Gently I edged toward the beast. It had 4 long semi-transparent wings, the same length as its tube-like body. The body was iridescent in the light, changing colour through blue to green. Its face was incredibly ugly… a mixture of large bug-like eyes on the side of its head and a gaping mouth filled with prehistoric fangs. It fluttered its wings gently in the breeze, as it cleaned itself by rubbing its long spindly white legs all over its body. I reached down quietly in readiness to capture it, brought my phone up to look through the camera feed. Just as I was about to swipe the screen it got alarmed, its wings became a blur of movement and it took off – flitting away out of sight. I attempted to chase it – but it was gone in a blink of an eye. Another two years would pass before my friend and I got another tip-off about the location of the quasi-mythical beast.
I could be talking about my hunt for the Yanma, the large dragonfly, famous for being able to see in all directions at once and having such extreme wing-speed that it can shatter glass. Except of course I am not talking about my hunt for a Pokémon – I am talking about the day I went out with a very good friend of mine hunting in the Fens for the white-legged damselfly. We didn’t manage to capture a picture of it that day, but we did briefly see it alight on a leaf, which was more than good enough.Pokémon Go fever has been sweeping seemingly everyone in the last couple of weeks. It has been hailed as a saviour to stop idle kids sitting in front of their computer screens, the herald of mass-adoption of mainstream Augmented Reality, and the re-invigorator of an interest in heritage and museum sites.
As someone who has done quite a bit of research on AR and heritage, I would like to wade into the discussion here and question a few things. To go someway toward mitigating the risk of sounding like a grumpy old man who doesn’t understand ‘kids today’ (too late!) – I would like to point out that I have 3 boys of my own, play all sorts of different games on both smartphone and computer and I once even bought a girlfriend a pair of Pikachu pyjamas. I understand the nostalgic call of Pokémon, the excitement of the treasure hunt and the lure of the screen over the real world.
Pokémon Go as an AR revolution
First I would like to tackle the pedantic bit. Pokémon Go is not really an AR game. The AR element of it (overlaying the Pokémon onto your video feed) is (as someone else has already said) the most basic of AR possible. So much so that it can’t really be called AR at all. There is no interaction with or reading of the real surroundings, the Pokémon don’t hide behind the cooker or pop out from behind the Museum gates. You could be standing in your toilet or at the edge of the Grand Canyon and the Pokémon would still be badly superimposed, via a simple geo-location, onto the video feed. Even the Snapchat AR which superimposes silly things on people’s faces is more AR – as at least it is doing some kind of recognition of the real world (in that case facial recognition).
Calling Pokémon Go an AR revolution is doing a disservice to the potential and power of AR for integrating with the real world. AR has so much more potential than this. Pokémon Go is a locative game, not true AR.
Pokémon Go gets kids outdoors
What’s not to like about this? Even a cynical old git like me surely can’t complain about kids (and adults) getting away from their screens and going outside. Except, of course, they are not getting away from their screens. In fact it is probably worse – by taking the screen outside and searching for Pokémon through it they are not even really taking part in the outside world. The outside world is being entirely mediated through the screen – a small rectangular box guides your every movement. The alternate reality provided by the smartphone is so beguiling that there are people falling in canals, crashing into police cars and even plummeting off the edge of cliffs whilst playing the game. Clearly even though they are outside, they are oblivious to the world around them.
Do we really live in a world where kids can’t be bothered to get off the sofa and go outside without taking a screen or a game with them? What kind of world is this? What is it going to become if the next generation take this as normal? Why is it that hunting for a Squirtle is seen as the utmost of cool – but following a tip-off about the location of a Spoonbill or standing on the end of train platform hunting trains is seen as the ultimate in nerdiness?
I’m not sure I can really see the logic. I guess that Pokémon Go is the epitome of easy and quick satisfaction. Sure you may have to travel a little, to get to a place to capture the computer-generated critter – but when you arrive you don’t have to wait and watch and hope that you glimpse a sight of it. You don’t have to be silent and scan the sky with your binoculars and be PATIENT. If someone has said that the Charmander is there, it is pretty much guaranteed that if you go to those Lat Long coordinates you will find it. Bird-watching is not the same. You can go back to the same hide for days and days and perhaps not spot what you are looking for. It may even be there, but you might not have done quite enough research to differentiate the colour of the wing flash. It is not quick or easy, and because of that it is surely more ultimately satisfying.
