impel us. Purpose cannot always come from within. The anarchic disavowal of all conventions and social institutions can leave us rudderless. The 20th century's great cultural revolutions — of the individual over the collective, and of the personal over the political — have created institution-shaped holes in our collective consciousness. Sometimes these holes become echo chambers for depression and anxiety. Sometimes they are filled by rage or fundamentalism. In more peaceful circles, they are filled by pop culture — things like Pokémon GO.

What is problematic about Pokémon GO is not so much its virtual motivation as the fact that it is run by an unaccountable for-profit corporation. The game is free to play, but in-app purchases give users shortcuts to speed up their grinding. And businesses can purchase “lure modules” to attract more Pokémon, and therefore more Pokémon-hunters, to the area. It's not hard to imagine virtual worlds becoming just as ad-choked as the real one.

VALIS(1stEd)With a jaded eye, Pokémon GO starts to look like the Black Iron Prison, an all-pervading system of social control from Philip K. Dick's bizarre novel Valis. The events in the book are a darkly humorous fictionalization of a set of experiences Dick had in the years before his death. He came to believe that multiple historical eras were superimposed upon each other, or at least upon his own consciousness. He believed that he was living simultaneously as a late 20th century American and as a first century Gnostic Christian named Thomas. Somehow the realization that all this was happening was triggered by a pink laser transmitting information directly into his mind from a mysterious satellite named Valis. Valis was both an artificial intelligence and, somehow, a manifestation of God. The Black Iron Prison was a form of trans-temporal social control instituted by a shadowy Empire. (In true Philip K. Dick style, the concept arises from a book within the book.) It sounds like a stew of every conspiracy theory ever, but somewhere in it you can discern a metaphor that resonates: our reality has been superimposed with a network of signs and symbols (not unlike Poké Stops and Gyms) that alter our very footsteps. To become sensitive to this possibility invites madness and paranoia.

The leftists might say that this prison is real and it was created by the capitalists. I imagine conservatives blame liberal media. (And of course the conspiracy theorists blame the Freemasons, the Catholics, the ancient Egyptians, the Jews, the lizard people, or some combination thereof.) If there really is some form of top-down social control, then it seems pointless to single out Pokémon GO for criticism: it is just a particular (and particularly frivolous) microcosm of a larger and more complicated phenomenon.

The mechanics of Pokémon GO provide us with an illustration of how the symbolic domain becomes causally linked to the material world. The gaudy map that the designers of Pokémon GO draw on top of reality is not that different from the religious, ideological and philosophical maps humans have always drawn on top of reality. These maps take the amorphous realm of sensory experience and discretize it: the infinite gradations of shape, size, color, taste, texture, smell and location are collapsed into a finite grid of categories and concepts. This categorical 'overlay' is necessarily a caricature of reality, and that is why it is so useful. It simplifies the space of the possible, helping us choose a course of action. And for it to be truly useful, a categorical map cannot be a private hallucination of one individual. Our internal navigation grid is most effective when it is “massively multiplayer” — global in scope but local in manifestation.

When we describe Pokémon GO in these terms, we can see a resemblance to a much older 'technology' that still serves as one of the prime movers of human behavior: language. Perhaps language was the very first augmented reality 'app'. It floats invisibly above and around every private experience, while at the same time providing a gateway to public, shared experience. It creates a grid that invites us to wander about. (And just like Pokemon GO's map, language distorts the reality it aims to capture. This is why language is both a source of illusion as well as our best hope of dispelling illusion. Or as Ludwig Wittgenstein said, “Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of our language.”)

As the primary carrier of conscious social behavior, language may be even more powerful than our basic animal motivations: food, shelter, companionship, sex. Language mediates these drives, combining and morphing them ­— and even overshadowing them completely with cultural constructs that seem completely alien to the lives of non-human animals. Words seem to be necessary to draw a monk towards enlightenment, or a traveler towards adventure. Even seemingly non-linguistic activities like sport, or dance, or music, rely on language facility, without which they would exist only in the most rudimentary of forms.

Where language differs most strikingly from Pokémon GO is in its radically decentralized nature. No single corporation or government can fully control the use of language (though not for lack of effort). Language evolves and serves us even without top-down control. Language does not reside on a central server that we must log on to. We each carry a piece of it, but it really only manifests itself fully in social interaction.

Rather than wringing our hands at the diabolical manipulative power of smartphone technology, we might take inspiration from language, humankind's greatest decentralized institution. Certain technological developments point to new grassroots forms of networking. (Grass is a great metaphor for a decentralized network: it grows rhizomatically, without a central root system.) Open source technology allows anyone to participate in software creation. Bittorrent's Project Maelstrom is working towards distributed web content delivery, so webpages become easier to access as more people visit them. Bitcoin and the blockchain protocol that underlies it have the potential to revolutionize transactions and other forms of trust-based social interaction. Perhaps a decentralized augmented reality game can incorporate emancipatory goals (without becoming po-faced and joyless). Imagine organizing consumer boycotts just for the fun of it. People might find that they enjoy exercising their collective action 'muscles'. New elements that might combine to create radically new modes of social interplay seem to emerge every few months, so perhaps it's only a matter of time before we collect enough candies and stardust to evolve — and perhaps even break out of our Black Iron Prison.

Until then, happy Pokémon-hunting!



[1] The definitions of psychogeography and dérive come from Wikipedia. In recent years the author Will Self has written and spoken about psychogeography. Here's an interesting YouTube video about his take on it. As an exercise in psychogeography, Self walked to Heathrow airport, flew to L.A., and then continued walking (for several hours!) to his destination in Hollywood.

[2] The following excerpt from the Jacobin magazine essay Resist Pokémon GO relates to some of the issues I brought up here:

Never mind the infantilized adults; what do children, actual children, do? At play, in their masses and unmediated by anything other than the imagination, they do something spontaneous and incredible: they create new worlds.

These worlds are generally not in the form of a pure escapist fantasy, but a radical reinterpretation of actual existence — the invention of new ways of mapping and systematizing reality, a series of experiments in the plasticity of space.

The essay The Profit in the PokéStop delves into the economics of Pokémon GO.


The first image is a piece called 'Control', by Polish artist Pawel Kuczynski. I found it on the website Bored Panda, where you can find more of his satirical illustrations.