Pokémon Go Home – Why Pokémon is not what the heritage sector really needs

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.

White-legged Damselfly by Philipp Weigell

White-legged Damselfly by Philipp Weigell (picture taken by Philipp Weigell) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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?

Charmanders in the BM

Terry Brock is also hopeful about this:

Terry Brock

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.

Route of Washington’s March monument (taken from the Archaeogaming blog by Andrew Reinhard) – https://archaeogaming.com/2016/07/09/pokemon-go-archaeogaming/

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.

    • Ben Price
    • July 22nd, 2016 9:54pm

    Interesting article Stu. In some ways I agree with you but in others I disagree. The analogy with birdwatching is slightly better than you make out with P:GO. Backwards engineering of the server communication shows that various pokemon appear in locations for limited times 5 to 10 mins so there is a random element of discovery in there, but I digress.

    I feel the main thrust of your argument is that attracting people to heritage sites using unrelated means is a waste (feel free to correct me). While it would be nice to attract people based on the site information alone, there will always be people who visit sites with only a passing interest. A prime example would be the sulky teenager dragged by their parents to see something. Of course in an ideal world each dite would have an interesting app or sonething to generate interest but we all know that this is far beyond the means of most sites.
    My point is that Yes it is slightly “heretical” (or even downright rude) to play these games at some heritage sites but if it means that a person who would otherwise be hostile to any interaction with a site, can engage in a small way then surely its a good thing?

    I’m not saying Stonehenge should setup a pokegym in the visitor centre but maybe they could harness the flow and interest somehow instead of pouring cold water over it all.

    Having said that, its a fad and the game behind it isnt a new udea (even by Niantic who made it) and I wouldnt be surprised if its all forgotten about in a few months time.

    • Tara
    • July 24th, 2016 5:22pm

    Great article, very thought provoking. I think it touches on a lot of points that have been relevant to AR / geolocation gaming for a long time (que my love-hate addiction with Ingress and now Pokemon Go). At their core these games do what most games do to heritage – they use it as set dressing. Non AR / Geo games have perfected this nefarious use for some time – Tomb Raider, Serious Sam and any handful of other games featuring archaeologists / archaoelogy work if you replace *archaeological place / artefact* and insert *any other setting*. The problem is not so much the use of these things, but the lack of any meaningful mechanical / procedural entwinement with the aesthetic or narrative.

    In the Pokemon universe, the places they often go to catch pokemon are embued with meaning, have their own heritage or otherwise have some kind of substantive meaning behind why Ash is travelling to get to these places and do the things he does – in a similar vein, we look for the same things archaeologically – travel, trade, meaning, value, interactions etc. In a lot of ways the Pokemon Universe lends itself to interrogating heritage / archaeology, yet, the game that has been produced reverts to using these sites for a disassociated mechanical progression *yay levels, yay other pokemons, yay insert other somewhat meaningless score based system thing*.

    I guess much of this comes down to narrative and creating a procedural rhetoric *in* the mechanics of the game which matches up / supports or otherwise is furthered by this. Rather than just, you know, using and abusing the sites void of their context or meaning.

    My counter-rant went on a little more than intended, but the point I think, overall, is that neither Ingress or Pokemon Go are “good” games for heritage – at their core they use places as part of a mechanic (at best) or a conveniance (if you want to be really cynical), but that mechanic is devoid from the narrative or motive of the game / extended game universe / heritage in the real world. To change this requires moving beyond AR / geolocation as “moving between points and achieving objectives” and thinking about them in context and conjunction with narrative and meaning generation. Thinking about what the mechanics and narratives of the heritage are in motion, through the AR / geolocation…

    Maybe. I need to think more about it.

    • WitchArachne
    • July 31st, 2016 2:09am

    I’m going to look at this from the perspective of a Pokemon Go player, casual birdwatcher, and person who works in the heritage sector:

    This article makes a lot of very patronising assumptions about Pokemon Go players and how they engage with the world. The points that are made all seem to be based on the idea that anyone who looks a screen in public is devoted entirely to that screen and nothing else. That they can’t divide their attention, or even shift it entirely. That’s an incredible leap to make.

    You show a person who says “my attention is so divided right now” while catching an eevee at Stonehenge. To me, the whole point of her post is to acknowledge that she’s playing an amusing game at a site she *recognises* is important. That recognition requires some level of engagement with the site. Aside from that, how long did it take her to catch the eevee? 10 seconds at most. How long did she spend at Stonehenge? Far longer than that, I imagine. Maybe immediately after catching that eevee she put her phone down and spent 45 minutes wandering the landscape. Did she walk to Durrington Walls afterward? Who knows. It’s certainly not displayed on the screenshot above. Just because some time is spent on something frivolous, doesn’t mean the time is wasted entirely.
    I can say that of the time I spent at Stonehenge a few years ago, a portion of it was spent trying to work out the accents I could hear around me. A fairly frivolous activity that certainly didn’t take away from the feeling of being at a site of tremendous cultural and historical importance that has managed to remain significant to millions long after its creators disappeared. Nor did it prevent me from reading every single sign and listening to every single talk on my electronic guide.

    You joke of a person at the Washington’s March monument having to actually look up from their screen to read the sign. Yes, a joke, but you also seem to assume it’s an accurate one. Why? What makes you think someone looking at a screen is so disengaged from reality that they can’t then put the phone down and immerse themselves in the world around them?

    I just spent a month in the UK – not a place I know well – and played Pokemon for part of my time there.
    I walked the streets of Tenby and caught tens of golbats while stopping at plaques I would have never known existed if they hadn’t been pokestops.
    I caught a crazy number of drowzees while walking the walls and rows of Chester, listening to a fantastic busker with an electric violin, looking out over a Dee that was far lower than the last time I saw it, excitedly taking photos of the wattle-and-daub walls that I could finally see up close for the first time, taking in the brilliance of the stained glass at the cathedral, wondering about the kind of shops that would have been around me 500 years earlier…
    I caught a pidgey at Dolbadarn Castle and fell in love with the misty landscape, the views across the river, and the idea of Llewelyn ap Gruffudd imprisoning his own brother in a place like that – whether it was truly that castle or another. I wondered what the quarry was for on the other side of the river. I wandered the walkways and soaked my feet in the damp wildflowers while trying to work out the strange British birds I could see. I also caught a weedle while sitting on the wall and waiting for friends.
    Halfway through my trip I was getting miserable about friends I had left behind and missed, and the thought of “well it’s 9pm and nothing’s open but I can always go for a walk and play Pokemon” got me out of house again. It took me to cliffs and views that I would have never known about if I hadn’t decided on a whim to go for a night walk – something I would ordinarily not do alone in a strange country.

    I saw things I would have never seen if I hadn’t been playing, and I saw places I would have seen anyway even though I was playing. At no point was I more engaged with the game than I was with the world around me, and many times the game made me go out and see what I could find and it was amazing.

    The point of Pokemon Go is to play a game, nothing more, but it does take players out into the world around them, including heritage sites. To claim that because it doesn’t *fully* engage the player with heritage landscapes it somehow takes away from them, not only misses the point of the game, but suggests an inability to engage with the public on anything other than your own terms, and that is a very foolish mistake to make.