Pokémon Go brings all the kids to the (Archaeological) Yard
This then brings me to the final point – Pokémon Go as a way to get people more engaged with heritage sites. We have seen this before, museums and heritage sites jumping on trendy locative game bandwagons to get more people to come to their sites (Andy Dufton and I wrote about this with Foursquare a few years ago). I think it may be a little early to say whether or not this is really going to be a big thing. We will need to see stats on the increases in ticket sales to show that the Pokéhunters are not just going to the museum car park. And if they are paying the ticket price and entering the site, how much are they actually engaging with the archaeology?
Terry Brock is also hopeful about this:
As Andrew Reinhard’s archaeogaming foray shows, there is the potential for providing extra contextual information at the ‘cultural’ Pokéstops. However a quick look at his example of the Pokéstop at his local Washington memorial shows only the information that is on the plaque of the monument itself – but then you would have to look away from your screen to read that.
So let us stand back a little and think about what all this means. I’ve concentrated recently on creating ways for people to use Augmented Reality to engage with, explore and understand heritage sites (take a browse around my website to see some examples). The key for me is that by someone visiting the site physically they can engage both their body AND their mind simultaneously. The AR I use is exclusively made to facilitate this, to show hidden elements of the site, to waft unexpected smells to make you THINK about the space in different ways, to play sounds that have some kind of relevance to what happened in that location in the past.
A visit to an archaeological site by a Pokéhunter is the antithesis of this. When a Pokéhunter arrives at a site (drawn by the lure of a rich Pokéstop) they are in the classic state of Cartesian disconnect. Their body may be there, but their mind is far away, thinking of the next Pokéstop or the phone notification that just came through from their mate about a rare [insert rare Pokémon name here] up the road.
You only have to look at this tweet to see the effects of this:
This girl is at STONEHENGE, for crying out loud. Instead of taking an interest in how the stones were put up, how they fit into the surrounding landscape, what actually happened in and around them, and, crucially, how the experience of actually being there makes her feel – she is chasing an Eevee. She herself admits her attention is “so divided right now”. If this is happening at one of Britain’s most iconic and engaging monuments – what does it mean for other heritage sites? This girl’s mind is clearly not in the same place as her body. She is engaged in two separate realities, linked only by coordinates on a Google Map. Using Pokémon Go to get bums on seats and through the ticket barriers might be good for sales, but at what cost? If it really takes a Squirtle to get our youth (and adults) to go to a heritage site, then we are doing something very wrong.
What about the Real World?
I’m sorry this post has been rather despairing. I am getting increasingly sad for the state of the world, where people go head over heels hunting virtual creatures, while the real incredible biodiversity is ignored, built over and marginalised. Instead of re-wilding the world with animals, insects, plants and birds we are enchanted by the opposite: introducing the computer and virtual creatures into our diminishing natural and cultural spaces. How can it be that I am in the minority for being bewitched by the hunt for the white-legged damselfly, a beautiful, crazy, prehistoric looking creature – while the vast majority of people are instead happy to jump in their cars, park in the car park of the local baptist church and stare into their phones flicking imaginary red balls at imaginary creatures?
I haven’t even touched on the inevitable monetisation of all this, how long will it be until the big museums have to pay Niantic loads of money to host an incredibly rare Pokéstop and the smaller sites (that are actually crying out for visitors) will be priced out of the Pokémarket?
If you really can’t get your kids (or yourself) out to a heritage site without gamifying it by chasing animals, why not go and find that pair of peregrine falcons roosting in the local church steeple? Or go newt-hunting in your local historic ponds? Perhaps try to spot a red kite above the prehistoric landscape of Dartmoor? You could even use this map of rare bird sightings around the country to plan a day out birding and visiting nearby heritage sites.
But please please please – leave your smartphone behind.