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Pokémon Go Re-enchants the City

"Pokémon Go is reshaping pedestrianism in Manhattan. Unlike many video games, it is not played by someone indoors and stationary, but by people walking around and interacting with landmarks and with other people—players will greet strangers in the streets to share tips about where to find specific Pokémon. Pokémon Go transforms urban environments into arenas of communal play and discovery, by turning points-of-interest like public art and monuments into hubs where players converge, united by their shared project. In this way, it renews the original purpose of civic space by drawing strangers into a community. This Pokémon game is the best proof-of-concept for a reinvigorated public sphere in the digital age that I have seen.

As in most Pokémon games, players control a customized Pokémon trainer who walks the earth in search of creatures to catch and train—only instead of exploring a virtual map on a console, players are physically exploring the real world with an AR garnish (the app uses cell phone cameras to overlay creatures onto the world seen through the screen). Young people in Manhattan are navigating a cityscape re-enchanted by the monsters of their childhood—there are suddenly magical rules and significance to every architectural detail, historic plaque, or house of worship. The game is like a strange booster shot of civic connectivity. I can walk into Union Square Park, spot someone staring at his phone by an equestrian statue, and confidently strike up a conversation with him about our respective Pokémon quests. Like the chessboards present in that same park, Pokémon Go invites us into a public space to play a game together—but it casts its net even wider, and engenders not only friendly competition but also cooperation. The potential of this reality-reshaping technology is astonishing.

In practice, the game is very buggy, with servers frequently down and a confusing battle system. Nonetheless, the basic gameplay of walking around outside, collecting resources from landmarks, and catching Pokémon when they appear is quite addictive—the fact the game uses the original set of 150 Pokémon from the first games in the franchise increases the nostalgia factor for millennials. The game’s millions of players are generating stories both heartwarming and horrifying. Pokémon Go certainly contributes to our milieu of constant technological distraction, as people traverse the city with their phones out, tracking imaginary creatures. But at least, unlike most video games, it requires one to spend time outdoors and in motion (which has, anecdotally, been good for players’ mental health), and it motivates one to look up often from one’s phone. This game can’t be consumed by someone ensconced inside. The experience requires you to take to the streets and get to know the city."

Pokémon Go

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